As a child, I was an avid reader. I remember with great affection the class library at school when I was 10. There was a series of books there from the Oxford Children’s Library which I think I worked through completely in the year I was in that class. I don’t remember most of what I read but I can remember some books written by William Mayne. One was called ‘The World Upside-down’. There was a treasure hunt in that book and it featured a pin-hole camera, or camera obscura. If you don’t remember much about such items from early science lessons, it was a simple device which allows an image to be created on a screen or wall by light coming through a small hole. The image which is seen is upside down. By viewing the world upside-down with this device, the treasure was found. This was my first encounter with a pin-hole camera so perhaps that’s why it made such an impression on me.
I think when we read the New Testament, we come across a way of viewing life that is very much in line with the image from a pin-hole camera. What we see is the world upside-down. If we want to look at the world the right way up, we will not actual find the hidden treasure that Jesus offers us. Only by viewing the world in an inverted way can we succeed.
I suppose we should expect someone like Peter to view the world very much as it is. He comes across as a very straight-forward sort of person. When Jesus began to talk about his suffering and death, Peter could not see the sense of this. The Messiah had been long awaited and was expected to do wonderful things. He was to be the great hero of the people, a rescuer, one favoured by God. How could the idea of suffering and dying as a common criminal possibly fit with that picture? Of course, it couldn’t if you insist on seeing the world the right side up. It’s madness to imagine a super-hero dying after only three years on the scene. It’s unthinkable that the one every Jew had been eagerly awaiting should be killed by Jewish leaders. I can understand why Peter just could not make sense of what Jesus was saying. It couldn’t be true; it mustn’t happen; God had to intervene to prevent it.
What follows in today’s Gospel account is one of Jesus’ many teachings about seeing the world upside-down, seeing things from God’s perspective. Before continuing, I would just like to note something that comes across about this kind of vision – it’s not easy. When Jesus rebuked Peter, he called him a stumbling-block. It’s tempting to think that everything was easy for Jesus. As God’s Son, he must have been able to breeze through life. Making the right choices was just automatic and easy, right? Wrong! Perhaps the greatest evidence we have to the contrary is when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we have a more subtle example. If Jesus found the decision to head towards suffering and death in Jerusalem easy, why was Peter a stumbling-block? How could what Peter said have any impact on Jesus’ mission? The only explanation is surely that Jesus had to work hard to stay on the road he knew God wanted for him. His natural inclination may have been to recoil from it and Peter may well have been giving voice to Jesus’ own thoughts. When Jesus taught the right way to live, he understood how hard it is to choose it.
Being a follower of the Messiah might well have given quite a bit of status to the disciples. We have evidence to suggest so. People came to them for healing, they asked them for permission to see Jesus, they felt free to call fire from heaven. Some of the disciples saw incredible things which they were told to keep secret – how’s that for being special? They bickered about who was the greatest. They vied for the best seats in the house when they got to heaven. Jesus, viewing life upside-down, told them to see themselves as totally without status. They were not to let themselves feel any benefit from their role as his followers. Instead they were to think of themselves as beaten criminals, jeered at and spat on by the people as they staggered to their deaths. Whereas most people would do their utmost to stay alive, they were to willingly give up their lives for Jesus. By human standards, that is insane. By God’s standards it makes perfect sense to give up the passing treasures of this life for the eternal life Jesus offers. As the old saying has it: ‘There are no pockets in shrouds’.
Jesus returned to this upside-down theme many times. St Paul seems to have picked up the camera obscura himself and urged his readers to look at life upside-down also. The section of the letter to the Romans for today gives advice on the Christian life. Much of it needs a camera obscura to help us see our lives this way. Rejoicing in hope doesn’t seem so difficult but patience in suffering? Wouldn’t we more naturally moan and groan about all we are having to put up with? It’s nice to chat to our church friends and help them out, but do we really want strangers to join us? When someone does us harm, wouldn’t we like the same to happen to them? Yet we are to bless those people and not curse them. No matter how much we would like to get even, we are to move our thoughts into a more noble direction. God will sort out any vengeance himself. Our job is to do the opposite of what we might naturally do – give to our enemies food and drink or whatever else they may need.
I read this week of the work going on to translate the scriptures into the many languages of the world. For those who can’t read, audio Bibles are being provided. One lady told how there was someone in her community who seemed to hate everyone. The custom was for younger women to carry the baskets of the older women to the field but no one would do it for this particular woman. The young woman who had been listening to the Bible had heard this passage we have heard today. She decided to put its advice into practice. She began to carry the basket of the unpleasant woman. Gradually the older woman thawed in her attitude. She admitted she had been afraid of the younger woman at first because of her behaviour. Eventually she became friendly as a result of this young woman choosing to see the world upside-down.
The choice to view the world with a camera obscura is not an easy one. Jesus didn’t find it easy. The young woman I read about didn’t find it easy. We will not find it easy. However, this is the only way we can follow Jesus. As Paul said, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor