What Comes feeds on the Past… What is past leads to what comes

2 Kings 2:1-12

Today’s reading is about Elisha succeeding Elijah and we should note that Elijah has to cross over the Jordan to fulfil his promise of succession to Elisha then in the passage immediately following today’s reading Elisha crosses back to fulfil that promised ministry.

Moses led the people across the Red Sea to leave Egypt and Joshua leads them across the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. 

As we listen to the crossing of the Jordan bringing new promise in today’s reading remember that John the Baptizer appeared as the new Elijah by the banks of the Jordan and when Jesus comes up out of the Jordan instead of the waters parting the heavens parted, a truly new beginning.

All biblical religion depends on succession and that not only helps us cope with our world but helps us understand the message the Gospel writers bring us as they explain Jesus as a continuation of their religious tradition.

Mark 9:2-9

Context is always important because so much of the gospel writer’s message is delivered in the way the story is assembled.

The turning point of Mark’s Gospel happens on the return from Caesarea Philippi where Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah but does not understand about Jesus’ death.  Then in today’s reading a representative group of disciples are taken to a secluded place and have a spiritual experience of Jesus’ identity.   

Sermon

Maurice Andrew writes that ‘All biblical religion depends on succession.  What comes feeds on the past, and what is past leads to what comes’[1]  A very wise comment from a very astute biblical scholar but in reality, it goes further than simply acknowledging biblical structure.  Innovation in the human society also feeds on the past and, practices and understandings from the past help to build new knowledge, structures, organisations and ways of living in the future.

The Bible is built on a structure that recognises that experience and spiritual insight from the past informs the future.  The reason why Christians put so much emphasis on reading the Bible is this reality that spiritual insight from the past will not only inform our lives now but guide us to the future.

The Bible is not a book of straightforward instructions called Spiritual Direction for Dummies. The Bible is a collection of rules, history and stories that are assembled in a pattern of succession where the past informs the future and episodes in one time are reflected in earlier times.  The Bible reflects real life and therefore offers us both a foundation and a framework to build our own religious response to our world.

Our gospel reading is built on a previous episode and the imagery in the vision described reflects past scripture and religious tradition.

Jesus and the disciples take time out in the gentile resort of Caesarea Philippi.  That was a place of considerable ancient religious significance but not Jewish territory.  On the way back from Caesarea Philippi Jesus instigates a discussion about his identity.  Where does he fit in their religious tradition?

Mark’s Gospel gives us two prompts from Jesus.  Who do people say he is, and who do the disciples say he is?  After going through a number of significant figures from their religious and cultural tradition Peter finally proclaims Jesus as the Messiah.

That was a reasoned conclusion based on the religious tradition of the past that combined with the difficulties people experienced in the present.  Through that reasoning they were led to believe that God would send new leadership in the future.  God would send a messiah.  Jesus’ actions and teaching came so close to what tradition said about a messiah that he must be the expected messiah.

In today’s episode Jesus takes three disciples onto a mountain to pray and significantly Peter is one of them.

Mountains have a spiritual significance in many, many religious traditions.  Mountains are religiously significant to Maori and they are certainly significant to Judaism.  The law was given to Moses on a mountain.  There are also references to Jerusalem and the Temple being on the highest mountain although neither Kiwi nor Sherpa would classify it has such.

It is in an atmosphere of prayer combined with the mountaintop sense of sacred space that the disciples feel the presence of Jesus as a spiritual presence.  For a moment he is more than the Jesus they are with everyday.

To describe that experience Mark uses traditional imagery from their religious texts.  Jesus is joined by significant figures from the past, Moses and Elijah, both of whom had been mentioned in the discussion on the road to Caesarea Philippi.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus glow dazzling white, the description of heavenly messengers in Hebrew scripture.  All three of them are surrounded in a cloud as Moses was when he received the Decalogue on Mount Sinai.  They also hear the divine voice proclaiming Jesus’ divinity which was first encountered at Jesus’ baptism.

So in this vision Jesus is connected with the disciples’ religious past and the reader’s previous experience of Mark’s narrative.  This episode is a spiritual experience in the world of Mark’s Gospel that builds on its past and creates a platform for greater spiritual understanding for the literary journey ahead.

The episode also challenges the reader to reflect on their own intellectual response to Jesus and their spiritual experiences that might create a starting point for spiritual growth and religious response to life.

Many of us came into the church at birth and grew up with church attending families.  Our understanding of Jesus’ identity and significance grew through Sunday School and youth group.

