An Illuminating Christ
To listen to an audio recording of this sermon — click here.
The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, February 26, 2017
An Illuminating Christ
I grew up going to church, but I didn’t always like it. When I hear from parents who share their struggle to get their kids to take an interest in church or from kids who confide that they don’t really get anything out of the whole Sunday morning thing, I tell them I struggled too. So be careful, you never know when the young atheist will grow up and become a priest!
But I was always intrigued by Jesus. I wasn’t so sure about the walking on water or curing disease just by touch or, you know, rising from the dead, but I liked his vibe. His care for neighbor, his rebuke of callous authorities, his inclusiveness of those who have been left out. We all like to pick and choose our favorite parts of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson took the next step and literally cut out the parts he didn’t like with a razor and pasted the parts he did like together to make his own Bible. He also didn’t care for the miracle bits so much. I’m quite sure the theophany of the transfiguration did not make the cut.
As I got older and I started to feel inklings of a call to the priesthood (church felt like home to me and I adored ritual) I thought I’d better think through the part of Jesus that seemed so unreasonable – the voice of God booming from the heavens, the long dead historical figures making an appearance, and Jesus in glowing white revealed to be divine. After all, I suspected that priests would expected to believe things.
At this point in my life I became exposed to the writings of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Like many people before me and since, their writings helped me get comfortable with Jesus. Even though I’m no longer in that place, if you struggle with miracle Jesus, I would still recommend Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time or Crossan’s Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography.
In their writings, they separated the historical person of Jesus and the Christ of faith. For them, discovering the historical Jesus, what that particular man preached and practiced, would lead to a true connection with Jesus. They sought to trim away the accretions of the church and later faith communities that buried the real man in a mountain of rumor and superstition.
I also read a lot of C.S. Lewis, who is very clarifying about Christianity. He has a somewhat different take on the importance of the divinity of Jesus. In Mere Christianity he wrote:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
The historical Jesus, the man who spoke the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the text that has been our focus for much of our time in the season of Epiphany versus the Christ of faith who is revealed as God on the mountaintop here in this culmination of the Epiphany season in the Transfiguration.
As befits an Episcopalian, I wonder if there is not some middle ground. The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith might need one another, depend upon one another. As I said, the Transfiguration scene is the culmination of the season of Epiphany a season about light and illumination. Moments of illumination often, I think, become so illuminating in hindsight. Augustine writes in his Confessions of that moment when he heard a voice saying to him “Take up and read. Take up and read!” And he picks up a Bible that opens to the exact words that seal his commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps there actually was an otherworldly voice, or perhaps his years of seeking, his relentless struggle to find purpose and vocation led him to read scripture with new eyes and in hindsight it seemed the voice of God was directing him, for in a way it was.
More prosaically, we might remember falling in love as happening on some enchanted evening when we see a stranger across a crowded room. Of course we only think of the evening as enchanted in retrospect, when the stranger has become a beloved.
Or when someone has died…I’ve been thinking about this since my grandmother’s death this past year, perhaps this person was a mystery, a challenge, but once considered as a complete life, you understand them, see them better.
And also with the Transfiguration, might it not be that the disciples looked back on their time with Jesus, on all the strange things he did and said. In light of all that happened, looking at where trust in the stranger who called them to follow him had taken them, they understood more about who he was – his character was illuminated. Did it not seem, they asked themselves, that the illumination was almost visible?
The faint starlight that began our journey at the start of Epiphany is blinding at the end. The particular man Jesus who said the meek would inherit the earth, who called us to love our enemies, that man, the disciples came to see, was the fullest expression of the divine.
That was the experience of the disciples. We have to decide for ourselves who Jesus Christ is for us today. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as a teacher and preacher, asked that very question, who is Jesus Christ for us today? For him, his answer led to a leap of faith in Jesus that had nothing to do with an afterlife or heavenly reward but everything to do with the seriousness with which he took love of neighbor and care for the vulnerable ones. It was a leap of faith that would cost his life.
At St. Mark’s we say, “Wherever you are on your faith journey you are welcome here.” I believe in these words even when I can’t manage to believe in anything else. However, at some point on our journey we will have to decide if the words of Jesus are going to have power in our lives. Will they have power when transgender kids are bullied? Will they have power when people face financial ruin because they get sick? Will they have power when a man with a gun is targeting immigrants? We can slice up the bible any way we like to make us more comfortable but at some point we have to decide how seriously we take this guy.
The church, as an institution in a time when institutions are crumbling, can find power in this leap of faith. Not the kind of power that brings wealth and influence and status, the power the church used to enjoy, but the kind of power found in conviction.
“Listen to him!” the voice thunders from above. We need a leap of faith to trust that the words of the peasant teacher Jesus of Nazareth are words to live and die by.
Jesus told his followers to pick up their cross and follow him, as we move from Epiphany to Lent we learn how seriously he meant for the disciples to take that call. Taking on the world’s suffering, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, well, we’ll have to decide for ourselves. There isn’t likely to be any blinding light or voice from the heavens. Like the disciples, who didn’t find following Jesus any easier once they came down off that mountain, we can only take one faltering step after another and only later will we look back and see the illumination.