The Transfiguration

(Year B, Last Sunday of Epiphany [Transfiguration], February 11, 2018; Epistle reading 2 Peter 1:13-21)

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” – 2 Peter 1:16-18 (ESV)

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Transfiguration of Jesus, Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

This Sunday is the day that the Church commemorates the event which fully revealed to the apostles the true nature of Jesus – that he is not “just” a man nor “only” divine.  The true nature, the true Glory of Jesus Christ, is that truth which orthodox Christians weekly pronounce in the recitation of the Nicene Creed – “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of One being with the Father.”  The Gospel reading today is from Mark’s account of the event, but in reading the lectionary for this Sunday, I felt more pull to focus on Peter’s first-hand account of the Transfiguration, and especially the emphasis he places on having been an eyewitness to this event, which is on par with the miracles of the Incarnation and the Resurrection themselves.

Why is it important that Peter makes a first-hand affirmation of the Transfiguration account in this letter?  In all three of the synoptic Gospel accounts, Peter is named along with James and John as being present at the Transfiguration.  If it had just been a feature of the Gospel narrative, absent any personal confirmation, the critics of the Gospel account could point to this as myth-making, as many false teachers apparently were in the first century, and many skeptical “Christians” continue to do today.  But Peter affirms without equivocation that the Transfiguration happened, that he and the others were physically present on the “holy mountain,” as Peter calls it.

Peter says that he, James, and John were witnesses to Jesus’ “majesty.”  We know from the Gospel accounts, and from other epistles, that Jesus’ everyday visage was not “majestic.”  Precious little is written about his physical appearance, but he is described as meek, lowly of heart, and having no place to lay his head.  His quality of majesty was one that was revealed on the mountain, meaning that it was not evident in the everyday conditions the disciples and apostles would have known Jesus.  From the Gospel accounts, we also know that this quality was hidden again after the Transfiguration, that the permanent appearance of His majesty was held off until after Jesus was raised from the dead (Mark 9:9).

The word “glory” is used in all of the Transfiguration accounts, and Peter uses it in the sense of God giving glory to Jesus.  In preparing this reflection, I did research to see if there are any other places where God gives glory to any human.  The closest I could find is in the Law where God promises that the people of Israel will have the highest fame, honor, and esteem of all the nations that he made (Deuteronomy 26:19).  So, for God to give glory to Jesus is extraordinary – God treated the patriarchs, prophets, and select kings as friends; but of all humanity, only Jesus was given “glory.”  Again, from the Gospel accounts, we know that this was a temporary revelation of an eternal glory, which would be fully and permanently revealed after the Resurrection.

The Transfiguration is chock-full of teachings on the nature of Jesus, the trinity, and the glorified life.  It would take little effort to write pages about any one of these topics.  However, what stands in my mind most while reflecting on the Transfiguration event itself, and Peter’s account of it in particular, is the parallel it has to Moses’ multiple interactions with God Almighty on holy mountains.  First, when the Angel of the Lord appeared out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb; then when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to hear the Law; when he stood on the rock as the Lord’s “glory passed by”; and finally when Moses went up on the mountain so that God could show him the Promised Land, after which time Moses died.  The Transfiguration has that feel to it – a momentous occasion showing the people of God through those chosen to witness to them the plans and promises God has for them.

But what most strikes me is that where Moses was told he could not see God’s glory and live (Exodus 33:20), Peter, James, and John all saw Jesus glorified and lived and bore witness to the event for many years after.  The promise that God would dwell with man, and that we would be able to witness His Glory without fear of death and destruction was given substance on the Holy Mountain when Christ’s visage, for a brief time, was transfigured to show the divine truth of His Being.

As we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, ask yourself how you approach the accounts of great works and miracles in the Bible.  Do you take them at their word, or do you internally gloss over them and tacitly dismiss them as “myth-making”?  As someone who has at times straddled the fence between the two stances, I encourage you to pray for deeper faith even in things that are hard to believe.  Meditate on what the Transfiguration accounts tell us about the person of Jesus, and the Good News that he sent Peter, James, and John – along with the other Apostles and disciples – out to share with all the world.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

“And Such Were Some of You.”

