The King Revealed!

This morning we come to the turning point of the gospel narrative. For the past several weeks, we have followed Jesus with his disciples, his students, all over Galilee, witnessing his miracles and listening to his teaching. Jesus has been proclaiming throughout that, “the Kingdom of God is near,” and proving this is true in his actions. Now, his focus shifts: his work of announcing his reign is finished; the time to inaugurate his reign has come. Now he must focus more on training his disciples and equipping them to pick up where he left off. Jesus knows what comes next, how little time he has before the painful events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. Jesus senses this moment, and takes his chief disciples with him for a spiritual retreat, to prepare.

Mark 9:2-10

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Manx had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

The Gospel’s Hinge

As I said, the Transfiguration is the turning point of the gospel narrative. Jesus is about to begin a new work and this is the hinge, the point where what he has done so far is confirmed and what he is about to do is made clear.

The Transfiguration proves to the disciples all that Jesus has said and done leading up to this moment. All of the healings of diseases and ailments and paralysis, and all of the casting out of demons, are confirmed to be the work, not of some wandering magician – as the people suspect – or of a rabble-rouser – as the Pharisees fear – but of the true anointed King of God. Jesus’ sudden and complete change in appearance – that’s what “transfiguration” means – to that of complete and dazzling radiance, demonstrates clearly and convincingly that he is who he has been claiming to be all along. Peter, James, and John can have no further doubts about that.

But the Transfiguration is more than a divine certificate of authenticity. The Transfiguration of Jesus prepares his disciples for what’s ahead on Lent’s difficult, dangerous journey. The shining white appearance of his face and clothing are a sign of things to come, of how this whole story will end. Jesus knows and understands the terrifying ordeal he is about to face, and he is beginning to prepare his disciples for what’s ahead. This Wednesday night is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and we will listen to all the occasions in Mark when Jesus warns his disciples about how he must be betrayed and rejected, tried and condemned, tortured and killed, for the sake of the world. But Jesus’ tragic and unjust execution on the cross is not the end of the story. The story of grace does not, cannot, end in death. Every time Jesus warns his disciples about his coming death, he also promises them that he will rise again, that he will return three days later. Good Friday is only half of the story; Resurrection Sunday is the essential “Part Two” of God’s plan of salvation. This moment here, on this mountaintop, is a foretaste, a dramatic hint at what’s to come on that promised Sunday morning. Death is certain; resurrection is wildly improbable. And yet that is exactly what we, and the disciples, see hinted here: Jesus Christ made new and impossibly brilliant! If we have eyes and hearts open to see and understand, this is a sign of greater things to come. Christ is here transfigured. Christ will soon be transformed.

“This is My Son!”

Peter, James, and John all fail to understand this sign, this miraculous, stunning vision. They are baffled by the suggestion that Jesus will rise again from the dead, even after they see, hear, and experience God’s glory at a level that only a few have seen and survived. In fact, those few are standing in their midst. Moses is one of the great leaders of Israel’s past, who spoke with God face to face, entered the great cloud of smoke and fire on Mt. Sinai to receive the Law of God for his people. Elijah, one of Israel’s foremost prophets, also was brought to the top of a mountain, and hidden in a cave, to see God’s glory only after it passed by. God’s glory – which is just another way to refer to the quality of his presence – is so powerful, that it gives power. It is so pure, that it purifies. It is so holy, that it sanctifies, or makes holy. No one leaves unchanged. In the Old Testament, God’s glory, his presence, was to be feared, because no sinful creature could endure it. Anyone who even looked on God’s full glory died. And yet here on this mountaintop stand two epic figures from the past, two men of God who have beheld his glory and lived. And God restores them to earth for this moment, to give counsel and encouragement to his Son, Jesus Christ.

And in their presence and with the glory of God shining from Christ, the disciples are terrified. They speak without understanding: Peter’s suggestion that they build three shelters – for Moses, Elijah, and the now glorified Jesus – makes some sense of what they are experiencing. If God’s glory has come, then it must need a place to reside, a temple. If this glory, this spiritual retreat, would remain here on this mountain, then they too should stay to enjoy it. Things get messy, complicated, scary, when they go down into the valley. What Peter and the other disciples fail to realize is that Jesus himself is the temple of God, the new tent of meeting where the full glory of God resides perfectly, permanently. And this temple must go through the valley, must be destroyed, if it is to be made anew.

