The Geography of the Soul

Our Gospel reading this morning begins with the simple statement: “They went on from there….” (Mark 9.30-37) On the one hand this reminds us that each of the Gospel writers and Mark in particular, have a keen sense of movement and geography as they tell the story of Jesus. But more than this, they also want to draw our attention to what we might call, the geography of the soul. In other words, as we ponder these incidents week by week, we`re invited to see how the disciples themselves are moving on in their understanding of Jesus and what he`s about.

Today`s reading illustrates how this moving on is characterized by some startling and sometimes unnerving experiences; some perplexing teaching and pointed questioning. Here they are, moving through Galilee, and Jesus for the second time, predicts his death at the hands of the religious establishment. And we sense that from that `internal` perspective, the disciples seem a little stuck. And it`s not just, as we`re told, they didn`t understand what Jesus was saying. No, they, “were afraid to ask him” (verse 31). So, here is something of a watershed moment for the disciples in their `moving on` with Jesus; a moment where he helps them get their bearings.

Let`s begin with that pointed remark that they were afraid to ask him. I don`t know about you but this phrase transports me back to my schooldays, sitting in the math`s lesson; totally at sea and afraid to ask the teacher for help. Many years later, I realized that if I could have trusted the teacher and the others in the class I`d have been fine… but all I could think about was looking stupid if I put my hand up.

I`ve often come across the same sort of fear in Christian people I meet. So often it seems that we have cultivated the same kind of insecurity when it comes to faith questions doesn`t it? Again, it`s hard enough when you don`t understand but when you are afraid to ask it`s very difficult to move on in faith. Which is why a secure and trusting relationship, not only with the Lord; but also with his people is so important. So, I`m suggesting firstly, that in this passage Jesus moves, so as to create a space and a relationship which is strong enough for the disciples to come clean about their questions. Which is why the first thing we see him doing (in verse 35) is taking them aside privately.

But then notice, Mark says: “When he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’” In one sense this is clearly an attempt to clear the air; but look closely and we`re given an illustration of what praying is about. Let me explain. How would it be if we were to think of praying as being drawn aside by Jesus into a place where that the relationship is deepened and the fear is removed?

Perhaps we`re not used to thinking about prayer as something Jesus initiates. Perhaps we`re not used to thinking about it in this robust kind of way, where dialogue is much more the order of the day. But hold onto this for a moment.

How would it be if instead of focusing on the things we might ask of the Lord, prayer becomes that intimate space in which he asks questions of us? “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus said to them.

Jesus had taken them aside and there he brought them face to face with not just something they were embarrassed by: I mean, they were arguing about who was going to take over the group once Jesus was dead! But also, if you will, he made them consider the seat of their passions and what really engaged them. This is an `honest to God` moment.

In other words, it`s typical of the Lord that he should expose where our `treasure` really lies; and that he should get us to examine something of the foundations on which we`re building our lives. As someone said, these usually have something to do with `power, prestige and possessions` don`t they?

But then, having established that there`s nowhere to hide(!); there in verse 35 we get a little more detail. So, we`re told that Jesus “sat down”. It`s a very simple point but this is the spiritual equivalent of Jesus rolling his sleeves up, because sitting was the position taken up by the teacher. In other words, Mark wants us to know that we`ve reached the point where Jesus is now saying, “OK boys, it`s about time that I put you right on a few things”.

Next, notice how Mark tells us that he “called the twelve”. It`s no accident that this is the name they`re given. You see, Mark is not only setting the scene, where Jesus is clearly the teacher. No, once we`ve established who he is, it`s now they, who are being reminded of who they are. I mean, `the twelve`, is that highly symbolic and powerful reminder of their calling as representatives of the twelve tribes of the new Israel, isn`t it? This motley crew need reminding of their real dignity.

And then, thirdly, comes the teaching itself. Jesus sets out what holds true in the new age; the new dispensation which he is ushering in. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Now, to understand this, we might want to use the contemporary buzz word: `citizenship`. What I mean is, Jesus lays before us what kinds of attitudes and dispositions will be seen in the lives of those who inhabit the Kingdom of God. Jesus is entirely serous that `transformation` is the name of the game. Or to return to the citizenship model…. It`s all about becoming a `naturalized` Christian.

This, I would suggest is the reason why he takes the little child and sets it down in front of them. This isn`t mere sentimentality. Jesus is highlighting a fundamentally different attitude and outlook towards this thing called life; small wonder they didn`t understand.

So, what I`m saying is that if we`re among those who dwell in this skeptical, “really not sure what`s going on” version of the faith; where we don`t quite understand and we`re afraid to ask. This morning, Mark describes not so much what we need to do, in order to `move on`, but what Jesus is wanting to do for us and within us.