This Reflection was preached as a homily on 14 January 2018.

(Year B, Second Sunday of Epiphany, January 14, 2018; Epistle Reading 1 Corinthians 6:9-20)

“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
– 1 Corinthians 6:9b-11 (ESV)

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Paul of Tarsus

A litany of the things that will keep you out of the Kingdom may seem like a lectionary reading more suited to either Advent or Lent:  in Advent to highlight the nature and character of the final judgement, in Lent to highlight the penitential heart we must have as we approach the Great Feast of Easter.  Why is it here in our lectionary for the Second Sunday of Epiphany?  Why am I preaching on it instead of either Samuel or Nathanael being called to God’s service, or instead of the revelations in store for those that choose to follow Jesus?  Why am I focusing today on Paul’s rebuke of misbehaving churchmen and women in Corinth?

The season after Epiphany is characterized in the lectionary by stories of, chiefly, the apostles “getting it” about who Jesus is – from Nathanael proclaiming Jesus as Son of God, to Peter’s Confession of Jesus as the Christ (remembered in the Church Calendar this coming Thursday), the nature of the season is that of having a “lightbulb” moment.  So again, why am I focusing on a litany of sins, and one that explicitly includes an item which makes the world hiss and spit and rage at us for our “intolerance”?

Like many of you probably do, I have friends and acquaintances that deal with same-sex attraction, and have chosen to either let it define their lives and identities or have chosen to let God do that instead and despite what their flesh desires.  I have friends that feel that Paul is saying here that God doesn’t love them because he enumerates their sin in these verses.  And I confess that when my primary concern was a misguided stab at flawed apologetics, I found all manner of ways to try and soften what Paul says here to be more appealing to these friends.  None of the arguments held up, and I am thankful to say now that the truth of the Scriptural witness is firm in my heart.

Here is our Epiphany moment – “And such were some of you.”  While verses 9-10 list all the people that will not be able to enter the Kingdom, verse 11 reveals to us that it is only by the grace of Jesus and the work of Sanctification continuing in His people that there are any who are able to enter, if we who profess His Name truly repent and rely solely on the mercy of Our Lord.

This list also helps to forge kinship with all believers of every sinful heritage, as well as call us to have greater empathy for those who have not yet found their adoption away from the lineage of struggle.  I have never struggled with homosexual desire, but in my past, I have been a drunkard.  I have never committed adultery, but I have been greedy.  In listing out these sins, Paul does not identify some hidden hatefulness in God, rather he presents us with a means of diagnosing our diseased personalities – the disease is unrighteousness, and these are its symptoms.

It is easy for us who sit in church day to day and week to week to become detached and shocked at the depravity of the world around us, and to find some special affront in a particular deviancy of the day, which surely must disqualify such and such a person from ever receiving mercy, no matter how many confessions they make or how sorry they profess to be.  But the world has been depraved since Adam and Eve first set foot out of the garden.  Sin and unrighteousness have never been new in the post-Fall world.  The depravities of Sodom and Corinth were not alien to each other, and neither are the depravities of Corinth and your hometown.  There is no depravity in the human heart that is so bad that the heart cannot be saved – there are only hearts that are so full of depravity that they have no room for the Spirit that would save them.

Paul in this passage of his letter to the Corinthian church also reminds us that not only were these depravities not alien to the world, they were also endemic in the churchmen and women of that city, before they heard and accepted the Gospel, having their sins washed away in the waters of baptism.  Similarly, sin and unrighteousness have not been alien to us – but like the Corinthian churchgoers, we who have faithfully repented and cast our hope on the Name of Jesus Christ have been washed, sanctified, and justified in that same Name and the Spirit of Our God.

You have heard it said that “Love Wins,” and the saying is true enough.  But it is not the romantic or erotic love that wins, it is the agape love that sent Christ to earth to be born of the Virgin Mary, to teach the gospel of repentance from sins, to willingly be arrested, mocked, beaten and shamed, and finally to be hung from a tree and cursed for our sake.  It is the agape love that on the third day restored him not only to bodily life but also to divine glory.  It is the agape love that continually calls us to repentance and obedience.  It is the agape love that gently reminds us in our moments of pride that we, too, have been guilty of sin and unrighteousness and that apart from this agape love we will likewise be barred from entry into the blessed Kingdom.