The Church has for 2000 years talked about Jesus’ two natures within his one person: that he is both fully God and fully human, and that these two natures are not mixed or confused or divisible. When we read of the miracles of Jesus, sometimes we are tempted to say that these are a work of his divine nature; when we read of the sufferings of Jesus, we are tempted in the other direction, that these are the experiences of the human Jesus. But the Church’s faith insists that we cannot parse out the human from the divine; that Jesus is always fully both, always all God, all man, in perfect unity. This is what makes him the perfect temple of God’s presence in human form. That is what we mean when we speak at Christmas of the incarnation: God made flesh. This is not God wearing skin, appearing to be a man; or a man divinely possessed, presuming to be God. Jesus Christ is the one and only God-man.

We are made in the image of this God, with both physical and spiritual elements, bodies and souls. Unlike the one in whose image we are made, unlike Jesus Christ, our natures our not in sync. In fact, our natures are normally at war with one another. This is one of the consequences of sin, that there is a separation even within our own selves. The great literature of humanity is a commentary on this war, lamenting the discord between the desires of the flesh or the will of the soul. This conflict leads different groups or leaders to recommend following either the body or the spirit. The historical Church, even in its insistence on the two whole, unified natures of Christ, has emphasized at the same time our spiritual nature, sometimes to the neglect or even abuse of our bodies. The world, on the other hand, insists all the more loudly that we are all animal, merely flesh, and tempts us to give in to all our natural appetites.

But the Transfiguration is a dramatic display of what can happen when the body and spirit are truly united, completely in sync. This is not the divinity of Jesus hijacking his physical body, but the body and spirit of Jesus resonating with one another and working together in perfect unity. The occasion for the transfiguration is prayer. Jesus brings his disciples to the top of a mountain for a spiritual retreat, a time of prayer together in preparation. In this season of prayer, Jesus enjoys complete communion with God, so that he shines with the glory of God.

Paul writes in his letters that we are like mirrors, able to reflect the glory of God we receive to others. As we behold the glory of God in prayer, in worship, at the baptismal font and the Lord’s Table, we are changed by that glory, transformed by it. The more we experience, the more we are changed. That is part of the reason why people were so afraid of the glory of God in the Old Testament: you cannot encounter it and remain the same. The glory of God, the glorious love of God at work, transforms us like mirrors into his own image. Because we are like mirrors, however, we also reflect to others whatever else we focus our attention on. If we place ourselves before the character of this world, we reflect that character to others. If we focus our attention on accumulation, we will reflect that avarice and greed to others. If we focus our hearts on pleasing others, we will reflect that insecurity to others. Whatever we spend time and energy to be with, that is what we reflect. Let us be careful, then, to keep company with Jesus Christ, to look on his transfigured face of light and love, in order to reflect more and more that light and love to the watching world. Amen.

Hope

Present Sufferings, Eager Longings, & Inward Groanings

Lectio: Romans 8:12-25

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Meditatio: Present Sufferings

Our “present” sufferings are just that: present. Here, now, not to be ignored. But they are also not promised to last. Easter’s resurrection demonstrates that the world does not end in a tomb, in death, in darkness; instead, our “end” (as in “goal”) is a new body, a new earth, and a new community. The glory that is to come, the glory that has already come as a foretaste and firstfruit, outweighs whatever we face here and now.

Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” This word consider suggests the image of a balance, a system of scales. Paul has placed our suffering on one side, and against this, the glory of the hope of the resurrection of the body and the second coming of Christ and presence of the kingdom of God on earth, and Paul has found all this to far outweigh any suffering here now. And remember that Paul had his sufferings. In other parts of the New Testament, Paul almost boasts how much he’s had to endure for the sake of the gospel; but here, Paul throws all of it away, saying that all of this is not even worth comparing with the coming glory.

All of this boils down to hope for Paul. Radical, unwavering, confident, surprising hope. And what, then, is hope? Christian hope is Spirit-assured, Spirit-led waiting and praying through suffering, weakness, and groaning.

We have only so much control over who we are. The good news is not that the gospel gives us the control we crave, but that the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates to us that “who we are” is not the truest thing about us; instead, “who we are becoming” far outweighs our current situation. All of our selves — our negatives and positives and glories and failings — will be transformed someday, someday soon. Not forgotten, but redeemed and made to bear the fruit of the gospel.

Oratio: Eager Longings

Lord, Jesus Christ, Risen God reigning now,

come quickly.

We pray for your return, not so that we might escape all of the suffering and horrors and terror and violence our world is succumbing to, but so that we might embrace the fullness that we audaciously hope is coming with your return.