Fundamentally, there are questions here about what prayer means to us. Perhaps it might help to see it not as a chore, or a problem to be solved or the place we go as a last resort. But instead, how would it be if we saw prayer as that place of intimacy, into which we are invited and drawn? A place where all the fear is taken away? We may have to face pointed questions; but it will feel like a space in which we get our bearings.

And Mark lays out the pattern for `moving on`. Firstly, as Jesus sat down to teach the disciples; we learn to sit at his feet with a renewed sense of who He is; and what he wants to teach us. Secondly, as the disciples are reminded of their calling and purpose as `the twelve`; so, our Baptism tells us who we are in relation to him. This is our fundamental dignity and identity. That`s why Christians cross themselves.

Then thirdly, towards the end of his life, the Apostle John said: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3.1). Saint John was there on the day Jesus put that little child in front of the twelve. He realized from the start, that being called God`s `children` doesn’t condemn the Christian to some literally, `infantile` condition. No, it highlights the radically different outlook and disposition which the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring about within us.

To put it another way, the way of being in the world to which Jesus calls us is as different as the attitudes you see between an adult and a child. It`s that fundamental. And what we might profitably see as a word to each of us personally is of course, a word to us as a Church. It is, after all `the twelve`, collectively to whom Jesus offers today`s teaching.

So, let me put it this way. If we are to `move on` as a Church, then we need to set aside the notion that this might be achieved by managerial and institutional means. Because today`s Gospel calls us to a greater spiritual seriousness than that.

What really matters is whether we are a people who really understand ourselves as those who are being drawn into intimacy with Christ?

This is how it works: Once we know who Jesus is; then we discover who we are,… What we`re for, flows from that. It was C.S. Lewis who said, “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed in disguise – and calls us to embark on a great campaign of sabotage”

As some preachers are prone to say: “Can I get an `Amen` to that?

`Snowflakes and Consumers`: The Alternative to Faith

In recent times we have heard about the emergence of what`s called `the snowflake generation`. I gather that this is a somewhat insulting way of speaking about some of our young people; who the story goes, are thought to be far too timid or fragile to be placed in an environment where they might hear or be subjected to views of the world that might in some way disturb them. Poor darlings! This is, apparently such problem that some people are suggesting that we`re witnessing the death (for example) of the University as a place where debate and controversy is part of what you should expect.

Now, this may well be an exaggeration but I thought about this strange phenomenon when I began looking at that reading we heard a few moments ago (Mark 8.27-38). Because it struck me that poor old Saint Peter comes across as a bit of a `snowflake`. Because here`s a man who heard something he simply didn`t want to hear. Here`s a man who was confronted with a view of the world and indeed of God, which threw him into turmoil.

It really got under his skin, to hear that Jesus might be arrested and crucified. So much so that he takes Jesus aside and gives him a verbal dressing down. Surely, it was just ridiculous that God would choose this way to put the world to rights! Ridiculous, because we all know that you don`t just apparently give in to your enemies like that! Anyone in their right mind would take them on or fight back wouldn`t they? And what use is that kind of God? Surely Peter has a point. Don`t we wish sometimes that he would indulge in a bit of `smiting` of his enemies from time to time?

But of course, the point is that we (and indeed, Peter) tend to think this way because our natural assumption is that any God worthy of the name, would indeed act like us. With a bit more force and on a much bigger scale perhaps but nonetheless we look to him to endorse our view of the world where resistance to our way of thinking or our view of the world will `naturally` (as if there`s no alternative) be met with the banging some heads together!

However, in this passage we are presented with a Jesus and by extension, a God, who overturns assumptions like these. In Jesus we see a God who follows a rather different path so as to redeem a world. A patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path; which was as alien to Peter as it is to us.

You might remember that it`s the prophet Isaiah who warns us about our dealings with the Lord:  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.8-9)

So, my first point is just to let that altercation between Jesus and Peter illustrate something of the tension we can sometimes feel. Here`s a sign (not of a lack of faith!) but that we`re actually beginning to engage with this rather unexpected, surprising and even provocative God.

But secondly, there`s more to it than that because I think Peter had much more selfish reasons for getting all het-up about what Jesus says. Because the real `elephant in the room` is that deep down, Peter realised that if Jesus was going to go that way, then HE would have to follow: and sure enough, history tells us that he did. Which makes all of this no theoretical or abstract observation. Peter understood that in getting mixed up with this Jesus, he also would have to live in that same patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way.

So, what it all amounts to, is that Jesus had rumbled him! He`d put before Peter the real challenge of discipleship; which means living the Christ-shaped life. And metaphorically speaking, poor Peter `the snowflake` was given both barrels.  “Yes”, said Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me`. Basically, Jesus sets out what it looks like to become a citizen of this new age that is dawning.

