Sunday, March 06, 2011

Who are we, really?

2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

I don't remember if it was during the 60's or the 70's that the big thing was to "find yourself", but I will also grant that many who were young, active, and coming of age during these tumultuous times might be inclined to say there is not a lot they remember - or want to remember! These were some challenging times because the entire nation was in such upheaval, and it became a challenge to trust the US government after we had our eyes opened perhaps for the first time and discovered exactly what our government was capable of.

It was also during this time when mainstream Christianity began to lose its footing, and many began to challenge the authority of the Church. It could have been just as simple as challenging all authority in general, but it was a legitimate challenge because it seemed clear that whether we were talking about the Church or the government, leaders of these institutions had failed and betrayed their charges. They discovered that heavy-handed tactics would no longer work. People were no longer willing to blindly believe or trust just because they were "supposed to". Threats were ignored, and ultimatums were laughed at. It seemed to be that the entire nation was trying to "find" itself because what we had previously known to be true seemed, well, not so true after all.

And it was forgotten that in the midst of this chaos, the Lord was still sitting on His throne. Some had suggested this was a period in which the Lord chose to turn His back on America, but such a statement could not stand in the reality of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the right and just thing that was long overdue, and Dr. King's entire message and ministry were based almost entirely on the Gospel of the Lord. And because Dr. King refused to be moved by anyone or anything other than the Gospel, a nation was transformed. Tragically his life was cut short - by human standards - and his message got hijacked by political opportunists, but the Lord is still on His throne.

Dr. King's untimely death left a power vacuum that was virtually impossible to fill because as important as he was to the Civil Rights Movement and to that particular period in American history, he was not the Lord. Indeed he never claimed to be, but people tend to either marginalize or elevate persons of social significance according to their usefulness and the perceptions of the people. In Dr. King's case he was revered - and feared. He was a powerfully dynamic speaker who "moved mountains" with his words, and people responded positively AND negatively.

It was just not possible to be ambivalent about Dr. Martin Luther King. Those who did not consider him a "threat" most likely elevated Dr. King to near-messianic status. Strangely enough, as much as Dr. King talked about the Lord, the Gospel, and Divine Justice, society in general did not really make the connection because there was still a clear distinction between the ideal of Divine Justice and the reality of social justice. This distinction is made even today because human society makes its own rules according to its own standards as to what it deems "just" and "right", divine principles notwithstanding.

So there may be a reasonable parallel with Jesus' time, His disciples, AND His nemeses. Jesus spoke constantly about the principles of the Law and the Holy God who commanded and ordained the Law, and He made real connections between the life people knew and the ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the end, however, it was clear that people - disciples and opponents alike - didn't really make the connection. If it is possible to put "too much" emphasis on Jesus the fully human person, this may have had a lot to do with how easily the masses turned on Him prior to His death.

It is perhaps no different today. We can talk about Jesus being THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life and we can quote the several NT Scripture passages that proclaim the salvation that comes from believing on His name, but these proclamations have no connection in any real way to our "real life" if this reality does not cause a real transformation in the way we think and act. Social justice is still relative to the dominant elements of society, and rules are made according to what sounds good to us at any particular time to fit any particular need; social justice defined by whichever way the political winds happen to be blowing.

In the post-9/11 America, for instance, social justice does not extend to persons of Middle-Eastern descent, particularly Muslims. The hope-filled social invitation and idealistic promise of the Statue of Liberty to the "poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free", the "wretched refuse", the "homeless and tempest-tossed" for whom the "lamp is lifted beside the golden door" - as an expression of the best of American idealism and Christian hospitality - seems no more the open invitation it once was but has been reduced instead to little more than a cheesy tourist attraction. There is, after all, this very serious - and very real - national security consideration that has a tendency to make us hostile rather than hospitable to foreigners and other outsiders. The realities of a hostile world have made us very afraid because we have learned to depend on the physical senses and trust the social realities that behold the hostility in its truest forms.

I am more convinced than ever that the Transfiguration of the Christ came at an important time not for Jesus Himself but, rather, for the Church which would soon be called forth. The world - which was no more or less hostile than now - still held the potential for overwhelming those who would choose to follow Jesus to the very end. It is interesting to note St. Augustine's commentary on the Lord's glorified garments as an analogy of the Church itself. He wrote of the Transfiguration: "His garments are a type of His Church. For garments fall unless they are held up by the One who wears them" (Sermon 78.2).

This was an important moment in the lives of Jesus' disciples because of what precedes this moment. Recall that in Matthew 16 Jesus had foretold of His coming arrest and crucifixion - but the disciples did not seem to hear "resurrection". Peter is not prepared to accept this certain reality and tries to pull Jesus aside to call Him on it, but he is rebuked rather harshly by Jesus when he is told that he is much too mindful of "human" things rather than on the things of the Lord. In the language of the Church AND for the sake of the Church, this is a bona fide threat that undercuts the very foundation of the divine nature of the Body of Christ. Being more mindful of "human" things rather than Godly things; that is, being more mindful of our own will and our own desires and our own likes and dislikes rather than the will of the Lord, threatens the spiritual integrity and the moral authority of the institution itself.

Could it perhaps be that the Church, the very Body of Christ Himself, was in danger until this profound moment when the fullness of the glory of the Lord our God was manifest in the eyes of these few disciples, at least one of whom would later write, "We ourselves heard this Voice come from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:18)? And could it be that the fullness of the glory of the Lord is manifest, fulfilled, and perfected in Christ the Covenant by the presence of the Law in Moses and the prophets in Elijah? And could it be that this fullness which can hardly be adequately described in human language is the fullness so lacking in the Church today?

Yes, yes, and yes, but this is not all there is to it. Peter writes of this moment yet speaks only of the Voice that was so clearly heard. He did not describe a vision even though we are offered Matthew's vision that still cannot be fully understood. Why? It is because this is the fullest vision of the Lord's glory that cannot be comprehended with limited human senses. It is a vision that can only be approached with intense respect and trembling and faith. It is a vision offered only to those willing to look beyond their physical senses. It is a vision only to those who realize that the human Jesus, real though He was, is not the "whole" Christ who is glorified in the Lord God and in whom the Lord God Himself is glorified.

It is the same way we must learn to identify and to be identified. We can take measures to change our physical appearances and we can make such drastic changes that we would not be recognized by those who know us intimately, but none of these changes has anything to do with who we really are, who we choose to be, and how we choose to be known. But before we can embrace this true reality of who we really are, we must be able to speak of an incomprehensible vision that will judge us "not by the color of our skin" or even "by the content of our character". The truest vision of who we are in Christ Jesus is by the measure of our faith and our willingness to see the Lord as He truly is - not as we would wish Him to be.

Such a concept challenges our physical limitations to the very core, but the spiritual vision that is borne only of faith is the method and the means by which we must act, by which we must believe, and by which we must truly see not only ourselves and our Lord, but also our "neighbor". It is Christianity at its very core. It is Christ in His fullness and in the glory of Almighty God our Father. AMEN.

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