Magic, Meaning, and Mystery | September 13, 2015 | Christian Education Sunday

Text: Mark 8:27-36

Speaker: Mark Rupp

During my early childhood, I was, for lack of a better way of putting it, awesome.  Let me give you some examples: First, not only did I have an illustrated book of dragons, but I also had an aunt who used her scanner and some printable iron-on transfers to make me t-shirts (plural) with pictures of those dragons on them, which I wore for far longer into my childhood than was probably socially acceptable.  Second, I distinctly remember the day my mother chipped the end of one of her wooden spoons and tried to throw it away.  I dug it out of the trash, gave it a splash of color with some markers, glued one of those metal canning lids to the end, and then proceeded to spend countless hours pretending it was a magic wand.  Third, just in case you need another example of how awesome I was, I had a hiding spot in the back part of our property behind some tall weeds and assorted rubble where I would collect different kinds of plants and other ingredients and would pretend (or perhaps hope) that if I got just the right combination I could make something happen. 

I know what you’re thinking: “Mark, why do you keep talking about being awesome in the past tense, like it is something you grew out of?”  To you, I say: thank you and you’re right and you should really stop by my apartment some time and check out my shelf full of pewter wizards and dragons…and wizards riding dragons. 

I think all people at some point in their lives believe, or at least want to believe, that the kind of magic we hear about in stories is real, the kind of magic that is about power and being able to control and manipulate the world around you at will.  I don’t know what this was like for you, but I know that for me, the hope that this kind of magic was real remained immensely strong for a really long time.  Sure, I eventually grew out of those dragon t-shirts; I either lost (or just lost interest in) my makeshift wand; and after many failed attempts at turning backyard weeds into magic potions, I gave that up as well. 

I’m not sure I ever stopped believing in magic, but I do know that my ideas about what that means have changed.  One of those big transition moments for me came on the day that I was baptized and took my first communion.

Even though I was not Mennonite, I did grow up in a tradition that practiced believer’s baptism.  I wasn’t baptized until I was almost 12, yet reflecting back on this experience makes me wonder if I was really ready, if I really understood what was happening.  I took the pastor’s class, I was able to say all the right words, I even think I was doing my best to understand and believe those words. 

But at that point in my life, I think my expectations for the experience were closer to a storybook kind of magic than Christian faith.  By that time in my cognitive development, my belief in magic had begun to change, but I think I was holding out for the idea that if “real” magic did exist, it had to be found in the Church, with all its rituals, its important words translated from ancient languages, its connection with the supernatural, and its stories of all sorts of people doing spectacular things.  Outside of the storybooks, where else can you find an old man who wears a funny hat, lives in a big castle, has colorfully dressed knights to guard him, and who people flock from all over to see?  Maybe, just maybe, the Pope is actually a poorly disguised modern day wizard.

On the morning of my first communion, I sat in the back row of the church waiting expectantly for the elements to be passed around.  I had just said the words and been baptized earlier in the service, and even though I hadn’t started to feel anything different yet, I assumed it was just because I mostly felt cold and a still a little wet.  But finally getting to take communion, this had to be where “it” happened.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, but I knew it had to be special if there were this many things that had to be just right before I could do it.

The tray of little crackers came around.   I felt the weight of it in my fingers.  Did it feel heavier than it should have?  Would it taste like bread or something else?  I put it in my mouth.  I didn’t chew at first, just in case that’s what you were supposed to do.  I also wanted to savor anything I might feel.  After a bit, I chewed…then swallowed…nothing.  Those communion crackers sure didn’t taste like bread, but they also didn’t taste like anything special. 

Ok, I thought, so maybe the juice was just the final ingredient and everything else was incomplete without it.  I took the little cup, looked at it closely.  Was it darker than normal grape juice?  Again, I let it swish around my mouth for a moment before swallowing.  Admittedly, this tasted a lot better than the crackers had, but then I waited…I mentally searched my body for any kind of sensation, anything different.  Nothing.  I turned inward and tried to see if my heart and mind felt anything.  I tried to go deeper into my consciousness than I ever had before.  And I felt…nothing. 

While I may have embellished this story a bit, I do vividly remember sitting there thinking, “This is it?”  It was like the curtain had been pulled aside and all of a sudden my pre-teenage mind saw the Church as a place where adults went to pretend that they still believed in magic. 

It is unclear to me now what exactly I was expecting, but I think it comes close to magic because I felt like the fact that I had said the right words and performed the ritual correctly meant that I should have access to some sort of power that was beyond me, some kind of magic.  Something should have happened automatically, something that wasn’t there before.  But I felt nothing. 

I think it is from that point on that I began my journey toward a new understanding that the Church doesn’t need to be magical to be meaningful. 

And if we want to talk about people trying to follow Christ but wrestling with their own misunderstanding, the Gospel of Mark is the perfect place to look.  The passage read earlier comes at the beginning of a section of Mark’s gospel which contains three separate accounts where Jesus teaches openly about his death and resurrection, three times where the disciples react poorly, and three instances where Jesus corrects them by teaching about what it means to follow him.  These three vignettes are also bracketed on either end by stories of Jesus healing blind men which creates an interesting literary frame that sets up comparable images of regaining physical sight and the disciples’ growing understanding of Jesus’ role as the messiah.

In today’s passage, this is all set in motion by Jesus’ conversation with the disciples.  First he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  A simple enough question, but the responses are many.  Some say John the Baptist.  Some say Elijah.  Others say one of the prophets.  While we today might not equate Jesus with these other great figures, perhaps we too can think of any number of ways that people impose an identity on Jesus. 

