Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 7, 2016
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Of all the gospels Luke tells us the most about Jesus as a man of prayer. He is praying at his baptism, he spends all night in prayer before deciding which of his disciples to make the 12 apostles, those sent out in his name and power. When he becomes famous, Luke tells us, “Jesus would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” And today he is praying when Moses, and Elijah, the cloud and the light appear, and the voice telling them to listen to Jesus. For many a praying Jesus makes no sense, because they’ve been taught that Jesus is God and therefore he shouldn’t need to pray. What self-respecting god prays to himself? Isn’t talking to yourself a sure sign of mental illness or is it answering yourself that’s the problem? (Of course I do both so I’m not one to judge.)
One of the biggest dangers to our faith these days is not the denial that Jesus is God, but the denial that Jesus is a human being. If Jesus isn’t a real man then it doesn’t matter if he was god, since the early church was right when it says “what God does not assume, he cannot save”: Which means if Jesus is not a human being he cannot save human beings. He only saves that which he takes on. And from our perspective if Jesus isn’t really human then what comfort can we take from a stainless steel robot.
Of course most don’t come right out and say that Jesus wasn’t a flesh and blood person, instead they say things like: Jesus probably never really had feelings of real anger, or a real sense of humor, or fear, and not only was he not married to Mary Magdalene as The DaVinci Code wants us to believe, but Jesus never had sexual feelings for any woman or any man.
Thus by such thefts Jesus is robbed of his humanity and thus of his saving connection to each of us. If Jesus isn’t one of us then he is no better than Zeus sitting in splendor on Mt. Olympus—or on the Cape as Laura’s book tells us. Yet, because we think we need to protect his divinity we carry around with us an image of Jesus that is mostly not human in any interesting sense.
When Will Willimon was bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church he taught a course on Jesus at Birmingham-Southern University. After completing an assignment to read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting one student said, “You know, one thing that bothers me is that scene in Mark 8 where they bring a blind man to Jesus for healing and Jesus puts saliva in his eyes and lays hands on him and asks the man, “Can you see anything?”
To which the man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking around”, so Jesus prays for the man again until he can see clearly.
The student says, “If this man is God why does he have to pray twice?”
We have to ask ourselves if our Jesus is only two-dimensional and best suited for framing and hanging on a wall. Is our Jesus a plastic figure like the other superheroes that come with a Happy Meal?
Well you say, what about the Transfiguration? Surely, that isn’t something normal people do!
Karl Barth reminds us, however, that the Transfiguration isn’t something Jesus does. Rather it is something that happens to Jesus. It comes to him from outside himself. If it is a miracle, it isn’t one he’s doing, it is one he is receiving.
And he’s receiving it not just for himself but for us. His purpose on earth is not to walk around 3 feet off the ground, outshining us. His mission is to make it possible that we like him can welcome and surrender to the light from the Father that shines through him, so that by grace we might become a living conduit of this light for others.
Remember that shortly before the Transfiguration Jesus sends out the 12 on a mission and gives them authority over demons and power over disease, so that their announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God would be more that words. Although they had success they still have a lot to learn, because while Jesus, Peter, James, and John are up on the mountain those left behind are not able to heal a young boy caught by a malicious power that disfigures his humanity.
Jesus is displeased with the disciples and says to them, “How long will you have me with you?! I’ve trained you and empowered you to heal the sick and proclaim the Good News, yet you are not able to help this one little boy—you faithless and perverse generation.”
Jesus comes to set us free from our disfigured humanity and to set us free for participating with Christ in the restoration of true humanity.
Paul says in Second Corinthians: “The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright
There is a profound mystery here that is hidden in this Jew from Nazareth, and it is a mystery that makes him more human, not less, because he is exactly what each of us is created to be: the image and likeness of God through whom God gently pulls the world into the Mystery of Love of the Triune God.
A second century church father named Irenaeus said: the glory of God is woman fully alive. The glory of God is man fully alive.
In and through the one man Jesus Messiah we participate in this mystery of being fully alive.
This is why I find it so helpful to commit to memory a few passages of scripture so that we can remind ourselves of the power of Christ that is at work in us and for. Whether it is a line from the 23rd Psalm—like, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” or Galatians 2:20—I no longer live but Christ lives in me and the life I live in the body I live within the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” And there are countless other short sentences that can restore our humanity in Christ when we lose faith, hope, and love.
I’ve mentioned before that the holiest man I’ve ever known up close and personal was Father Warren Scott, an elderly Black priest, who back in the 1970’s was an icon of Christ for many in the Diocese of Atlanta. He is also the only person I’ve known who seemed to glow.
One day near the end of my first year of seminary the wheels fell off my wagon, so Father Scott (as everyone called him) invited me to his house to share a pot of soup Edith, his wife, had made, and to share the Blessed Sacrament that the bishop allowed him to keep on a bookshelf in his home.
This 75 year old Black man was willing to come down from his retirement to spend time with a disfigured 24 year old white boy, who desperately needed to be transfigured by the Mystery of Christ.
Of course at the time I thought, “Great, I’m glad I’ve got that crisis behind me!” I know now that we always have our disfigured selves living inside us, so we are in daily need of the transfiguring presence of Christ.
I remember the soup and the sacrament and his gracious presence. But 40 years later the only words he spoke that I remember are these:
He said: “I can never love someone until I know they are human.”