Sunday, February 14, 2010

We Were Not Meant For This!

Transfiguration - is it a once-in-history event, and for Jesus only, or is it something more universal, more frequent, and perhaps less recognizable?

Is there a message for the here-and-now in the transfiguration, or is it simply an account which reassures us that Jesus is who he claimed to be, or worse, a later tradition inserted into the Gospel account to impose divinity upon Jesus?

Read on...

Exodus 34:29-35
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28-43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the strange by-products of taking our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is that, sometimes, the text seems to be starting off in mid-thought, or leaving something important out of the story. “Now about eight days after these sayings…” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Eight days after what sayings?”

Today’s reading takes place immediately following the familiar account of Jesus asking the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the the Christ of God ,” which signals a turning point in their understanding of Jesus. No longer merely “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Man from God,” “Maybe/possibly 'The One Who Is To Come,'” but the Messiah, Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus warns them to silence, then says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life... If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So eight days after these challenging, these explosive words, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop.

So it’s no wonder that some people wonder if this passage is factual, or if it’s some kind of holy myth that developed later and was inserted into the Gospel, or a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow got misplaced and re-located, back in the middle of Jesus’ ministry instead of right at the end. Neither of these, of course, is my opinion. I think, rather, that the event takes place at the perfect point in the narrative. Jesus has said some very hard things to the disciples. He had made some challenges that, quite literally sounded like a death sentence.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of The Theological Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions, wrote this elsewhere: “When Christ calls a man to come and follow, he bids him come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death which is crucifixion.

So, yes, this story shares some clear links with other passages of Scripture. For example, our Old testament reading today, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai when he received God’s law. We are told that when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was shining with the radiance of God. Or there is the passage where heaven and earth overlap as Elijah is carried away into heaven.

There is, however, another Biblical account that this story can be linked with. As well as looking back all those years to Moses and Elijah, this story also points us forward… to Jesus’ death on the cross.

Unlike the accounts of Moses and Elijah, however, it is more in the contrasts than the similarities that we see the striking links between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion.

In this story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Here in this story, Jesus is accompanied by two great heroes from ancient history; there, on the cross, Jesus is joined by two common criminals. Here, at the transfiguration, Jesus is witnessed by three male disciples - Peter, James and John; there, at Golgotha, three woman are named as witnesses: two Marys and Salome. This scene of transfiguration is one a scene of dazzling light, while at the crucifixion Matthew tells us that darkness came over the whole land. Here, in this scene, Jesus basks in God’s presence, there on the cross He cries out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ Here on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved!’ There it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’

So many contrasts. It’s as if the horror of the Crucifixion account were a deliberate inversion of the splendor of the Transfiguration. And if so, then what is God’s written Word trying to tell us?

At this point in the Gospel Jesus is on a journey - a journey that will take him to Jerusalem and to death and beyond, to Easter. Jesus has spoken candidly about the painful, humiliating death that awaits him, and what this transfiguration story is doing is showing us what is beyond, at the end of that journey. It gives us a preview of Jesus’ destination. The cross, the crucifixion, Golgotha, is one stop on the way, but it’s not the end of the journey. We are not left, thank God, with Christ disfigured, naked, abandoned and bloody, nailed up like a scarecrow. Beyond that is the risen Christ who can only be glimpsed here.

But of course, - and this is an important point - what we see revealed here is not just the goal of Christ’s journey, but the goal of our journey too.

Or to put it differently, what Peter, James and John are witnessing here is not just Christ’s destination, but their own destination too, and ours, yours and mine. We too will shine like the sun.

Christ came to transform us. He came to transfigure us with the light of God’s grace. And the cross is, in many ways, part of our journey just as it was part of Christ’s journey (the discussion of what it means for a 21st-century American to take up the cross is a long one, and for another day), but because of Christ the Cross is not the end of our journey.

There, on the mountaintop, Jesus is the Christ of the journey’s end, our journey’s end. The Transfiguration is Christ’s destination… and our destination.

But down the mountain, of course, we must go. Directly following our reading this morning, the four of them come off of the mountain and find a crowd, and a young boy who has convulsions.

Here a different image of our humanity - not the transfigured humanity that is our destination, but our disfigured humanity. Here in this fearful scene we are closer to the hill of Golgotha than we are to the mountain of transfiguration. This world is the one we are all too familiar with.

It’s a world where lives are preyed on by evil forces. It’s a world where humanity is denied. It’s a world where people’s destiny is a cruel parody of what awaits us when, with Jesus, we are risen.

And when we look around us we see life lived at the foot of the mountain rather than at the top. We see lives that, in the light of Transfiguration, were clearly never meant for us.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets: we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease: we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television: we were not meant for this. Every job lost, every home foreclosed: we were not meant for this. Every flood and earthquake and shooting and scandal: we were not meant for this. Maybe that’s why Jesus healed the epileptic youngster. Maybe that’s what motivated Jesus to heal every other poor person he came in contact with, whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice: we were not meant for this!

And what are we to do about our world? I said before that the Transfiguration was not simply an event that happened in the life of Jesus, a pushpin in the map of Christ's journey, but an indication of our own ultimate destination as well.
Taking it a step further, in the same way that the Transfiguration was an event in Christ's life, we too are transformed and transfigured by the ongoing work of Christ in the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

We can, of course, see this transformation in the lives of the Apostles. Though it didn’t happen until after Pentecost, Peter and James and John, along with the rest of The Eleven, dedicated their lives to spreading the Gospel, to healing the sick and ministering to the poor and the forgotten… telling the world this great Good News that we were not meant for this! These eleven, who had been cowering, aimless, and silent, were transfigured into bold evangelists, powerful speakers, gifted leaders, fearless martyrs. They spoke truth to power, and cared for the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

We, too, have been transformed by a God who, in the words of Max Lucado, loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way. Moreover, the transformation, the transfiguration, is an ongoing process in our spiritual journey.

This Wednesday begins the season of Lent in our liturgical calendar. Last week, I suggested beginning early with a Lenten discipline of looking for the fish in our lives – those places where God is speaking, challenging, directing and calling us through the everyday, the mundane, the familiar, the fixed, the ordinary.
Let's broaden the scope of that discipline to include being sensitive to the ways in which God has transformed us, and the ways in which God desires to further transfigure us.

For most of its early existence, Christianity was considered the religion of slaves. People who had been excluded from fellowship with the Living God, whether because of the place they were born or because of some disease or defect, were being welcomed into relationship, were being transformed and transfigured by the love of God in Jesus Christ, and were being brought to the place of response to the Good News by people like Peter and James and John, people who had denied Christ, who had hidden in fear in the dark days following the Crucifixion, who even though they had spent years living with and listening to Jesus didn't understand what it was all about, but who had themselves been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

And it still goes on today. Men and women from every walk of life – rich and poor, in boardrooms and prison cells, in high-rise apartments and mud huts, in living rooms and in homeless shelters, in cathedrals and nightclubs – are transformed by the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are brought to that transformation by men and women just like you and me. Not well-known evangelists or powerful speakers, but “regular folks” who have experienced the transfiguring work of the Holy Spirit and are sharing it, in word and in deed, with the world around them.

Sharing it because in this wonderful vision of an alternative reality, where streets of gold replace unpaved streets and reeking alleys, where death and sickness and poverty are replaced by glory shining like the sun, in this wonderful promise of the here-and-now, as well as of resurrection and the end of the journey, there is hope.

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