Sunday, February 07, 2016
February 7, Transfiguration, Worldview #5, What Christ is For
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, Luke 9:28-43a
It is opportune that we baptize Sophia Tynes Chandler on this Sunday of the Transfiguration, and that’s because of the connection between the baptism of Jesus and his transfiguration. In the Gospel of Luke, the transfiguration is in part a confirmation of Jesus’ baptism.
In Luke, there are two times that Jesus hears God’s voice out loud. The first was down at the Jordan River, deep down in the Jordan valley, way below sea level, the lowest point in the land mass of Asia, when God said, “You are my son, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased,” and the second is way up here on the highest mountain in Palestine, when God says, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.”
Luke describes the transfiguration with details that differ from those in both Matthew and Mark. We should expect some differences for something which is both mystery and history. As a mystery it calls to us from beyond our full and final comprehension. As history the event has real details that are rich and textured and suggestive in their meanings, and these many meanings are brought out in the various details offered by the three gospel writers, which is what historians do.
Only Luke says that the clothes of Jesus became “dazzling white.” The word “dazzling” derives from the word for lightning, and Luke uses the same word fifteen chapters later at the resurrection, for the dazzling apparel of the two men in the empty tomb. Luke calls them men, not angels. Their apparel is the clothing of the people of the resurrection, the inhabitants of the world to come, folks like us, but already on the other side of death.
They are baptismal robes, the garb of the citizens of the new Jerusalem, and the Lord Jesus is the first to wear one as the firstborn of the new creation. So Luke changes the word “transfiguration,” as in Matthew and Mark, to “transformation,” because what happened to him is for you as well, it’s a glimpse and promise of your own transformation too.
Luke is the only one to tell us what Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus about. They were speaking of his “departure”. Literally, in the Greek, his exodus. What else would Moses talk about? Elijah could tell Jesus how lonely his pilgrimage would be, even while he was among his people, and Moses could tell Jesus that he must end alone, just him and God.
Which the second half of our lesson confirms. When he came down the mountain he walked into this scene of a suffering son and a suffering father, and his disciples all standing around with their hands in their pockets, looking silly and feeling worse. “We couldn’t do anything.” As Casey Stengel said about the Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
What Jesus can see in this tableau is an image of his own impending experience: himself a son, the son of God, seized and abused by the demonic hands of death, and his Father watching on and suffering with him. His glory would be through his death. And he’d have to see it through alone, abandoned by his friends.
You understand why Jesus never married. His mission would be unfair to any wife or children. Moses married, but not Elijah. The disciples married, but not John the Baptist. We have to take care when we hold up Biblical characters as models for our Christian lives. It will not do to say, as many do, that you should be like Jesus. There are things he did that you should not do, because he was something you are not. And yet he is for us, the firstborn of a new human race, the pioneer of a sudden evolution of our species, a transformation, a species into which we baptize Sophia today.
He embodied something new for us. I spoke to you last week of the three kinds of loves in the Bible. The first two, eros and philia, are erotic love for spouses and familial love for everything else: parents and children and siblings and your home and native land. These two loves are natural and based on feelings, and we share them even with animals in their own way. The third love, agape, is the love that comes from God, and it’s not based on feelings but on words and commitments, on promises and prophecies, and on God’s standing invitation in God’s Holy Word.
I said that human beings are the animals that evolved the unique capacities of mind and speech in order to be able to receive this invitation from God and answer back, “I will”—the species that evolved to recognize this third kind of love and practice it. This love is not known from nature, even though the first two loves anticipate it and are often used as metaphors for it. To get this third kind of love, you have to take it on God’s word.
What I did not mention last week is what you know, that these loves sometimes contradict and even conflict. You love your neighbor as yourself and you hurt the feelings of your family. You love your enemy and you hurt the feelings of your tribe and nation. You know: if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so any friend of my enemy becomes my enemy. The expectations and temptations of natural love often make it difficult and even impossible fully to practice God’s love.
This is what Christ is for. Here is a real live human being who embodies both loves without contradiction, who practices both loves fully and simultaneously. He is fully God, so that he fully bears the love of God, and he is fully man, so that he fully feels the love of family, friends, and nation. And yet he does them both.
He is the new model of humanity, the firstborn of our species with a new capacity of humanity, the ability to practice the love of God within the real relationships of humankind. We watch him in the gospels and see that he did it. It can be done. That’s the vision, that’s our hope. Love will be like this in the life of the world to come, when the third kind of love will have fully transformed and reconciled all our other loves.
You cannot bear it yet. You have not yet been resurrected. You don’t yet have the capacity for it—that dazzling light would burn you up. But even in your life now, before your resurrection, you can reflect the light and live within the light. You can already work on transforming all your other natural and human loves by this love from God, even if your efforts are passing and partial. You can already practice at the new humanity, and try again and try again, and model it for others that you know. This the new humanity already on the way into which we are baptizing Sophia today.
Of course you will falter. You will disappoint yourself. Your successes will be compromised. Do not be discouraged. This also is what Christ is for. He is not only the model of what you should be but the savior of what you are, the redeemer of what you have lost. He is the leader up front who also walks behind you to pick you up, and nurse your wounds, and carry you on his back. He bears your wounds upon his body, he bears your scars upon his flesh. He is the image of God and the image of the love of God, he displays in his person that God’s overwhelming attitude is hospitality, generosity, giving you space, having no need of his own, no interest of his own, no pressure of his own, he is the glorious one who builds a dwelling place for you.
Today we baptize the little girl Sophia. Something will happen today that is both mystery and history. A real and visible event will happen today in time and space, and as certainly as you see that, so certainly is there an invisible reality in eternity. Her baptism will hold her in her relationship with God until her final resurrection, her full and final transformation.
In the meantime she can learn to love the wisdom of God. That’s what her name Sophia means, wisdom, as in hagia sophia, holy wisdom, the wisdom of God, specifically, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. We baptize the Holy Spirit onto her just as we baptize her into Christ. We baptize her into the object and image of God’s love, and we baptize onto her the energy and presence of God’s love. And here is what God says today in love: “This Sophia is my daughter, my chosen one, you listen to her.”
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.