We hope for infinitely more than nonviolence, nonhatred, and nondeath. We hope for peace, love, and life abundant, and these can only be found in you.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Contemplatio: Inward Groanings

What is our duty, then? (In verse 12, Paul writes that “we are debtors.”) Our responsibility is how we stand in relationship to who we are and who we are becoming. If we embrace “who I am” as the ultimate, that is living “according to the flesh.” That is to deny any possibility of a future that is any different/better. That is to deny the resurrection, which is to deny salvation and Jesus and heaven and everything. But if, instead, we embrace “who we are becoming by the grace of God,” that is how we live in hope, by the Spirit, and it is in that hope that we will be saved.

This hope is the Christian’s identity: that we are somehow sealed for something greater, and we hope profoundly that what we can’t quite see is nevertheless coming.

This hope is also then, the Christian’s great work: that our audacious hope drives us to do audacious things that only make sense if the world is going to become what the Spirit tells us it will.

To close, I share this quote from the Slow Church conversation:

“On one hand, the book is certainly driven by the social, ecological and economic urgency of the crises we face today, but while alluding to these crises throughout the book, we didn’t want our argument to be driven by fear (there are plenty of other books out there that do that!) On the other hand, there is a fine line between urgency and haste (particularly as seen in the sorts of activist faith that are so eager to act without considering how). I hope that our book bears witness to the way of Jesus that holds (perfectly) in tension the patience of God that enters into the suffering of others and the desire to see all parts of creation reconciled.

Metamorphosis

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

He is Risen! 
He is Risen Indeed!

This weekend has been a wonderful reminder of the immense, transformational power found in Christ’s resurrection. Something entirely new happens here, something that flies in the face of the expected, the norms, the patterns of this world. As one of my professors loves to say, “The only things certain were death and taxes, and now it’s just taxes!”

caterpillar

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. (v.16)

My family visited us from Iowa for the long Easter weekend. What a profound gift to share together in remembering Christ’s death on Good Friday by participating in Western Seminary’s unique service of shadows during morning prayers, and then to share together in remembering Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday with the people of God.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the weekend, however, was our trip to a local butterfly exhibit on Holy Saturday. We spent the afternoon — the silence of Sabbath rest, and the stillness of Christ’s burial — by watching all kinds of butterflies fluttering and feeding and flirting around us. The butterfly’s metamorphosis as a metaphor for spiritual transformation is very familiar to me.

But as I saw the caterpillars eat and crawl and rest, I was stunned by the profound potential hidden away within.As a child, caterpillars were just elaborate worms, creepy and wiggly and smushable. The metaphor, therefore, clumsily suggested that the period before transformation is somehow ugly, or inferior. But Paul asks me to give up my “human point of view” and to consider myself, others, and especially Christ, “no longer in that way.”

chrysalis

So if anyone is in Christ… (v.17)

The simple phrase “in Christ” has been a blaring anthem over my Systematic Theology class this whole semester long, and I have come to hear in it more than just an encouraging sentiment. Looking at the butterfly in its chrysalis stage reminded me that to be “in Christ” is to be in the furnace of transformation, at the precipice of potential change. This is in a very real way a tomb, a burial, a coffin. At this point, the caterpillar ceases to be. From here on, it is no more.

This semester has been a kind of chrysalis for me: a spiritual dying to self, an acknowledging of my Shadow, an enclosed encounter with my pervasive depravity. While this has been a dark, discouraging season, I also have come to see in it the promise of my most profound discovery of the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the place where I have the most potential to grow up into Christ. Thank you, Lord, for your company in the darkness, and for the gift and promise of new life.

 butterfly_1

…there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (v.17)

Easter’s glory is, of course, the empty tomb: Christ is not here; he is risen! He lives! What is more, he has paved the way for us to join him in new life as something entirely new, completely remade, sharing in Christ’s resurrection splendor. There is no more caterpillar in this new creation; it is radically different. The crisis of being sealed in the dark coffin chrysalis of dying to self is overwhelmed by the vitality and freedom of Easter resurrection.

butterfly_2

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (v.18-19)

What is occurring to me in new and significant ways is how this new life is not ultimately for me, but for the sake of the world. The landscape is not my own personal satisfaction; the horizon is not even my eternal salvation. I am made new in order to bear witness to the new life in Christ. This is the “ministry…and…message of reconciliation:” to no longer view others with human eyes that see only external differences, but to see within them the same profound possibility of Christ’s new life in them as is in me; and to offer them the peace of radical hospitality and gospel fellowship as ones found “in Christ.”

butterfly_3

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (v.20)

Lent is over, but the disciple’s invitation to follow Jesus is really only just beginning. I have been following the Christian calendar — or liturgical calendar — for my own personal spiritual formation, and have been profoundly blessed. As Eastertide begins, may God’s Holy Spirit continue to use his Word, the life of his Son, and his people to shape and inspire my faithful apprenticeship. Amen.