(Sermon 15 Feb 15)
Précis – a talk on the importance of doubt and questioning the detail of what we read.
When Jonathan and I discussed me preaching for this service, on what may be my last opportunity for a few months – before I go out to Mumbai (though that’s in the balance at the moment) – I noticed to my dismay that I had preached on a similar gospel reading in March last year. In other words I’d already used my big idea up :). On that occasion I got the Transfiguration in Matthew but the standard understanding is that, with the addition of a body of Jesus’ actual teachings from a source we call Q, Matthew & Luke are both based on Mark’s gospel, and as such the occurrences and exchanges with people are all based on Peter’s memories. I suggested at the time that maybe what we had here in the Transfiguration was an internalised experience for Peter in the same way that Paul’s later Road to Damascus experience looked to those around him – simply as a man who had collapsed; and therefore that in what we know as the Transfiguration we had part of a series of psychological episodes that powered Peter for the rest of his life – this, the denial and then seeing the risen Jesus (high to low and then high again) forming a triptych.
What I wanted to do this time was come back to the narrative from a different angle: the issue of feeling comfortable thinking about and questioning the detail of biblical accounts whilst still holding on to the essential truth that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we see the essential nature of God – which is what we really mean by the phrase ‘Son of God’. If we do THAT it helps us to have an understanding of events that steers clear of a cartoon like images that we are sometimes given and instead have a complex, many layered explanation that fits the actual world human beings live in.
You can chart a spectrum of the way Christians down the ages have approached the bible. In modern times it ranges at one end, from a fundamentalist view that things happened exactly as written down – an idea particularly that took hold in the US at the turn of the 19/20C where people want to grasp certainties in response to an uncomfortably, fast changing world, to the ideas held by scholars in the 19C that much of what was written in the Old Testament was symbolic and that much of what was written in the New testament were late compilations. I guess I myself am pretty well in the middle of that spectrum. I tend to assume by default that those things recorded actually happened but then look for an explanation that makes sense in the context of the world we live in.
Jean and I had a brief chat a few weeks ago – from memory Lucy and Teresa and maybe Marion were in on it too – as to whether I believed in the virgin birth. Now I cannot for the life of me remember how we got onto that subject but I clearly remember the comment “I believe that it happened because I believe God COULD do that”; and I guess my response, after thinking about it, would be “yes he/she COULD – but DOES he?” Applied to the context of the Transfiguration you might ask, from one point of view, if he/she worked in terms of flashes, bangs, angels coming from the sky & megaphone voices then you have to ask yourself why doesn’t he/she now? Likewise, if God literally spoke out of burning bushes and thundered down from on high back in the days of Moses why not now? More importantly if God could do it why didn’t he/she when Jesus was on the cross. The answer I think you’ll find is that God works within the rules of creation he/she set themselves.
The irony is that for us ‘those of us on the inside’ it doesn’t actually matter whether your image of God is in simple bold colours or it’s in subtle multitude tones. Personally I’ve always wanted to cry out for an understanding of the world of the bible that is more realistic and less like a cartoon: one where things happen according to timeless rules of the created universe rather than like things that happen in a cartoon; but I’ve also come to realise over the 34 years that I’ve been actively thinking it through is that in some ways the details don’t matter. What matters is that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we see the nature of God. Many of the things that the wider church has experienced over the centuries – constructing elaborate edifices for mitigating and expiating sins, which has left a hangover well into the 20C and even 21C, and undergoing a number of major renewals aimed at renewing/fostering a personal sense relationships with God (both often reactions to the situations society finds itself in at different times) – seem to lose focus on the ‘elephant in the room’ – that God IS, that God is as he is in Jesus, and that the God we see in Jesus is a God of Love for everyone and everything in his/her creation.
I’ve used the phrase in all three of my talks last year that it was ‘up to us to make God’s dream come true’ – a dream of a sentient and self aware species capable of loving each other. So now we have a four step core to out faith: God IS; God is as he/she is in Jesus; the God we see in Jesus is a loving God; and it’s up to use to make his dream come true and demonstrate that love to the world.
It’s just one small microcosm of demonstrating that love but one of the ways we do it is by talking to people. Now the way we make sense, ourselves, of the world during that critical period from 6BC to 33AD where we saw the nature of God amongst us is going to be affected by our personal view of the world, by our upbringing and by the way & level to which we’ve learned about God. We do however need to recognise that the WAY we talk to people matters if we’re going to be relevant to them as individual and to society. It does us little good if we preach at the people in the world around us in a set of phrases and with a the language only an insider relates to. So I say, question the accounts we’ve had come down to us, doubt them, try and make sense of them in a way that makes sense to the homeless man, the grieving widow, the miserable colleague; but at all times remember that out primary task is to show them the love of God. If out ability to relate to the weak and those needing our love is compromised by the way we talk then the loving God we see in Jesus requires us to change.
In the reading from 2 Kings today we see the records of a vivid experience that saw Elisha take up Elijah’s calling. At a guess it helped power him throughout his lifetime’s mission. Myself I’d view it as a psychological experience – like Paul’s later on the Road to Damascus. In the Transfiguration as recorded by Mark in this account, and by Matthew and Luke in their gospels, we see a similar kind of experience for Peter; and because Peter will have known of the earlier experience for Elisha it might partly have shaped his own psychological experience 900 years later. It doesn’t happen to everyone or even the majority of us; and maybe those who do have an experience like Elisha, Peter and Paul’s are lucky – or MAYBE they need it to help fulfil their mission in life. What however NOT having a life enhancing experience isn’t an excuse for is inactivity. Whether we’re lucky or not, it’s up to us to show God’s love to the world. We’ve gotta make his dream come true; and to do that let us use the freedom that comes with God’s dream to question and extend our understanding of the details so that we can relate better to the world around us, and in so doing show the light of love all around us.