THE PATH TO HUMAN HAPPINESS
It is a natural human aspiration to be happy, but this path should take us through the cross, not around it
One tired observation about Jesus that still has currency is that if he had been around in our generation, no-one would recognise him. I suppose they mean that David Blaine would rival him for gravity-defying stunts, Mahatma Ghandi for teaching and that in a superficial celebrity culture, Britney Spears would simply get more google hits. I do not subscribe to this idea because Jesus is unique and there is no-one who can rival God becoming human, yet there is evidence that the people around Jesus at the time couldn’t come to terms with who he was.
Mark 8: 27-28 has Jesus asking this question: Who do people say that I am? To which his friends reply: Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, some say you’re Elijah and others say you’re one of the prophets. In life we usually try to make sense of the present by turning to the past. The people could only make sense of Jesus from what they knew of the past. They could not imagine he was unique.
We do something similar today when we idly ask: do you think Gwen Stefani is the new Madonna? or do you think Snow Patrol are the new Coldplay? Eventually someone may emerge in their own right to earn status - no-one asks if Andrew Flintoff is the new Ian Botham anymore - but often they are cursed by comparison. In the same way, Jewish people at the time of Jesus were saying: yes, I think Jesus is the new Elijah!
Except he wasn’t.
The slowness of even his friends to come to terms with who he was can be found in the dramatic story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top (Mark 9: 2-8). Peter, James and John were given complimentary front row seats at one of the most spectacular displays of God’s power and the surest indication to this point that Jesus was divine. He changes appearance before them, blinding them with light. When they find their bearings, Jesus is to be seen talking with Moses and Elijah, who symbolically represent the law and the prophets. Their presence was rather like getting a great quote from Barack Obama or Bono for the cover of your new book – the kind of cool endorsement that empties bookshelves.
The poor disciples then showed their lack of journalistic nous in blowing the chance to interview two famous dead Jewish men for the Jerusalem Post. And when Peter has the chance to speak to Jesus again he has one of those moments that I think we’ve all had in life where you say something stupid in company because you’re embarrassed and there’s an awkward silence while you get ignored. All Peter can come up with is to mumble something inappropriate about building a tent in memory of the big event – rather like the millennium dome, come to think of it.
It’s easy to be hard on the disciples. They made instant responses which have been picked over by millions with the benefit of time. Few people look good under that kind of scrutiny. We become like pub football pundits – unfit and overweight and yet believing we could have met that cross with the perfect header.
We speak of mountain top experiences with happy recollection today – special moments when our lives are lifted to another plane. Yet for Jesus this mountain top experience was very different. Just prior to this event, Jesus had first begun to explain that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem and then be raised from the dead. I expect they heard him loudly about dying, but less clearly about rising from the dead. If a doctor tells you unexpectedly that you have cancer but that he believes it can be treated, your first thought is probably going to be ‘I’ve got cancer’ not ‘I can be treated’. It’s human nature.
This sense of death hung over the transfiguration like Indonesian smog. Luke even has Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about his death. At key moments in our lives we need confirmation that we are doing the right thing. Jesus was no different and this was what he received: his death really was the culmination of God’s purpose.
It is unsettling the way that joy and suffering are fused together in the Christian faith. There can be no resurrection without the cross, no victory without the pain. I think this is really hard to accept and we are always faced with the temptation to separate the two in our experience and to choose the blessing not the pain. This is not a modern desire. In the Middle Ages Martin Luther drew the distinction between what he termed ‘theologians of glory’ and ‘theologians of the cross’. Theologians of glory think they can safely navigate round the cross while theologians of the cross know that the Christian journey is plotted through Calvary.
Our culture places the pursuit of personal happiness at the top of its agenda. We have all, in a way, been seduced by the notion of a constitutional right to pursue happiness. In fairness to the US Founding Fathers, they did not say that there was a right to happiness, merely a right to pursue it. Yet we often speak as if personal happiness is a right we are entitled to. Sometimes you see the Church fall into the trap of condemning this goal because it is at odds with the cross. But the truth is more subtle than that. Jesus did not say that the pursuit of happiness is wrong. It is a natural human aspiration to be happy. It’s just that the path to happiness leads through the cross, not round it. A true sense of fulfilment is found through denying ourselves and putting other people first.
This Christian calling is under great strain today. Putting other people first is a lot easier to do when you live in a community which feels the same way. For when you look after someone else’s needs in such a place, you know you can rely on someone else to look after yours. The problem we face today is a culture which is in thrall to the individual, where it is acceptable for us to make choices without regard to others. If we are not careful this develops into a vicious circle where people look more and more to their own interests because no-one else is going to. A Christian fellowship should witness to a different standard, but we can only begin to do so when we recognise and deal with our own failing to think about the prior needs of others.
Social surveys show that people are unfamiliar with the meaning of the Christian cross today. They may not appreciate the symbolism of a wooden cross but they will understand its values when they are lived out in a particular community like ours. Jesus is here in our generation and if people still cannot recognise his Holy Spirit in us, the responsibility is ours, not theirs.
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