Sunday before Lent 2012 Breathing Space
Today’s Gospel story, the story of the Transfiguration is always read on this Sunday in the year. It is the last Sunday before Lent begins. For the next six weeks or so, the Church’s mood is reflective and penitential – a time when we let ourselves become aware of what needs to change in us and in the world. Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, but just before he does so his followers have this vision of glory. It is the calm before the storm, the glimpse of heaven before the horror of the abyss. But we might very reasonably ask what good it is does. When Jesus hangs on the cross what difference will it make to Peter, James and John to have seen this?
The answer to that question is, apparently, none at all. It certainly doesn’t seem to have any effect on the way they respond. They all run and hide. They are in despair. It is not until after the resurrection that they talk about this episode, that it starts to make any sense to them. It doesn’t sustain them through the tough times at all – they don’t even mention it. When they most need it seems to have been wiped from their memories.
So what is the point of it at all? It doesn’t even seem to advance the plot.
To understand this tale we have to remember is that Mark isn’t just telling a story in his Gospel. He is telling a story for a particular group of people in a particular setting at a particular moment. The Gospels are not like books we might buy from a bookshop now, written for anyone to read, aimed at anyone who is prepared to pay for them, an unknown audience. They are very specific messages for very specific people. Mark knew the community or communities for which he was writing – he may have even been part of them – and that shaped what he said and how he said it. So when we hear the stories of the Gospel, we are hearing a story within a story. We shouldn’t just imagine the people and events that are described in them – Peter, James and John - we should also imagine that first audience sitting listening to them.
Let’s imagine that they are here with us too – sitting in these empty seats, an invisible congregation. They are living in the late 60’s AD, against a backdrop of considerable chaos and suffering. Some of them were originally Jewish, but now they are being expelled from the synagogues and from the communities they have grown up in. It’s a time of great tension for Judaism. Rebellions against Roman rule are breaking out, which will eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Boundaries around the faith are being drawn ever more tightly, and these Jewish Christians are now beyond the pale. Others in this audience have Gentile backgrounds, but their lives are no easier. Under the Emperor Nero Christians are being persecuted. He blames them for the great fire of Rome in AD64 and many are being arrested and killed, burned alive to light up his evening entertainments. It is dangerous being a Christian. All the time our invisible audience is thinking “is it worth it?” “Am I risking my life, my family, my future for a lie?” They probably don’t feel noble or heroic, just confused and uncertain, mired in the squalor of fear. They easily forget what it was that drew them to this faith in the first place, and often feel like turning their backs on it.
So Mark tells them this story, a story about people who also felt like that – Peter, James and John – the first leaders of their church, so they will know they aren’t alone in that. When they saw Jesus arrested and killed, it made no sense to them, despite the fact that they had also seen the glory of God, not just in this vision on the mountaintop but also as Jesus had healed and taught. They had seen his love and his power, but still they fled in the opposite direction as fast as their legs would carry them when things started to go wrong, and felt that it had all been a waste. Only later, when they experienced the risen Christ did they start to see things in a new light. They discovered that death and disgrace don’t have the last word. They just seem to because they shout so loud.
We may not suffer the kind of persecution those early Christians suffered, but my guess is that all of us sometimes ask their questions when we struggle. “Is it worth me trying to act with integrity in a world which often seems to prefer to reward dodgy dealing and selfishness? Is it worth me trying to bring reconciliation between those who are at loggerheads? Is it worth me putting myself in the firing line, when I’ll probably get no thanks for it? Is it worth me trying to build up my community when the vast majority of people would rather just slump in front of the telly?”
Doing right doesn’t always feel right, but it always is right, and this story reminds us that though pain and sorrow have the loudest voices, they do not always tell the truth. It is God whose truth we really need to hear: “this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” In the silence tonight, let’s ponder the times when we have found it hard to know that, and pray for those who may be struggling to hear it today. Amen