On being left behind

Luke 9:28 – 43

I thought that my carrot cake was a pretty strong entry in the gentlemens’ baking class at the summer show that year. A pleasing, golden crust. A good rise. But it didn’t even place, never mind win. If I tell you that the year in question was 1988, and that I still remember, and that I’ve never entered any cookery-related competition in the thirty years since; you’ll have the measure, not only of my arrogance and pride, but also of how long the feeling of humiliation can last.
It can be much more serious that cake-baking. They will try to be as kind as they can in the de-brief. But you know, the moment they smile at the nervous candidate sitting next to you, that you are not going to be offered the job. They’ll explain that it’s about complementary skill sets and experience mix, and what a difficult choice they’ve had to make. But you thought the interviews had really gone quite well. You walk out of the door feeling rejected and wrecked.
I won’t go on. If you can remember such a feeling of rejection, then you know how the remaining disciples feel, as Peter, James and John swan off up the mountain with Jesus, on some select and special mission reserved for them alone. You know what it is to feel second class, part of the out-crowd, an also-ran. Peter, James and John have obviously made the grade, passed some selection process of which the others are unaware. What are the nine supposed to do, left behind while the important people are away, having whatever important and exciting adventure Jesus has cooked up for them?
For the crowds are beginning to gather again, as they always do. Word quickly spreads that Jesus is in the region; and they shuffle up to the foot of the fell: the curious, the desperate, the lonely, the sick, the bored. As hours drag slowly by in the growing heat of the day, the murmurs and complaints grow louder. They’ve come all the way out here to see Jesus, the famous teacher, the famous healer, the famous miracle-worker; and they grow impatient of your excuses and your repeated delaying tactics.
What do you say to these people? ‘I’m sorry, Jesus can’t see you right now, please try later!’ For there are some here in real need, who are desperate to find him. This man and his epileptic son, for instance. You do your best to help calm the lad. You sit him in the shade of an olive tree, find him something to eat and drink, try putting his head between his knees, that sort of thing. You try to find soothing words to contain the father’s anxiety; and you pray for the boy, of course. But from the father’s tight-lipped replies and his gaze that is always trying to see past you, it’s clear that, so far as he’s concerned, you might as well be the cleaner. He has come to see the boss; and no-one else’s prayers will be good enough.
And, wouldn’t you just know it, as soon as Jesus and the special ones return, the boy is healed; and he and his father slope off happily, without sparing you so much as a second glance.
Have you ever watched ‘Songs of Praise’ and looked ruefully at those churches featured thereon, pews packed with keen, bright-eyed worshippers, all singing their hearts out and with exciting stories to tell to camera? Other Christians’ lives, from Peter James and John onwards, can seem spiritually successful and action-packed. Obstacles are overcome, prayers are answered, faith is vibrant and certain, friends and neighbours are converted in droves.
We can be left feeling that, wherever it is that the Christian in-crowd meet, they haven’t divulged the location to us. We can feel like second-class disciples, left behind to get on with the everyday, mundane tasks of loving our God and our neighbours, while others surmount spiritual summits with Jesus as their guide and companion, and the Christian life is transfigured before them.
I wonder what St Paul would say to Jesus’ ordinary, non-special, not-specially-spiritual disciples, the ones left at the bottom of the mountain? I wonder what he would say to any who feel this way still? I think I can quote you, from what we’ve already heard. ‘We all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness, with ever-increasing glory.’
So much of our life these days is measured, and targeted and assessed: made competitive in ways that reduce us to scores and passes or fails. Numbers and tick-boxes and appraisals evaluate achievement in everything, from productivity at work to children’s education to whether you qualify for universal credit. Some of us make the grade; many do not.
But put the output targets and the league tables and the Ofsted reports to one side. Do we look at our children or grandchildren, and line them up according to which ones did best in their GCSEs or college courses, and thus decide which ones we love best? I trust not!
Nor does God measure our success as Christians by numbers and tick boxes and appearances on Songs of Praise! Though the parish share might depend on how many of us are here each week, God’s love for us does not! Of course God would delight in each new soul amongst our number, each act of Christian love and service to others. But he does not mark us out of twenty against some scale of desirable Christian activities, and reckon us to be failing because we haven’t been to fifteen bible-study groups in the last year, nor brought another ten people to Church, nor prayed earnestly enough to secure his response.
We are not left on the bench, as God picks his team: God has recruited each of us to his workforce. He has equipped us with his grace. He has invited each of us to dine at his table. And he is transforming us into his likeness. Our mission is here and now; being the people of God. And though God will weep if we refuse it, he will not judge us against any other standard than the grace he has given to us.
But, since we are being transformed into his likeness, this will make a difference to our lives, our worship, our openness to other people, our responsiveness to those in need. The glory with which God transforms us is not blind to the realities of life. Yet, when we are at peace with God, then in so many subtle yet noticeable ways, our love for God will show. ‘We all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness, with ever-increasing glory.’
© Jon Russell 2019