Papias, a second century – 3rd generation – bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) said that Mark wrote down what Peter told him, in ‘no particular order’. Papias, who did not know any of the Apostles, but knew people who did, understood things about the Early Church that we’ll never know; but as for Mark not writing his gospel in any particular order, is far from the obvious truth. Mark wrote in what may not necessarily be a strict chronological order (we of course will never know), but he did write in a very particular order, and tells a very particular story. For most of the last 2,000 years Mark’s gospel was the poor relation of the gospels, but in the last century, especially the last 50 years, most New Testament scholars see Mark, since his was the first gospel to be written, as someone who invented what a gospel is, and his gospel has a complex structure and theology.
Our gospel reading about the Transfiguration, and the last part of the previous chapter (8) , with the first verse of this chapter (which our gospel omits) begins with Peter confessing Jesus as the Messiah, God’s son, Jesus predicts that he must first suffer and die, and then be raised; but Peter won’t have this. He can, as can the other disciples look forward to Jesus vindication as the Messiah, as God’s Son, but not his passion – surely as Messiah he will triumph. For Jesus, and indeed for Mark, the most important aspect of Jesus’ triumph is that he must suffer first.
These two stories, almost exactly half-way through, are the climax, the turning point, of his gospel. As someone once said, Mark is a Passion story with a long introduction; and up to now Jesus has been in Galilee, but will next make his inevitable way to Jerusalem. We, as readers, listeners, are in on this Messianic Secret; because his gospel opens with Jesus described as the Messiah, God’s Son. And we know he must go to Jerusalem for his passion; but the disciples don’t know this
Jesus points out that he must first suffer and die before he is raised. So when Peter makes his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, it is not enough; he needs to understand that first Jesus must suffer and die; but when Jesus makes this clear Peter chides him; eliciting Jesus’ ‘get behind me Satan!’ Indeed, even after Jesus has been transfigured with his divinity shining out of him all over the place, with two other semi-divine figures (Elijah and Moses), and God confirming that he is God’s Son, he again, at the end of our gospel reading reminds the three disciples, Peter, James and John, that his rejection, suffering and death must come first, and not to tell anyone about this until the Son of Man is risen. It is a secret, another theme of Mark’s (usually referred to as the ‘Messianic Secret’); but it is a secret in both senses: that silence is to be kept, but also that it is a profound mystery – Jesus’ suffering and death before his resurrection triumph.
For Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God meant he would be the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7; a term that can simply mean a ‘human being’; but there in Daniel a kind of junior god whom God, the Ancient of Days, will invite to his throne so that he might reign with God. The entire Jewish people eagerly anticipated the coming of Messiah, but not that the Son of Man should suffer first, that wasn’t anticipated.
It is that part of the Good News that Peter and fellow disciples can’t quite grasp. So when Peter up on the Mountain, says, ‘It’s great to be here,’ he and the other disciples need to come down the mountain and face the reality of Jesus’ divinity, the reality of the suffering Jesus must endure in Jerusalem, as Mark says later, ‘for many.’
The phrase Son of Man (Ben ‘adam) occurs 108 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, (OT), 83 of them in Ezekiel. God never addresses Ezekiel by his name, but calls him ‘Son of Man’. But more importantly, when we read of Ezekiel’s ‘call’ – his first vision in Ezekiel 1 – he sees a throne, with wheels (ie that moves) and,
“seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form (’adam).”
What is remarkable here is that God, on the throne, is in a kind of ‘human form’. No surprise, at one level, since when God created human beings, they were created in God’s image. But for Ezekiel, it means that God is in some sense, like a human being; just as the creation story in Genesis says that we, human beings, are in some sense like God. Full humanity is in God.
This is at the heart of Christian prayer. In meditation and contemplation in both the Eastern and Western churches, it is in the silence of prayer we go to the very heart of ourselves, where God already is. That God prays in us.
What might be most remarkable, is that whatever it is that we don’t know about what God is, there is a great deal of evidence that we certainly don’t know what a ‘human being’ is. The late New Testament scholar, Walter Wink (the Human Being) says that there is a level at which we don’t know how to become human, he says:
I am greatly agitated that our society seems to be losing the battle for humanization – violence, domination, killing, disrespect, terror, environmental degradation, and … [poverty], … have reached intolerable levels. Likewise, I am bewildered, having lived the greater part of my life, that I know so little about becoming human myself.
For Jesus, what the title ‘Son of Man’ (in Greek, literally and strangely, ‘the son of the man’) is, not just that he is a human being, but that he offers us the possibility of becoming more human. God is the one in whom full humanity lives. Whatever else, God is the most ‘human being’.
I am reminded of our recent Advent Course, where we discovered that at the heart of our Western ‘civilisation’ is a denial of humanity to much of the human race, that led to the enslavement of millions of Africans, and others, in the Americas, and about which we are still in denial.
Today is Racial Justice Sunday observed by Churches together in Britain & Ireland … it is the 25th anniversary, since it started in 1995, about the death of Steven Lawrence. This isn’t just a ‘political’ battle, it is a spiritual battle, that we are, and recognise in each other that we are Human Beings, made in the image of God. It’s clear that the project still has a long way to go. That, in spite of the Home Secretary, Black lives do matter; and that we clearly have a long way to go yet. I hope at St John’s we are working together to make a difference here, making this celebration of Communion, our most sacred meal, a sign of love and hope, that we can and will be one, affirming our mutual human being, with God’s help.