Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings that :- in one way or another all speak of us as being ‘special’; this category clearly isn’t, for the scriptures, limited to football impresarios. What they then do is look at the different ways in which individuals and peoples become special. Most of us, I suppose think that being special confers some particular status or favours, but, as we are about to see, it can also carry more serious and even painful implications.
Our reading from Zechariah, (12:10-11; 13:1), is set in the period after the return from exile in Babylon, when the new Persian regime allowed the descendants of the exiles to return home to Israel and rebuild the temple. The dating of our passage could stretch from the 6th to the 3rd century BC and seems to come from a period of great trial and difficulty in Jerusalem. “They will look on the one whom they have pierced; they will mourn for him as for an only son.” Such was the level of disagreement and division in the restored society that it appears they killed someone who was at the centre of their disputing community. Clearly this person was of considerable significance, not a faceless no-body: “There will be great mourning in Judah, like the mourning of Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.” Now Hadad-rimmon was a name for Baal, the Syrian god of storm and fertility whose ‘dying’ in the autumn season was mourned as the people waited for the rains and the harvest on which their very lives depended. The fact that this pagan god is mentioned here suggests at very least that the returnees had not automatically renewed their faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, and that it was only in the light of the martyrdom of one of their core members that the House of David and the citizens of Jerusalem recognised their fault and returned to the God of Judaism. Recognition of just how ‘special’ we are may come at great cost.
This question of being special is raised again in our gospel, (Luke 9:18-24), when Jesus, having being at prayer, (without the crowds) raised the question of his identity with his disciples. Peter acclaims him as the Christ, the Messiah, the one who will bring in the full reign of God on earth. For many Jews at this time it heralded the advent of a great local warrior who would sweep away years of foreign oppression in Israel and put their regime in power. It held the promise of power; revenge; authority and prosperity which fuelled many a revolt and produced many would be messianic leaders all of whom ended in disaster around the time of Jesus. Quite clearly Jesus’ disciples were so far from understanding what he was really about that they too were prone to these errors about his identity and meaning.
Jesus refers to himself in different terms, as the Son of Man, and speaks of God’s reign on earth, indicating that God has a singularly different agenda for his people. Just like the martyr-figure of Zechariah, he says that he too is destined “to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.” God’s ways for Israel it appears are not ours and it is only when we adopt his outlook and follow his example that we will truly be transformed. This change will not be achieved lightly: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.”
Now this is not a call to a suicide pact with some malign deity, but rather speaks of lives completely transformed and re-imaged in the likeness of Christ. This is to take place on a daily basis, as the individual within the community of the redeemed struggles to become the transformed person God wants him/her to be. Clearly one of the first insights we will learn is that we can no longer live by our personal whims and wishes, following whatever god pops up at the moment and dazzles us by its charms; nor can we live just as one among the crowd, for crowds can turn on would be leaders who do not please them and kill them. Jesus was fully aware of the dangers of popular support; of the fickleness of groups who came for material gains, be that healing or food or just a good story; or followed him because they saw him as anti-establishment; as he will so frequently remark in the gospels. In the end, he realised that such fair-weather supporters are not to be relied upon; he needed real commitment, if necessary to the point of martyrdom. The Christian believer then is one who adopts and takes on the persona, the identity of Christ in the world.
In the Letter to the Galatians, (3:26-29), Paul addresses the nature of this transformation to his many converts from paganism. For us who have heard these words many times, they will have lost their radical cutting edge. For the early readers and hearers of this letter to be told that you were sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus would have been truly stunning. No ordinary mortal, except the emperor became a son of the gods. Most of them were of low status, freedmen and slaves, people who worked hard for their living and survival, dependent on their patrons and the wealthier of their cities. They lived in continual fear of famine; fires which could destroy acres of their cities; riots, wars, invasions and the ever present threat of disease. And when they died, that was it, that was the end. Yet Christianity promised them divinity, life in and with God himself. The transformation promised them, and demanded of them was enormous: an end to the distinctions which formed the very roots of the society in which they lived with its classes and distinctions between slave and free and even men and women. We need to grasp the significance of this change in our lives too.