Being intimate with God
It might be hard for us to realize, but it is twenty years ago this August that on the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were killed. Twenty years ago this summer! It might seem like yesterday to many of us, but the genesis of all of that was that a couple were trying to get away from the paparazzi. Despite attempts by their driver to quickly evade the glaring intensity of photographers, they were unsuccessful and ultimately ended up dying in an horrific crash at the hands of a mad rush from the glare of cameras. I think it must be very hard at times for celebrities. Despite all the great things that come from fame: money, notoriety, power, influence, recognition, the freedom travel, all of those things notwithstanding, it must be very difficult to find some peace and privacy.
Last year sometime, at a dinner that I was attending, I saw out of the corner of my eye two very prominent people having a private conversation. One of them was a leading media personality, interviewer and anchor person, the other a notable author with money and power. The two of them were in deep conversation and it was also obvious that they didn’t want to be recognized, for their table was by far and away the most obscure in the restaurant. There they were, enjoying their privacy, when all of a sudden the waiter came by their table and knocked over the ice bucket containing their wine. The clatter of the bucket, ice and wine bottle hitting the floor them jumping from their seats in shock, had the entire restaurant looking at them. Their attempts to find a little privacy and peace unsuccessful.
I felt the same way some years ago when visiting with one of the Indy car drivers. He wanted to meet with a Roman Catholic priest and myself to talk about a personal problem, and in this great sea of humanity that is often at these races, he realized that as a notable person he couldn’t just sit at a table and have a hot dog or a sandwich with everybody else, and that he needed to get away. So we went into a hospitality tent, and again, we sat in a very distant corner and talked about intimate and personal things. The stress on his face as he was trying to get away from the crowds was palpable! He really wanted peace and quiet, but he was having a hard time finding it.
Maybe not quite to the same extent as our media driven world with social media and cameras everywhere, and those trying to escape maddening crowds in motorcades. Nevertheless, in the first century there were people who had the same problem. These were the itinerant preachers, and the rabbis who had followers and disciples. Amongst all of these was a certain Galilean who stood above all the others, not only for his teachings, but also for the power of his miracles and his healing; not only for his strength of character, but also his power over evil: Jesus of Nazareth.
In our passage from Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus has a reason to get away. We know from previous texts that he is being followed by people from Isthumea, Tyre, Sidon, Judea, Jerusalem, and his own neighborhood in Galilee. From what we now know as Lebanon, right down to the Dead Sea, there were people who were following Jesus of Nazareth. Mark captures the intensity of the peoples’ emotions. Jesus needs to get away from this maddening crowd and spend time with his disciples so that he can appoint twelve who are to be his unique followers.
What is fascinating about this whole passage is that there are eleven verbs in it. Of the eleven verbs, nine of them refer to the activity of Jesus, and two to the disciples. In other words, Jesus is the initiator. He is the one who calls these people to spend time with him and to be set apart. Also, in keeping the great traditions of Israel, Jesus goes up a mountain to get away from the crowds. This would be very familiar to people who knew their Old Testament scriptures. After all, it was Moses in Exodus 20 who went up the mountain to be with the Lord. In 1 Kings 19, it was Elijah who went up to Mount Horeb to be with the Lord. Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds. He wanted to be with his father, but he wanted to take these twelve with him. He wanted an intimate time with the people who are going to be his followers. On this mountainside, Jesus appoints them.
Not by modern standards, but definitely by the standards of the time, this was a diverse group of people. Matthew was a tax collector – a pariah. They were looked down on in their society as being the very worst of the worst, the very scum of the earth to loosely translate a Greek word. Simon the Canaananite was a zealot, a terrorist. Zealots belonged to a group of hyper-nationalists who believed that Israel needed to drive out the criminal element, the Roman occupiers, and would sometimes use violence to achieve their goal. James and John were called, and Jesus uses this incredible term to describe them: “the sons of thunder”. As you can imagine, they were no weaklings or people who hid in the shadows. The “sons of thunder” had opinions on everything, most especially their own importance. Then, there was Andrew, and Simon, Alphaeus and others, who were probably just fisher people, part of the culture and the economy of Galilee. James and John, the sons of thunder, were the sons of Zebedee and they would have owned the boats that Peter and Andrew used. This was a diverse group by the standards of the first century! Then there was Judas Iscariot. It is obvious that Mark must have written his Gospel after the events of the betrayal, Crucifixion and Resurrection, because he knows that Judas is the one who eventually betrayed Jesus. So we have this diverse group who are there by virtue of Christ’s calling.
I love what Martin Luther said about this passage: “It is not that we, by virtue of being able to carry out sacred rituals, can gain the favour and calling of God. Rather, we receive the favour and the calling of God, and then we carry out the rituals to celebrate it.” This is the Protestant principle; and at the heart of the Reformation. It was the recognition that of the eleven verbs, nine were about Jesus’ initiative, and two are on the part of the disciples. It is by call, it is by grace, and it is by God reaching out to us that we follow.
How did this manifest itself? Well, in the greatest of intimacy. Jesus, we are told, wanted to be with the disciples. At times, I wonder if God really wants me to be around, if God wants what I want, if I am worthy of being in God’s presence. When I wonder about God’s absence, I sometimes turn to a poem by John Rice:
I had walked life’s path with an easy tread,
Had followed where comfort and pleasure led;
And then by chance in a quiet place –
Had met my Master face to face.
“In a quiet place – had met my master face to face.” This is what the disciples experienced when they went up the mountain with Jesus.
