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Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Scandal of Particularity


2 Kings 2.1-12
Psalm 50.1-6
2 Corinthians 4.3-12
Mark 9.2-9

Although I did not grow up in the circles of Christian youth and its culture of youth camps – I thought Christianity was for the fond and silly! – I later came to learn of the great culture of romantic attachments that formed at such camps. I learned too of the parallel wisdom that relationships begun in the melting pot of camp life – the hurly burly of life on the spiritual mountain top – could often come a cropper when faced with the humdrum realities of everyday life. Even as an adult – given that Anne and I met at a Canberra conference, the grown-up version of a camp – I knew it was wise to exercise a rhetoric of suspicion before accepting the wisdom of long term planning for a relation begun on the mountain top. In our case we had little choice: I lived in Adelaide and Anne in Brisbane. Canberra was a safe place to meet, I guess.

 Underlying that camp-ethos is the recognition that the mountaintop is not the place to establish the deep foundations of (relatively) stable relationship. The artificialities of the camp may be the place where love is born, but it most reach deeper into normalities if it is to be what the New Testament writers might call an ‘abiding love’. To some extent – perhaps a major extent – this applies no less to our relationship with Jesus. The excitement of conversion experience, for those who have entered faith by that door (and in fact that must be all of us, for even slow growth into faith is conversion!) – wears of, and the drudgery of human existence continues most of the time. George Herbert, of course, implored that God might make ‘drudgery divine’, but even that did not imply that life’s every moment could be a pinnacle experience. ‘Come down Oh love divine’, we sing, not ‘beam me up, Scotty’. God in Christ and Christ in his Spirit enters human existence, in all its banality, rather than scooping us up into the hype and adrenaline of peak experience (even if some styles of Christian teaching and worship suggest otherwise). Jesus and his chosen inner few experience a mountain top experience, but they must come down.

I am incidentally uninterested in arguments that arise between more or less liberal and more or less conservative (the labels are meaningless) interpreters at this point. Did Jesus, with Peter, James and John, experience something inexplicable and otherworldly on a Palestinian mountain? Or does Mark generate a symbolic narrative, almost a parable, to demonstrate both the incomprehension of the inner sanctum and the need to come down from the heights and turn, as Luke puts it, ‘resolutely’ to Jerusalem. As it happens I see no reason to doubt Mark’s story, but the point remains the same twofold point: we cannot live lives of faith in the unreality of pinnacle experience, and we cannot experience the height and depth and breadth of divine redemptive love until we have seen its fullness revealed in the depths of Good Friday despair. Anything less than turning resolutely to Jerusalem and crucifixion is ersatz, phoney redemption, a good-time God who remains removed from the depth of human realities of loneliness, despair, hopelessness. Anything less than turning resolutely to Jerusalem and crucifixion is unable even to redeem the main malaises of the West (or global north as we now inexplicably call it), the malaises of boredom and listlessness, what the French philosophers call ennui. Jesus turns away from the mountain not only to redeem ‘the refugees on the unarmed road of flight’, but all the ‘countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse’, even you and me.

But Mark places the story in such an inconvenient spot. Moments before Jesus has uttered those peculiar and awkward words Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

These are awkward words on at least two bases. Was Jesus wrong in his expectation that some around him would ‘see the kingdom of God … come with power’? Biblical scholars bend over backwards to try and sort that one out, using more methods than I would dare to list in a brief Sunday morning sermon. Was the Transfiguration that follows ‘the kingdom of God … come with power’? Was he referring to the Resurrection – is that ‘the kingdom of God … come with power’? Was he referring to the forthcoming ‘birth of the Church’, which we will acknowledge at far-off Pentecost, as ‘the kingdom of God … come with power’? God knows I hope not, though I do believe that, in all its failings, the church is a hint of the Kingdom yet to come. Was Jesus simply wrong – in which case why does Mark bother to tell us what he said? They are difficult questions, and sometimes we need to sit with them to find an even remotely satisfactory answer. I personally thing we are being pointed to the depth of Good Friday – and its Easter authentication – and these are the themes we will journey through this Lent.

 The other words are awkward, too. Scholars call it the ‘scandal of particularity’: Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father. Isn’t Jesus just another embodiment, another avatar of the possibilities of human love and justice lived to the full? While I do not believe that non-believers are destined to some fiery hell or even non-existence I think that as a Christ-proclaiming community, coming down from our mounts of transfiguration, we must always embrace that scandal of particularity. Jesus may be an inconvenience at time, and it would be so much easier, as many if not most of my more liberal friends do, to lump him together with all those other good men and women: Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Ché Guevara, Aung Sung Suu Chi, whatever, whoever. But in the end I think not: as we with Jesus turn to Holy Week and Jerusalem, a Lent-time away, we with Jesus turn to Holy Week and Jerusalem. It is with the particular, scandalous man of the gospels that we come down from the mountain and set our feet through Lent and Holy Week to Easter hope for all.

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