But then Jesus turns the question around and asks, “But who do YOU say that I am?”  All of a sudden, the disciples are forced to step out from behind other people’s ideas, other people’s words;  they are confronted with a question that demands not only an answer, but in many ways, a commitment.  “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Running throughout the Gospel of Mark is a theme that has been called the Messianic Secret.  Up until this point, Jesus has cured sickness, walked on water, cast out demons, and raised people back to life, yet in almost every instance he has tried to keep people from spreading the word about him.  It is never completely clear why he does this, but it seems to have something to do with the idea that those who found out were unlikely to grasp what it means to be the messiah.  Without a true understanding of Jesus’ role as the messiah, people would likely attempt to turn him into something he is not. 

So Jesus turns to those people who have been journeying with him, who have seen the things he has done and heard the things he has taught, and suddenly it’s pop quiz time.  “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter steps forward and tells Jesus, “You are the messiah.”

As before, Jesus quickly orders them not to tell anyone else about him, but for the first time in the narrative, Jesus begins to teach the disciples about what being the messiah will mean.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders ,the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Perhaps emboldened by his “correct” answer, Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to tell him that this must not be.  Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter, declaring that Peter has gotten it wrong because his mind is set on human ways instead of the divine plan.  From here, Jesus launches into a teaching about how any who follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross” thus connecting discipleship of Jesus with the true experience of the messiah.

It didn’t matter that Peter had done the right things and said the right words.  The writer of Mark does not give a specific explanation of what being the messiah meant to Peter, but apparently it did not include suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter had seen far too many spectacular things to accept that Jesus being the messiah would mean anything less. 

In the following two instances where Jesus teaches the disciples about what it means to be the messiah, we get other glimpses about the disciples misunderstandings.  After the second set of teachings, Jesus hears the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest, almost as if being part of the inner circle of the messiah put you in some exclusive club.  To this, Jesus replies again with a teaching on discipleship: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all.”  I think this is hardly what the disciples had in mind.

After the third time teaching the disciples about what being and following the messiah would mean, Jesus is approached by James and John who ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” as if being the messiah was like being some kind of cosmic genie.  The two disciples then ask Jesus to allow them to sit at his left and right hands, positions of power.  To this, Jesus again replies with a teaching about how the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

All three of these stories give us glimpses into the disciples’ misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. 

I don’t want to imply that Peter, James, John, and the other disciples were, like me, secretly holding on to some kind of belief that if they just did the right things and said the right words that some kind of magic would happen.  I don’t know if any of us would have actually put it that way.  In fact, I have to be careful because scholars who study religion have largely conceded that there is no clear academic distinction between magic and religion, and, further, that practices or beliefs have often been designated as “magic” only as a way of putting down and discrediting the belief systems of the “other.” 

What I do know is that both the disciples and myself seemed to be expecting a relationship with Christ to be marked by a kind of power that enabled us to control our surroundings and make things happen by manipulating some sort of divine force to our own advantage.  Call that what you will, but I don’t think it is what following Christ is about.

Like the 11-year-old me sitting in the back row of the congregation trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of a shattered understanding of communion, the disciples needed to be reminded over and over by Jesus that their understandings of what it meant to be the messiah did not mean what they thought it meant.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” 

What good would it do if we had all the power in the world but forgot that we were created to care for each other?  The Church doesn’t need to be magical to be meaningful. 

So what does all of this have to teach us on this Christian Education Sunday, as we begin another year of learning and teaching and growing in our understanding of what it means to follow Christ?

For those of us out there who are still holding on to a hope that our Hogwarts acceptance owl might still come, I hate to break it to you, but you will probably be disappointed by the line-up that is being prepared for your Sunday School classes.  We will not be studying transfiguration, or charms, or divination, and while they may talk about it, I don’t think any of your teachers have the ability to teach you how to walk on water, multiply loaves and fishes, or turn water into wine.  There is no prayer we can teach you or communion elements we can give you that can automatically and independently make something magical happen in your life.  When we gather for our classes or for worship or even for fellowship, there is a good chance that you might not feel or experience anything spectacular. 

In fact, it all might feel very normal.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful.  Actually, I think it is the small, everyday acts over time that become the most meaningful.  The gathering together, the singing, the studying of scripture, the sharing of meals and the doing of dishes; all of these shape us and change us and become immensely meaningful over time.  As you think about Christian Education and what it means to be formed by following Christ, remember this.

And for those of us out there who have had our own “This is it?” moments, for those of us who have had our ideas about what it means to follow Christ shattered or cracked in one way or another, for those of us who struggle to understand how to profess faith in a Christ who multiplies loaves and fishes when we see a world full of people who could use some loaves and fishes, to you I say that the Church doesn’t need to be magical to be meaningful.  If you find yourself becoming disillusioned, remember that the world doesn’t really need any more illusions, so let’s give it something real.

  At the same time, I encourage you to keep listening for the voice of Christ calling you into a new understanding.  Don’t be afraid to be wrong.  Don’t be afraid to realize that you may have said all the right words but still missed the mark.  Don’t be afraid of the unknown.  Don’t be afraid to reach the limits of what you think you know, but, rather, allow yourself to dwell in whatever you find beyond.

Whenever I think about what it means to follow Christ, I am always reminded of Paul’s words in First Corinthians where he encourages the Corinthian congregation to think of him and other teachers of the gospel as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  I find this to be such a beautiful balance between the richness of following Christ in the everyday and the willingness to dwell in and tend to the unknown. 

So, my wish for you, my friends, is that whether we need to be reminded that we are called to serve Christ by giving meaning to the little things, or if we need to be invited to dwell beyond our own understanding by listening for God calling to us from the mysteries of life, let us all continue to learn.  But in our learning and our growing, may we also realize that it is not enough to be able to answer “Who do other people say that Christ is?” Each of us should be ready to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” 

But if that sounds scary, don’t worry; even the most awesome people tend to get it wrong sometimes.