Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transfiguration and Resurrection People

I'm using much of a previous Transfiguration sermon, but I made it a point to incorporate a quote from a YouTube video of Peter Rollins. Also, I expanded the Gospel reading to include the healing of the epileptic youngster. I hope the Lectionary Elves will find it in their heart to forgive this transgression.

I have a strong feeling that the original thoughts for this sermon are not my own, but it seems I did a poor job of keeping track of the influences when I did it originally. So if some of this sounds familiar, rest assured no one has stolen ideas from me; rather vice-versa. I read the same TextWeek resources as you do, and love them dearly.

Finally, though it does not appear on the blog, I am again indebted to World in Prayer, whose prayer I modify and use in the Prayers of the People immediately following the sermon.


Was the Transfiguration for Jesus, or was it for us? And as we are transformed and transfigured through the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, is it for us, or is it for the world around us?

To say "all of the above" is not a bad answer...

Matthew 17:1-20
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

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. “Six days later …” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Six days later than what?”

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. Later we read 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.

And as much as Peter wanted to stay, and as much as you and I would want to stay on the mountaintop, down the mountain, of course, we must go. 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. Yes, ours is a faith forged in the suffering of the cross, but lived in the transfiguring light of the Resurrection.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets, we know: We are Resurrection people, we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease, we know: we are Resurrection people, and we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television, we know: we are Resurrection people, and no, 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, knowing, as he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration that the next time he’d climb a hill it would be with a cross on his back, Jesus still took time to heal 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.

Celtic Christians speak of “thin places,” places in our faith journey where the separation between the divine and the human is narrowed, and where God and man make contact. And while we Christians are fond of “mountaintop experiences;” be they Charismatic encounters with the Gifts of the Spirit, spending a week at a Montreat youth retreat or a weekend on a Walk to Emmaus, I want to suggest to you this morning that God desires to transform and transfigure us more often and in more ways than we realize.

As we begin the season of Lent, some of us are planning on fasting from something – chocolate or caffeine or the Internet. That’s the traditional way to greet Lent, by taking something out of our lives.

The goal, though, is not to somehow simply experience this lack as a kind of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. As much as I enjoy coffee, I can’t compare going without caffeine to dying on a cross.

No, the point of taking something out of our lives during Lent is so that God can put something in – a spiritual discipline, a closer walk with Christ on our faith journey, extra time for prayer and study, and so on.

Whether you participate in Lent by abstaining from something or not, let me suggest that we spend the forty days leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection by paying attention to the ways in which God seeks to transform and transfigure us.

Make no mistake; God is in the business of transfiguration. 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. There is transformation, there is transfiguration, there is resurrection.

Peter Rollins is an author and speaker, and known in Christian circles, along with folks like Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and Jay Bakker as part of the Emergent Church movement. With its openness to asking questions and examining doctrine and theology, the Emergent Church gets a bad rap sometimes, and the more well-known people are often accused of denying the divinity of Christ and the resurrection.

Someone once asked Peter Rollins if he denied the Resurrection, and in his thick Iris accent, he replied, “Yes, I do. Everybody who knows me knows I deny the Resurrection. Every time I do not serve my neighbor, every time I walk away from people who are poor. I deny the Resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

“And I affirm the Resurrection every now and again, when I stand up for those who are on their knees. I affirm the Resurrection when I cry out for those people who have had their tongues torn out, when I weep for those people who have no more tears to shed.”

So yes, let’s take this Transfiguration into the season of Lent, looking for the ways in which God will transform and transfigure us, but let’s not stop there. Christianity is, after all, community. How is God calling on you and I to live a transfigured life, living like Resurrection People, affirming the Resurrection in our community and in our world?

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