Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lent Reflection: Mountain Top Experiences Must Lead Us Back to Real World Ministry

Have you ever been somewhere and not wanted to leave? Maybe you were asleep, and you did not want to get up. Maybe you have been at a party with friends, and you did not want to leave. Or maybe you were on vacation, and you did not want to return to work. We all have been in places and situations in which we would have loved to have stayed.

Why is this? It is probably because being in those places makes us feel better than being in the place to which we know we must eventually return: Reality. These times and situations give us escapes away from real life. Sleep is not only a time to rest our bodies; it is also a time in which we can escape reality and all our responsibilities, if for but only a few hours. Parties and times with friends are moments when we gather with people we know and love, when we do not have to deal with the problems and conflicts of the real world. Vacations are larger chunks of time in which we can literally escape from our normal lives, go somewhere totally different, and briefly forget that we have normal lives of busyness, responsibility, and frustration.

In my last Lent Reflection, I discussed the encounter between Jesus and Peter in Mark 8. There we witnessed the significant confusion between the two of them over what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Soon after this, in Mark 9, we are again privileged to witness and participate in the intimate experience of Jesus being with his disciples, except in this scene he is with his three closest disciples, James, John, and Peter. They have pulled away from the others to make their way up the mountain where Jesus will be transfigured.

Mountains were vitally important to prophets of the ancient world, for mountains, in the minds of the ancients, closed the gap between the physical world of earth and the spiritual world of heaven. Of course, one of the most famous biblical stories that tells of a prophet going up a mountain is when Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Mountains were places of divine experience and divine revelation.

As the story unfolds, we are told not only of the presence Jesus and his three followers on the mountain, but we also learn of the appearance of two heroes of Israel’s faith, Elijah and Moses. As Jesus is transfigured before James, John, and Peter, both Moses and Elijah appear alongside of Jesus, and the three figures carry on a conversation.

I can imagine how astonished and perplexed these three disciples must have felt. Yet, at the same time, I can imagine that such an experience was one that they wanted to last for a long time. In fact, Peter says as much when he tells Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter was enjoying the pleasure of the place and the situation so much, that he wanted to stay on that high mountain, where he found escape from the real world.

Peter is much like us when we are at places or in situations that offer us feelings of joy and happiness; we really do not want to return to the real world. Being on that mountain took them away from the pain, the struggles, and the challenges of living in the real world and their mission of carrying out real life ministry. Separating themselves from the world allowed them to think they were closer to God than if they engaged the world where people suffer. These feelings caused Peter to want to stay on that mountain of joy and exuberant spiritual experience instead of returning to the road of discipleship, where real world ministry must take place.

We Christians have a tendency to pull ourselves away from the world in very permanent ways. We establish schools that separate our children from real life encounters with those who need grace. We establish Christian businesses as ways to ensure that we do not support those who are not Christian. We draw theological boundaries around our congregations that insolate us from any thoughtful engagement with the world around us. There are many ways in which we arrogantly isolate and insulate ourselves from the world where real ministry takes place.

For sure, we are called to pull away from the world so that we can gain strength from God, when we can listen for and hear the voice of God. But we can never stay on the mountain. We can never escape our call to live God’s mission for us in this world.

While Jesus understood that there are times when we need to escape the pressures of life and shut out the voices of our hectic and complicated lives in order to hear the voice of God, he also understood that we must always return to the reality of life. For Jesus and for us, it means getting back on the road of discipleship; back on the road that leads to the cross.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent Reflection: “Who do You Say that I am?”

We all know that in the English language words that are spelled the same or sound the same can have various meanings. For example, the word spring has three different meanings. A spring can be a source of water, a thing inside of a bed mattress, or a season of the year. If you were to use one of these words, I would need to know exactly how you were using it in order to understand what you meant.

In Mark chapter 8, we see a similar misunderstanding happen between Jesus and Peter. In 8:27, Jesus and his disciples are said to be “on the way,” a common motif in Mark’s Gospel. While we are not told where they are headed at this time in story, later we will understand that they are on the way to Jerusalem.

As they travel, the disciples are most likely thinking that their going to Jerusalem will be the event that will usher in the new kingdom of God, because Jesus will take his rightful place as king. Perhaps they follow him, not so much because they are committed to him, but because they are hopeful that they will participate in the ascension of Jesus as the new king over Israel.

And so we find Jesus and his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. It is on this road where we see the true character of the twelve as opposed to the true mission of Jesus. It is on the road to Jerusalem that we discover the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus.

It all starts with a simple question posed by Jesus, “Who do people say that I am?” The stories of Jesus’ acts of greatness were becoming known, and talk was running throughout the land about him. And now, on the way, Jesus wants to know if people have come up with an answer. The disciples answer, “Some say you are John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”

But Jesus seems uninterested in the opinions of those outside his intimate friends. His first question is more for the purpose of setting up his second and more important question, “Who do you say that I am?” He knew what others were saying about him, but he wanted those who had been closest to him to give their opinions. He wanted to know who Jesus was to them.

Peter, a person never at a loss for words, answers for the group, “You are the Messiah.” To paraphrase Peter, he is saying, “You are God’s anointed one, sent to bring in God’s victory over God’s enemies. You are the chosen one of God sent to restore the people of Israel to their rightful place, and to become king over the nation.”

Does Peter understand this correctly about Jesus? The answer is yes and no. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the one chosen and anointed by God. And, yes, Jesus is bringing in the kingdom of God and he will bring God’s victory over God’s enemies. And, yes, Jesus is going to Jerusalem to do this. But this is not the full story.

