February 11, 2018
When I was deciding between seminaries I spent a weekend at a prospective students event down in Princeton, where as part of the program three different scripture scholars were asked to offer presentations on the reasons why they would choose one gospel over the others as their favorite. The event was just one piece of a larger picture that made it clear to me that Princeton was not a good fit for me. To be honest, I thought the effort was a bit nerdy. These highly accomplished, renowned scholars were being asked to talk about their “favorite” gospel, as if the gospels were candy bars or baseball teams?!
“I don’t care which one you like; I want to know what they mean! And, even more, I want to know what it means that I’m going to seminary? What am I doing, and what’s God doing, and who exactly is God?”
That’s just where I was at the time. And, of course, it wasn’t Princeton’s job to deal with all that. Now I’ll tell you that Mark is definitely my favorite gospel. (I like Snickers bars and the Yankees too.)
I like Mark mostly for what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t fill in the blanks. He offers the bare bones of the Christ stories that were circulating orally among Christians before he started to write. He leaves it up to the community to fill in the silences and to do the thinking. It was up to the witness of the living body of Christ, the Church, to do the work of theology, of imagining and following the Christ they proclaimed in their day and in their context. Mark didn’t write his gospel to give answers. He wrote it, I think, more for the questions and for the purpose of shaking us into mindfulness.
Just think about the ending of Mark’s gospel. The women go to the tomb, wondering how they will roll the stone away. But they get there and it’s already been moved. In they go and “they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe” who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
Who is this “young man?” Mark doesn’t say. Is he an angel? How does he know what he knows? And who else out there is like him, and from what hidden dimensions of creation do they come? Mark doesn’t tell us. “Go to the disciples,” says this man, “and tell them that Jesus will meet them in Galilee just as he said he would.” But, the women don’t do that. Instead, we get verse 8, which in many of the most ancient manuscripts is the ending of the gospel. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
This is a pattern in Mark. Whenever those closest to Jesus come face to face with the divine glory within him their response is fear. They aren’t impressed or relieved; their hearts aren’t strangely warmed; rather, they are terrified. The teachings and the healings they can handle. But, when Jesus walks across the water and calms the storm it’s fear they feel. When he rises from the dead it’s fear. And, when he takes with him Peter, James, and John and he ascends that mountain top and is transfigured before them with light, and cloud, and prophets of old, and the voice of God, it is fear, not praise, that brings them to their knees.
Professor Marilyn Adams reflects, “Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration, like his numinous chaos trampling power, like the power and the glory of Jesus risen from the dead, show up all merely human social constructions as paper tigers, wineskins too brittle and inelastic to contain the bubbling creativity of the really, really, Real.” In other words, the Jesus Mark wants us to know brings a holy transcendence that reveals the insufficiency of everything we think we understand. It unseats us and repositions us so that when we look down upon the reins of life that we’ve been grasping all we see is their dangling uselessness.
I’ve shared before with you that man’s testimony from William James’ collection of religious experiences – his recordings of human encounters with the transcendence of God. I won’t read the whole thing as I did before but I’ll lift up the sense the man had that God’s presence and reality were completely un-doubtable, and that in the vast truth of the eternal being-ness that enveloped the man he knew without a doubt that God was, in fact, far more real than he himself was.
Another author I’m reading suggests that at their most orthodox, or when religions are most true to their truest expressions, they all speak of God as the “infinite source of all that is… infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation.” It’s when the disciples encounter this reality in the person of their teacher, friend, and companion Jesus that that fear sets in because its here they discover that life all along had been an ignorant walk on thin ice when the reality of things goes infinitely deeper than they could have imagined.
Throughout Mark’s gospel Jesus is always silencing people. “Don’t tell anyone what you saw. Don’t tell what just happened.” It’s called the Messianic secret, and it happens again here at the transfiguration. Mark says, “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” I like to think it means something like this: “Don’t talk about it until you have the slightest clue what it all means. Be quiet first. Take this in. Let it bewilder you, rob you of control, even terrify you first, because that’s when you’ll have something worth saying. When you see that infinite love and infinite life has called you by name out of the smallness of self and into the beauty of God, that’s when you’ll have something to say.
I’m aware that all of this may sound a bit lofty or maybe somewhat inaccessible when what we really want is a little boost to get us through the week. On the one hand I want to say, “Look, the resurrection is no little boost!” God will never give us anything less than God! But, on the other hand, all this talk of infinite this and that, and the really, really Real only matters if we can place it in the context of lives we are actually living. So, I’ll share how in just the last week or so I’ve been drawn from myself into the bigger more beautiful reality of God.
The first was with Neil DeAngelo’s funeral, but it’s been true with those other funerals that also emerge from within the life of our church. It’s my very humbling honor to be with and pray with those who are leaving the life we know, and to sit with families in their grief and to accompany them on that journey that leads them together to a place of thanking God for a life shared with them, and ultimately to giving that life back to God in trust and in hope. It’s here in this place that we know what matters most. It’s here that the divine promise of Glory rendering our common visions of reality pitilessly small becomes the kind of saving truth that enables us to comprehend the sacred stuff of which we are miraculously a part.
The other moment happened Tuesday. I got to go to David and Sita’s new home and I got to hold their new baby Dylan in my hands. He fussed at first, and then calmed down and he showed me his eyes, and then he fussed again, and burped and baptized my shoulder just a little, before relaxing again and shutting his eyes as we thanked God for the miracle that was him and for the love that created him. Miracle and love: two gifts from what is really, really Real embodied in the life that lay right there in my hands. What else in that moment could possibly have mattered more?
So, in just the last week it was birth and death that tied me to the sacred truth of what it means to exist. Here, between those two bookends, right now and every other day we have, we’re called with the disciples to rediscover that truth and to live out its meaning. I’m not sure exactly how that will be done, but I do believe that’s why we have a church. Part of the reason that God’s Spirit brings us together into this place and has us sharing our lives with one another is this: in our fellowship, in our worship, in our service, in our intentional expressions of love as a community, we become the kind of people who see more clearly and more commonly the greater truth of our lives in a world that is full of God.
 Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 1, page 456
 David Bentley Hart, “God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” page 30.