This week, I encourage you to love one another.  Love those outside the Church.  Praise God for being made clean, for being set free from the bondage of sin, and pray for those still in chains.  Witness the gospel by your love of one another as well as outsiders.  As the season of Lent approaches, I additionally encourage you to examine your hearts.  If you have never confessed your sins, this is a practice that – while seemingly daunting – provides comfort and freedom to the Christian soul.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Citizenship in Heaven

Below is an excerpt from a sermon preached on 08 October 2017, on Philippians 3:14-21.  It has been edited to better fit a print format.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” – Philippians 3:20-21(ESV)

What does it mean to be a citizen?

To be a citizen is to belong to a community – to be an integral member of a body of people.  Citizenship affords the citizen the right to be defended by the ruler – to have assurance that their lives and livelihoods will be protected so long as the nation stands.  In a well-run State, the citizen is provided for in order to preserve the social order and ensure the continued well-ordered function of society.  A citizen is also disciplined, and restricted by laws that place bounds on what it is acceptable for the individual to do.

It is for these reasons that Paul depicts our life in Christ as citizens of Heaven.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I immediately know that I am joined to the body of believers that makes up the Body of Christ.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand that I rely on God for protection, just as in my civic life – if I am a good citizen dwelling in a just society – I rely on the instruments of the government to defend my life and livelihood.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand most completely that I am not a citizen of this world – that I am a sojourner among a strange people, a wanderer that is making his way home.

We, like Paul, are refugees fleeing the tyranny of Death.  Imagine the worst regime you could live under or be threatened by, and the one who seeks to oppress us is worse, and indeed the orchestrator of all of them.  We, like Paul, have been granted asylum, and not just asylum, but naturalization; indeed, we will be made as if we had been born within the bounds of Heaven from the beginning, reckoned as natural-born citizens of the Kingdom.

With this in mind, is it any wonder that Paul is moved to tears by those who “walk as enemies of the Cross”?  They are just as oppressed as we were, they enjoy no more favorable status than we do, though it may look that way on the outside.  And yet, they have chosen the blasted warzone for their home, though green pastures and quiet waters were a few steps away.  They choose to rebuild the shanty that has been blown down over and over, and will be blown down once more, when a house with a sure foundation is just a little further inland.  They are the prisoner in a camp who is given a modicum of sham authority to berate and degrade their fellow prisoners, when in the end the Oppressor will kill them along with those in bondage with them.

It would not do justice to Paul’s analogy to turn this into a discussion of “good” versus “bad” citizenship – he doesn’t leave room for there to be a “bad” citizen.  His contrast is between those who are citizens and those who are not.  Those who are await a Savior from Heaven who will change us from being naturalized asylum seekers to being natural-born citizens of Heaven.  Those who are not citizens pledge allegiance to a power that uses them up and affords them no benefits or quarter or justice.  We who will recite the Nicene Creed in a few moments pledge allegiance to a powerful God who sustains and builds us up, raising us to life, providing shelter from the enemy, and affording us the justness of His mercy in the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since we are Citizens, we are part of the community of Believers.  Each of us contributes to the building up of the congregation, each voice lends its distinct note to our common refrain.  We are protected from the perils assaulting the soul and the spirit, that the roving lion who is our enemy is kept at bay from inflicting true harm.  We may be killed in the body, or struck with illness, or have our minds clouded in age, but we will be made new, and will never depart the presence of our God, and will not fear the tribulation and woes promised to the earth and the waters.

As Citizens, we are expected to perform certain duties – a citizen of the United States pays taxes, follows laws, and in some cases, answers the call of the Nation to come to its aid and defense.  Citizens of Heaven laboring on Earth are called to sacrifice to God and the Church, our time, talents and treasure; to remain Holy, as our Father in Heaven is Holy; and to stand against the power of the Enemy, relying on God for our salvation in battle against the oppressor.