Though it seems that Peter understands who Jesus is, he does not completely understand. Like the blind man in the story just before this exchange, the one Jesus had to touch twice to heal him of his blindness; Peter sees who Jesus is, but not clearly. Jesus must touch Peter a second time, hoping that he will see clearly.

The second touch of Jesus comes in verses 31-33, where Jesus clarifies what it means for him to be the Messiah. Here, Jesus predicts what will happen when they get to Jerusalem. He must die a cruel death. By Jesus predicting that he must undergo great suffering, he is telling the disciples that it is by God’s will that he goes to Jerusalem and suffers.

Yet, in Peter’s response to this prediction, we see what Peter really believes about the Messiah and what he understands about Jesus. He rebukes Jesus. We do not know what Peter said to Jesus, but we do know that Peter had a different idea of Messiah, and he was intent on persuading Jesus not to go the way of the cross.

But Jesus is stern in his response to Peter’ rebuke, rebuking him and calling him Satan. Peter, at this point, takes on a different role in Jesus’ life. For a moment in time, Peter moves from being a disciple of Jesus, to being the one who tempts Jesus from his God ordained mission. And Jesus confronts Peter for who he truly is and for what he truly thinks.

What has motivated Peter to think this way? What has caused him to misunderstand Jesus and his ministry? What has pushed him to the point of tempting Jesus? Most probably it is what this meant for him. If Jesus, the Messiah of God, was to suffer and die in Jerusalem, then what did that mean for his followers?

In response to Peter’s misunderstanding, Jesus turns to all those around him to define what discipleship means. Instead of looking forward to the glory of kingship, followers of Jesus are to take up their cross and prepare themselves to suffer with their Messiah. The kingdom of God is not about human power and kingship; it is about divine power and kingship which is only and fully revealed in the cross of suffering. Power is not saving one’s life, but losing it. Influence is not being first, but being last. Authority is not gaining the world, but sacrificing one’s life.

This whole exchange between Peter and Jesus started because Peter misunderstood what Messiah meant. Oh, he had the words right, and he rightly confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. But what good is it to call Jesus Messiah when we misunderstand what this means.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We can Hope in God’s Good Providence Despite Suffering

Anyone who is even slightly observant about the happenings in our world must draw the conclusion that there is indeed great suffering across God’s creation. From the abject poverty millions face each day, to the wars that continue to rage, to the natural disasters that wreak havoc on our world, we witness many problems in our world that call us to question God’s providence. Of course, in more recent weeks we have observed the enormous and unthinkable suffering of the people of Haiti as a result of an earthquake that may shake our faith in God.

But even in our personal lives we find that there are times when we experience the reality of human suffering. We face the death of loved ones, the pain of illness, the loss of employment, and the brokenness of relationships torn apart. All of us could list times and situations in life that cause us to question the providence of God. Indeed, as I have written in the past, the suffering we witness each day and the trials we face personally ought to cause us to question God’s providence, even protest against God, just as Jesus did from the cross.

Yet such questioning does not necessarily prevent us from trusting in God’s good providence. Yes, many who have suffered or who have witnessed great suffering have abandoned a belief in God, arguing that if God exists, then why is there suffering? But the suffering of our world, no matter how devastating, does not automatically negate the existence of God or the belief in God’s good providence.

But how shall we understand the idea of God’s providence? If we are to hold on to our faith in God’s goodness while we witness evil and suffering, even as we bring serious accusations and questions against God, how are we to comprehend God’s good providence during these times?

First, God’s providence should not be confused with some sort of arbitrary manipulation of things that happen in this world. God is not a puppeteer and we are not God’s puppets. Nor should we see God’s providence as a fixed fate in which the world runs like a machine. Indeed, we are wrong to assume that God has predetermined all that happens.

Moreover, it is not theologically appropriate to respond to such suffering, whether we experience it or someone else faces it, with misguided platitudes such as, “This happened for a reason.” In my mind, this statement, and many others like it, only mock God’s providence.

The biblical story informs us that God’s good providence flows from God’s sovereignty over creation. To say that God is sovereign is to say God exists apart from anything else; God has no beginning and no ending. Moreover, to say that God is sovereign is also to affirm that God is both the creator and sustainer of all.

Thus, God’s sovereignty over creation means that creation, and particularly humanity, finds its existence, its being, its meaning and purpose, and its life and death in the eternal and good will and work of God. That very purpose leads us to understand that to assert that God is sovereign is to say that God is moving and shaping creation toward God’s divine and righteous will, even as that will and purpose is significantly challenged by the power of evil and suffering.

But we must be careful in making this assertion into an absolute that is applicable to every instance of human pain and suffering. God’s providence is not so much God’s control of everything that happens. Indeed, it is hard for us to assume and believe that God controls everything. There is too much pain and suffering in the world for us to believe this. Rather, God’s providence is God’s will and work in this world to achieve God’s purposes for all of creation and particularly humanity, even as God struggles against the chaos itself.

If we look at the way the writers of the New Testament speak about the death of Jesus, we come away with the theological interpretation that Jesus’ tragic and painful death was a result of God’s will and purpose as much as it was the workings of a Jewish trial and a Roman execution. Taking such a view of Jesus as their Messiah was surely an outrageous move on the part of Jesus’ followers, for such an interpretation was not what the people of Israel envisioned for their Messiah.

Yet, such an interpretation, for them and for us, points us to the real power of God’s providence. Though Jesus suffered death, and God was unable to stop such death, the providence of God is more fully realized as a result of Jesus’ death. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death at the hands of evil, God was able to cause resurrection and hope.

In other words, in response to the evil which God could not prevent, God raised Jesus from death. Thus, in the providence of God, God reached through the death of Jesus to bring resurrection and hope; a hope that fuels our persistent trust in God’s good providence even as we continue, with God, to struggle against evil.