So let`s just take this on the chin. We have a Jesus who calls us into way a way of life which contradicts what we readily assume is rational and reasonable. And then secondly, let`s come clean and recognise that we don`t really want this either. Let`s remind ourselves how preferable it is to side with Peter `the snowflake` and reflect on how tempting it is to see if we can think up a plan; a way of being a `Christian` where we can avoid all of this inconvenience. Some way we can avoid being caught up in having to actually live like that!

Now, one of the more subtle ways we practice this `avoidance`, is yes, to talk about “bearing the cross” but with a subtle twist. What we usually mean are life`s everyday challenges. “It`s a cross I have to bear” we say. Now don`t misunderstand me; using that very language is a good way of praying with; and helping us keep company with the Lord, in the midst of our challenges. But this isn`t quite what Jesus means. Whereas the cross he speaks of is what happens when you deliberately choose to live differently and according to the ways of God`s kingdom; the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path. What we do is to effectively invert things. Essentially, instead of being a path to follow; a consciously chosen and distinctive way of life; the Christian faith becomes a sort of sticking plaster to soothe and help us bear with these other `crosses` of ours.

That`s why faith can be so effectively marketed these days as something practical, relevant and appealing. We try to sell it as something which will meet these needs; these crosses of ours. And this gross distortion allows those who are fortunate enough not to struggle in life, to say, “Well, thank you very much but I don`t need your crutch”. “I don`t feel the NEED” is the great mantra isn`t it? But we`ve misrepresented Jesus. These are the seeds of consumerism; where we substitute `following` Jesus into his future …..for a Church (and indeed `god`) who is there simply to meet our needs and desires.

But of course, it`s all so reasonable to want to reject this morbid talk of death! It`s not a great selling point, is it? “To deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow”. You get the sense that some people think it`s bad for business. “That`s not the way to get them in!”, they`ll say. But it doesn`t seem to occur to us that Jesus knew that full well. And he doesn`t waver at all from his conviction that a patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way is how it has to be… in spite of the fact that he lost them all.

I mean, when we look at those three years of his ministry… although we might like to paint them as `successful`… it`s clear that by the time he came to Good Friday there was no-one left. They had ALL abandoned him. They were ALL `Snowflakes`. Jesus dies on the cross (according to our way of looking at things) as an abject failure. But God raised him. God vindicated him.

So, let`s just think for a moment of those crosses which some of us wear around our necks. Or more especially that cross which was placed on your forehead when you were Baptised. Yes, these are profoundly important ways of reminding us of the love and forgiveness under which we stand. But the point is that they also mark us out as those who are called to a very particular way of life; the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial way of Christ himself.

You see, to `deny ourselves` is not a matter of giving up the chocolate; feeling bad about ourselves or wallowing in guilt. It means stepping aside; it`s about embracing the truth that we are not the centre of the universe. We are created. It means living the truth of our existence in a world that is bent on quite the opposite. I mean, this way of Jesus looks stupid, even foolhardy to many but actually, it`s those of us who would live lives of self-assertion, control or violence who are really the fools of the piece. And Jesus mocks us: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8.36)

But perhaps most important of all, the path which Christ took to the cross becomes for us a window onto the heart of God. Paul reminds us in this morning`s epistle, that it`s in his stepping aside and accepting the way of the cross that our God is truly made visible. Which is why he is keen to say, “let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2.5)

Because Paul knows that in stepping aside; in taking the patient, non-violent and self-sacrificial path; then you become a Church, a community of people who are no longer `consumers` of God but those who will truthfully represent him to the world.

Greatness of Soul

It’s sometimes said that if you want to gain a better perspective on life – especially if you’re a bit down in the dumps – then the best thing to do is pay a visit to the children’s ward of the local hospital. ++

Reverence: Tagging along with Jesus

I have the greatest of sympathy with couples preparing for their marriage these days. But considering the sheer amount of advance planning, the attention and effort that goes into it all (not to mention the cost) I do sometimes wonder, “Whatever they will have to talk about after the ceremony?” since this ‘project’ has absorbed so much of their time and attention for so very long? ++

Faith Has a Focus

Among the stories my Father told me about his National Service was his account of what happened when his group of recruits reported for duty. The Officer in Charge decided that he would sort them out according to their religious affiliation. Apparently, it was very simple. Firstly, there were the Catholics. Then there were the Jews; and anybody else, (no matter what they said!) were automatically categorized as ‘Church of England’.

Pentecost: What’s going on?

A couple of young mums, a retired council worker, a podiatrist, a couple of teachers, a musician, a job centre employee- just some of the people I interviewed a little while ago. And the one thing they all had in common was that each had put their heads above the parapet and said, “I just get the sense that God is calling me to ministry in His Church”. ++

Ascension: A Bigger Horizon

Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 
Luke 24.44-53

Ascension Day, being on a Thursday, is one of those moments in our Christian Calendar which can easily get overlooked,