For some that intellectual growth in the faith will be enhanced by some form of Spiritual experience that moves faith from something we know intellectually to a spiritual certainty.

But faith and religious tradition are not genetic and some of us did not grow up in church attending households.  Indeed, mission and evangelism would be pointless if we never expected non-believers to change their minds.  As an un-churched, mission resistant, teenager I used to hear about gigantic crusades and wondered what the point was when all the people who went to these events already belonged to a church.

What eventually stimulated my interest was the people I knew, and was involved in activities with, who were caring, ethical people who made a positive contribution to life and that contribution seemed to be driven by their Christian conviction.  They walked their talk and quietly invited me to join them.

In church growth jargon that is called friendship evangelism.  It is also biblical.  In the first chapter of John’s Gospel John the Baptist recommends Jesus to two of his disciples.  One of those was Andrew and he found his brother Simon, later to be called Peter, and brought him to Jesus.  (John 1:40-42)

As a result of the people I knew and the activities I was involved in I came in contact with gospel stories and Christian tradition.

Then at a Scout camp service the leader talked about life in a World War Two prison camp in South East Asia where, through Christian influence, prisoners changed from an ‘everyone for themselves’ to an ‘everyone for everyone else’ culture.  The result was astounding because, while people were only looking out for themselves sick people were dying while the others were scrambling to steal what meagre possessions the dying men had.  Under the influence of first just one devout Christian who believed in living his faith, people started caring for the sick, even sharing their food with them.  Instead of dying sick prisoners began to recover.

To my adolescent male mind that was brought up on classic war adventure stories, this view of practical Christianity made sense.

It was a story about men, who without Christ in their lives died, and by living as Christ to others they lived.

Those were the ideas buzzing in my head as I walked back to my tent and my brain formed the basis of a theological understanding that has stayed with me ever since.  Suddenly the bush around me felt different. Although I was deliberately walking by myself there was an indescribable presence surrounding me.  Because it was indescribable I couldn’t describe it then and certainly can’t describe it now.

I did not see shining white figures of Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  But in as much as they represent a continuing faith in the world of Mark’s Gospel that same faith provided the religious framework in my mind.  I formed my spiritual understanding in Christian images.

That moment was more of a ‘thin place’ than ‘a mountain top experience’.  But just as the disciples had reflected on their religious tradition on the road to Caesarea Philippi, and that reflection provided the imagery for their mountain top experience, so it was Christian imagery and a secular story in a Christian context that fired my thin place experience.

That event so long ago was both a spiritual experience and a conversion experience because from that moment on I set out to join a church.  That conversion was not as instant as it might have been if I had accepted an invitation to an evangelical crusade.  I was after all a cynical, stubborn and shy teenage boy.  But the experience crushed a good deal of cynicism and stubbornness fuelled a determination that overcame my shyness.  So, I did join a church and in a strange way that was a mountain top experience because there was an Anglican church on the hill above where I was boarding so, as I had an Anglican baptism certificate I walked up the hill and told the vicar that I wanted to join the church.  I think the shock nearly killed him.  But he recovered well, and I had a brief time as an enthusiastic Anglican.

I did have one very similar experience that was a mountaintop experience but none since.  However, there was a slightly different experience that with hindsight might suggest I was never meant to be an Anglican despite being baptised and confirmed as such.

Like the spiritual experience I described this incident happened through my involvement with scouts and was life changing.  In the natural progression of the Scout organisation, I finished being prepared and moved on to an older group with the moto of ‘service’.  As Rover Scouts mountain top experiences were not unknown to us. But at that stage in life, we were very inclined to fraternise with the local Ranger Guide Company.

One of the young women in that company now worships at St Andrews on the Terrace, another became a Moderator of the General Assembly.  The startling experience with a third Presbyterian in that group was an ‘across a crowded room experience’ rather than a mountain top moment.  Furthermore, it was probably more hormonal than spiritual.  Nevertheless, she has been Mrs Perry for more than fifty years.

In my faith journey since those challenging and formational years the Holy Spirit has respected my critical theological cynicism and continues to speak to me through other people and organisations.  Jaycees extended the Rover moto of service to instruct me that ‘Service was the best work of life’.  I have always sought to live my faith in all that I do and expect my faith to change and grow through Biblical study and theological discussion.

But we are all different and although a spiritual experience may well be a blinding vision on a mountain it could also be a feeling of empowering warmth while singing a favourite hymn or even just the comfortable knowing from a lifetime of loyal faith.

The key message of these texts is that our faith is fed by the tradition and scripture of the past.  But it is the way we find reality in that faith that carries us into the future.

[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.254