Back in the 1980`s the actor Bob Hoskins appeared in an Advert for British Gas. He played a London gangland boss who was a bit of a bully…. And his catch phrase was, “Don’t you just love being in control?” Perhaps you might remember it? Back then it caught the mood of the time… And in much the same way the political slogan “Let`s take back control” seems to have fired up a lot of nationalistic sentiment in recent months.
Now, what fascinates me is the way slogans and catch phrases like these have a way of resonating and striking a chord with us and my own sophisticated theory about the popularity of, “Let`s take back control” is that it owes quite a lot to a deep-seated sense that many things we once took for granted and which gave us a sense that we `had` some control have in recent times, somehow disappeared. And all of this has been made worse because back in the 1980`s we were indeed encouraged to believe that `having control`; self-determination and all the rest was among the highest of virtues we could aspire to.
So, perhaps, “Let`s take back control” resonates with many people these days because the fallacy in our conditioning is now coming to light and a lot of cultural and spiritual chickens are coming home to roost? Perhaps we`ve begun to realise that we never were `in control` anyway….?
In our Gospel reading this morning we`re told that “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matthew 17.1). And I want to suggest that among the many things that are going on in this passage… we`re given an insight into how we might begin to pray with this sense that things are not under our control…
But the first thing to note about this reading is what`s missing… For some unaccountable reason the editors of our lectionary missed off the first three words of Matthew Chapter seventeen. It actually begins: “Six days later… Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John …..” Now this isn`t me splitting hairs. Those three little words, `Six days later`, tell us that something has just happened. Those three little words are the bridge with what`s gone before… in other words, there`s a connection that we need to make.
And so when we read what`s gone before we see that (putting it simply), Jesus has just told his disciples that he`s on his way to Jerusalem for what we have come to call his `Passion`.
Jesus would, we`re told, “Undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And (then, notice) Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’
But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16.21-23)
And then (just to make things worse) Jesus told them: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16.24)
My point is that Jesus has told them that he is about to lead them into uncharted territory… Jesus presents them with a scenario and a future they really hadn`t anticipated and over which they had no control at all… And this is the background to what happens next. I mean, whatever happened on that mountain; on that occasion we call “the Transfiguration”, it has something to do with bringing all of this home to them (and to us).
Because essentially, the Transfiguration has something to do with helping the disciples see that they were being drawn into something far bigger than they had imagined …. into processes over which they would have no control.. but in which they would play a part.
Now, of course, the Transfiguration is a moment that is laced with symbolism… not least the appearance of Moses and Elijah; which demonstrate that Jesus comes as the fulfilment of something that has been going on for a long time. In other words, Jesus will bring to completion all that the Lord promised through them….
And it`s almost as if Peter understands this bit… and so he rather pathetically wants to control it all by (metaphorically) capturing the moment on his smart-phone…. ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But the disciples become a bit wobbly and anxious when they heard that voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ (Matthew 17.5) Peter was all very well-intentioned ……but totally out of his depth, wasn`t he?
And I think we know what this is about…. For example, those of us who had the temerity to stand up and say we think we`re called to ordained ministry soon learn we had no idea what we were thinking or where it would lead. And how often the same is true of a Marriage… We look on at those idealistic young couples and kindly think `They`ll learn`! And then there are the young parents who have no idea of how life-changing it will be to bring a new person into the world….. These are things you can`t legislate for; you can`t prepare for or anticipate… This is LIFE… and you can`t control it.
And my point is that there`s something in this Gospel passage which is telling us that the way of faith is very similar. We have to come to this same kind of realisation before we`ll understand what Christ is up to. This week marks the beginning of Lent. Of course, we`re quite free to let our lives go on just as before, with the same old assumptions, illusions and attitudes.
But over the coming weeks we`re being given an invitation to turn our thoughts to the journey Christ made to Jerusalem and the cross… and the events surrounding what we call his `Passion`. You see, those who bear the name Christian are called to go with him… To see ourselves as rather like those disciples on the mountain. In following Christ we launch into uncharted territory… Into a future we could never have anticipated and over which we will have no control at all…
As William Vanstone says: “The word `Passion` doesn`t mean exclusively or even primarily `pain`; it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one`s own situation”. But the point is that over the coming weeks, as we enter into all that Christ endured we are invited to see that He is perhaps closest to us…. and we to him …..in those moments of passion. He is perhaps closest to us…. and we to him when rather than running away from our frailty into some illusion of control we embrace it, accept its truth and find the Lord there with us. It`s in moments like that, that Christ comes to us, as he did to the disciples. We`re told, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”