Sometimes, I feel that television ads are better than the programs that they support. There is one, I must tell you, that I just adore, and I am sure most of you have seen it. It is for the company Expedia –where this man comes on, and clearly he is in rough shape and has spent a lot of time on the beaches of this world, and he says, “I have walked the coastline of a hundred seas, blistered my feet on a thousand beaches. I have searched and searched, and finally I found this paradise.” Sitting next to him is a young woman with an iPad, and he says to her, “And you, friend, what journey brought you here?”
She said, “I just booked on Expedia.ca….”
He asks, “How long did that take?”
She says, “About two seconds.”
He goes “Arrrrrgh”
He had spent his whole life looking for paradise and she found it in two seconds!
I am sure the disciples must have felt like that when they went up that mountainside. They had been searching for the Messiah, for the hand and touch of God. They had been looking for a liberator, for the grace and the forgiveness and the power of God over evil, and now suddenly, on the top of a mountain with Jesus of Nazareth, it finds them. I think at times we are so wrapped up, as John Rice says in this poem, with the comforts and pleasures of life, trying to find that elusive paradise, that ultimate gift of pleasure, that when it comes our way we are so consumed that we miss it. We miss the presence of God in our lives, and it seems to me that on a weekend like this, it is a wonderful time to create that quiet place and let Christ initiate his relationship with us.
It is not all about intimacy. It is also about solace. John Rice went on and wrote:
Melted and vanished; and in their place,
I saw naught else but my Master’s face;
And I cried: “Oh, make me meet,
To follow the marks of Thy wounded feet.”
When Jesus was on the mountain with the disciples, he didn’t just want to be with them, he wanted to empower them to preach the Word, to take on evil, and to continue his ministry of healing and of changing people’s lives. Intimacy was never the end; it was the means to an end. The purpose of being close to Christ isn’t so we can go around telling everyone that we have an intimate relationship with a celebrity, even a religious one, rather that we have an intimate relationship with Jesus so that we might serve him. If there is anything rotten in the core of our faith at the moment – Dr. Hunnisett and I were talking about this between the services – it is the narcissism of religion where the yen seems to be intimacy: “Me and my God! Me and my Lord! This is it!” rather than emerging from the “Me and my Lord” is the call to serve.
I have been deeply troubled over the last few years by a number of things in our society, but one of them that really bothers me is the suicides of young people in our indigenous. Maybe it has arisen out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I suspect there are other sources as well. In my engagement with First Nations leaders, the Metis and Inuit, with whom I have conversations from time-to-time, related to the Church, I hear this continued refrain of concern about what young people’s suicides. At a website called Windspeaker there are often articles on this subject. One of my First Nations colleagues in academia drew my attention to this some time ago. In it there was one article saying:
The loss of young people is devastating to many communities, which sometimes experience suicide clusters, where one youth commits suicide and then others copy them. Many community leaders are now taking action to try to prevent suicide rates from increasing, but it is clear that suicides happen because of a variety of factors, such as socio-economic issues, loss of culture and life situation. The National Aboriginal Health Organization is working with the Assembly of First Nations to help youth identify these factors and empower themselves to develop strategies for combating suicide amongst aboriginal youth.
It goes on to quote Ann Huntinghawk, a social worker who says that what is needed more than anything is to bring hope to the aboriginal youth. For those experiencing depression or thinking about suicide, she said, “This is my advice: Tell someone. Tell someone who you feel will listen and someone who you can trust. You can go to your teacher or to a school counsellor or to a priest, but tell someone and they will listen to you.”
When Jesus called his disciples, he called them to reach out to the world where there was evil and to bring healing to the wounded and the broken. He didn’t just have an intimate relationship with them, speak and listen to them for a private conversation alone, he did it in order that they might go into the world and bring healing to the wounded, hope to those gripped by the power of evil, and good news to those who were afflicted. There is a need for people to be able to tell others what they are experiencing, and I believe that part of that is also built on a relationship with a God, who listens and cares, heals and restores.
This is a crisis in our society. It is one that is easily pushed to the periphery, but it needs disciples who are committed to serving and caring for the broken and the wounded. Our faith is not just for our intimate relationship with Christ; it is for the power of the Holy Spirit to embrace us to go and serve. Our mission might not be going to places where there are clusters of young people in suicide groups. It may simply be to listen, to care and to be a sign, a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is one last component of all of this: When Jesus called those disciples together, he was not only calling them out to take on evil, bring about healing and to preach the Good News. He was also wanted to continue this ministry. I have often thought, “How did Jesus do it? How come we are here on a long weekend listening to what Jesus did, said, believed and embodied? Jesus, after all, was not like Plato, he didn’t have a Republic that he had written. He wasn’t like Aristotle, who had a philosophy. He was not like Milton, who had Paradise Lost. He is not like Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem. There is no one volume that has dominated Jesus. He did not write anything. How was his message conveyed? And, how does it endure? It lives on written in the hearts and lives of people. The fact that he took twelve aside to be his disciples and eventually his Apostles, was the foundation of everything else that formed within his great teachings and tradition. He did it in a personal way; in a personal encounter. And that is exactly how Christ does it today. In a sense, Christ writes his Good News not on a papyrus, but in the hearts of his followers, in the lives of his followers, in the commitment of his disciples. That is how he does it.
Whenever we gather and worship we honour him, we continue that which he began, because it was his calling and it was his initiative and it was his love. He started with intimacy, he moved to a call to go into the world and through his Spirit still reaches us today. On this Family Day weekend, are we one of those whom Christ is calling? Amen.