The character of God throughout Scripture is to value the broken and contrite heart above all other offerings.  Unlike an earthly tax imposed by a State, which serves to sustain the daily operation of the government, our contributions are neither imposed nor are they for sustaining either God or Church.  God made everything we would give him, and the Church at times has subsisted in the desert.  Instead, our free offerings are the fruits of our appreciation in being granted asylum; we give gifts not out of obligation or because we want continued favor, but because our King gave us gifts, and we want to be like Him.  Practically, we accomplish this when we pledge a portion of our income, give sacrificially to support the ministries around us, and volunteer our time in the liturgical life of the church.  In these sacrifices, our citizenship is realized in the emulation of our Ruler.

Earthly nation-states have codes of laws governing the acceptability and suitability of the actions of the citizens under their rule.  These laws define the standard of conduct for citizens to follow, and set the bar for everyday interaction between citizen and community.  In the Heavenly State, the standard is Holiness, which is more than perfect action in accordance with God’s commandments – it is recognizing that I, having been granted asylum, am no longer bound by the clamor within me that beckons me to overindulge in food and drink, to put off work I can do during the week for when I have more time on Sunday, to lust and covet after what I don’t have, or to forego my prayer time because I want to get out the door for work just a little bit earlier.  Holiness, simply put, is refusing to cede ground from the height that God has called me to, lest I sink into the sinful mire that the world around me tells me is normal because it is “human nature.”  Our citizenship is confirmed in the Holy Spirit urging us toward right conduct and turning our hearts away from our “nature” and toward our Savior.

It is true that in most countries, only a few citizens are called on to defend the nation by force of arms.  In America, our military is staffed by an all-volunteer force, and only a few of them are called to active combat roles.  In contrast, we citizens of Heaven who labor on earth are not citizens who wait in the homeland for the army to return; we are that Army, undertaking missions and campaigns to advance the Kingdom in daily lives by seeking the welfare of others, even those who would be our enemies.  All of us are called to stand against the Enemy in our daily lives, whether he assaults us in our personal struggles with addiction, habits, and the various temptations of our mortal bodies, or whether he assaults us from others’ unreasoned hatred of someone who is different from them or us.  We are not expected to defeat the Enemy, because Satan is too much for us to beat finally – but we resist his call and his lures and seek to break his hold over others by showing them another way.  In following the banner of the Cross wherever it leads, we daily lay claim to our citizenship.

It should be clear that Paul’s vision of citizenship is an inherently active one.  Because of this, it should be no surprise that when he says “we await a Savior” he likewise intends an active waiting.

We wait for Heaven to send a Savior, not as someone who sits and waits, but like someone who is walking on a road, waiting for their friend to come and join them.  Part of this walk, and this waiting, is ensuring that our daily life looks like that of our Godly examples given us both in Scripture and by Providence in our lives.  This includes living out the commands and practical advice given by Paul and the other Apostles, as well as heeding the words of those God has placed in our daily lives as examples and authorities.  God has placed spiritually mature brothers and sisters among His people who have seen similar struggles to ours and whom God has blessed with an opportunity to witness to us.  In the Tradition of the Church, he has raised up Apostolic witnesses in our Bishops and Priests to provide voices from authority when we need more clear words of comfort and discipline.

Keeping our walk in this way is not only for our benefit, but for those who will come after us, so that we may be those spiritually mature siblings to the next generation of Christians, both physical and spiritual little children.  Going back to the Army metaphor from a little earlier, we watch our mature brothers and sisters in Christ like a new recruit watching seasoned veterans and learning the courtesies and customs of the army we march in.  In turn, we walk as those veterans for the benefit of the ones looking to our example.

Continue to meditate on this idea of “citizenship of Heaven,” and what it means to await our Savior as citizens.  Examine your walk, and consciously live your lives to be held up as an example for those that come after you.

“Our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior.”  Lord come quickly, and change us from asylum seekers and naturalized aliens to natural born citizens under you.  Amen.