Text: Luke 9
Centuries ago, Anglican missionaries arrived on the British Columbia coast. They were welcomed by the affluent tribe, provided shelter and food and company, and they built a wee chapel and taught their faith to the local people. They also paused each day without fail, at the same time in the afternoon, to boil water, pour it over tea leaves in a delicate china teapot, and then to pause for conversations.
After some years, the Anglicans went home on furlough. When next Europeans visited the village, they found the chapel in disrepair, and little talk of nuanced propositions of the Anglican faith. However, each day without fail, at the same time, water was boiled, and the handle of a long-broken china teapot was held out as water was poured ceremonially upon the ground. Then the people paused for conversations.
What are the broken fragments of past moments to which we cling, and what is our true communion?
The first three gospels, and the church year, begin with Epiphany. Jesus’ story is variously presented as an infant, sought by Magi, then baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ public ministry begins, in accounts of teaching and healing well received. But midway through the story, the first three add a dimension to this picture of Jesus: Peter’s confession, and Jesus’ transfiguration.
We get in the groove of talking about Jesus the teacher and healer, albeit a bit paradoxical and magical for our taste. He wows the crowd on the Galilean shore, or in a Sermon on the Mount, or a Sermon on the Plain. He’s the best in his class – even better than Moses, or Elijah, or the prophets of old.
When he takes the disciples aside, and asks then ‘who do people say that I am’, it’s easy to imagine any rock star asking the roadies and the groupies, in the words of Jesus Christ Superstar, ‘what’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening’. Picture Justin Trudeau asking the PMO staff, or the cabinet, about the polls.
So far, the answer is easy. Show and tell. Teach and help. Community, fellows. This is a typical religious movement, and the best of its kind, and the disciples confirm the popular opinion.
Then Jesus asks again, the tougher question: ‘who do you say that I am?’ Each gospel reports that Peter gets the correct answer, a category shift to the messianic: you are the anointed, the Christ of God. Till then, only the demons named Jesus as ‘Son of God’. This is the ineffable gospel, beyond words, and not only taught and demonstrated, but embodied and incarnate in Jesus.
The next story in each gospel after Peter’s confession is Transfiguration. Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John. It’s like a replay of Moses up Sinai, or Elijah taken up in a whirlwind – supernatural blurring the boundary between the mundane and the sublime. The lads get it wrong again, and miss the point, doze through the best parts, then want to build shrines.
The goal for the original three disciples, and for us, is not to become awe-some. The point is to be rendered awe-full, full of awe for something inexpressible. The purpose of witnessing the Transfiguration is not to meet needs, or to self-actualize, or find oneself. The point is to be transformed, toward something beyond oneself, worth serving. It’s bigger than show and tell, teach and help.
Tell me the nature of your Jesus, you’ve told me the shape of your expected response, the scale of your aspiration for us as church. The Jesus of Epiphany gives us a big building, a good choir, a big Sunday School, helpful UCW units, and probably some smart guy speaking and writing big ideas. In turn it gives us the religion of the United Way, populating the boards of civic institutions and non-profit foundations, without any distinctive mission for the church.
The liberal Jesus, the great teacher and helpful healer, gives us a familiar kind of mainline church, now in precipitous decline. As the state and other nonprofits meet human needs for education, health care and social service, what’s left for us except to remain a ‘glee club without glee’ or ‘service club without service’? We have no orienting point beyond ourselves, to reorient toward a transfigured figure on the boundary between the mundane and the sublime.
One risk in this ‘show and tell’ replication approach to being church is called ‘moral hazard’ by economists and sociologists. ‘Moral hazard’ is pride in one virtuous action, used to justify shirking other moral duties. The blue signs permit privileges for the physically and morally disabled. You get a tag for sake of your physically challenged relative, then used by the morally limited, a ‘moral hazard’.
Another risk in our way of ‘teach and help’ replicating old ways of being church is called the ‘free rider phenomenon’ by the same academics. We built great churches in this movement by publishing annual reports listing every donor and their donations to each fund, a bit like the lists in theatre programs. We find that idea shocking in church now, but more shocking is our ‘free rider’ phenomenon, people who share nothing of the burden, but lots of benefit and control.
We are blessed by those who have from time to time refocused this place, and reframed their answer to ‘what business are we in, and how’s business’. They wake up from dozing, and recognize, and adjust course. It’s a good habit, and a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition of continuing our Christian mission and ministry. Let’s call it ‘Transitional Minstry’, led by a ‘Transition Team’.
Jesus goes up a mountain (like Moses), and brings 3 disciples who nearly fall asleep. Something confirmed the existence of the holy, and transformed the simply human. They said it was like Moses and Elijah joined Jesus
as a matched set. They were glad they got ‘woke’ – then wanted to stay there and build shrines. Jesus spells out the real consequences: time to head toward Jerusalem and the Passion and the cross. Transfiguration? It’s time for Lent.
Religion is not just ideas and words – law and gospel – kataphatic – revelation. It’s also ineffable, inexpressible, the holy, the mystic, the beyond – apophatic. But if the kataphatic seeks truth, knowing, and the apophatic seeks beauty, feeling, each and both are accountable to the good. Is our religious experience making life better for each other, and transforming each and all of us?
Jesus asks the disciples: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Great religious leader, fitting the standard model with excellence: show and tell, teach and help, bigger crowds, civic religion aligned with the United Way. But somehow, it doesn’t provoke a chorus of the old spiritual ‘so glad, we got good religion’.
Jesus asks again: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter gets it right: Anointed, Messiah of God, Christ, a whole ‘nother category. Peter’s Jesus is the very incarnation of the divine, ineffable, inexpressible. On that rock, build a church.
Starting today, our daily online Lent study begins. Still just 5-10 minutes a day, 30-60 minutes a week, we are just not reading bibles in Lent. Each Sunday, hear an affirmation of faith from one of the first half-dozen centuries of the Common Era. Each weekday, hear about a heretic from that same century: ‘Heretics Like Us’. You’ll find they are like us. Perhaps they in turn may like us.
Our ‘mainline become sideline’ crowd is too often content to replicate a religion of the ‘gospel of nice’. We are wilfully ignorant, despite schooling in various ‘trade schools’, where we ‘covered the curriculum’, often in the ‘multiversities’ which have replaced the earlier ‘university’ ideal. Ours is not a living faith, and we are not prepared to give a credible account of the faith entrusted to us.
Arrested adolescent rebellion among the boomers, or pampered fridge art fans told whatever comes off the top of their heads is profound, are all dismissed, appropriately, by our families and friends, let alone neighbours, or community in downtown Kitchener. If you are feeling comfortable in this sanctuary, tempted to stop ‘pitching a tent’ and make this a permanent campsite – you don’t get it.
Come back down the mountain as one of the crazy people, carrying a broken piece of pottery – but transformed, and knowing what matters. Stop being the ‘queens of compromise’ among the petty squabbles of a shrinking club. Resist frantically trying to manage the zero-sum game of 24/7 busyness, and rediscover some priorities, perhaps some that serve others beyond ourselves.
If you caught an echo of Peter’s confession today, or a glimpse of Jesus’ transfiguration, your Jesus may change. Your life might be transformed. You would not, I repeat, become awesome. (Nor would you go off to hire awesome in a pastor to replace me.) You might, pray, become awe-full, or full of awe, with a live sense of the holy, of creation transfigured, beyond ‘show and tell’, or even ‘teach and help’. We might even risk a moment of worship, and find a blessing – to share that celebration and service more widely.