March 3, 2019 Message
Biblical Text: Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Theme: We are called to engage, heal and transform brokenness in our world.
Introduction and the Contemporary Condition
Since today is the Episcopal Church’s Feast Day of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of what became the Methodist (and now, United Methodist) Church in the United States, and since I’m a retired United Methodist Pastor, it seemed like it might be reasonable to give a hint of Wesleyan flavor to today’s message, so I’ll look to John Wesley for that. John Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest serving The Church of England and, among many other things, he was a prolific preacher. The messages he preached were firmly rooted in Scripture, speaking what he saw as the plain truth of the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus. Here are some entries from his journal written in May of 1738: “Sunday, (the 7th): I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree’s Church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was therefore the less surprised at being informed that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches. Sunday, (the 14th): I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy Chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s, likewise, I am to preach no more. Friday, (the 19th): I preached at St. John’s, Wapping at three and at St. Bennett’s, Paul’s Wharf, in the evening. At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more.”
Even without knowing the details of those sermons, I think the reactions to them that Wesley recorded give a pretty good sense of the nature of the messages he delivered. What Wesley preached was the Gospel – the “Good News” – of Christ. He was, in his time, by definition an evangelist, “a preacher of the Gospel.” But by his own account, his proclamation of the good news didn’t always elicit a good reaction; it often challenged individuals and the Church to examine the conduct of their personal and corporate lives in light of Jesus’ example and teaching. With specific regard to The Church of England, Wesley felt that the church was straying from Jesus’ vision; it had become in some ways a self-serving institution, existing to cater to and placate it’s socially advantaged members to the exclusion of those who Jesus called his followers to serve. The Methodist Movement within the Church of England was an attempt by John Wesley and his brother Charles, also an Anglican Priest, to redirect the Church to a more authentic grounding in Jesus. John and Charles sought to change the nature of their Church, not to dismantle it, through evangelism within and through the Church of England. Among John Wesley’s particular concerns was that The Church of England wasn’t properly addressing issues connected with the need for prison system reform, unfair labor practices and widespread hunger.
While the Methodist movement had a foundation in evangelism, I want to be clear about the context in which I’m using that word. Wesley’s evangelism was distinctly different from what routinely passes for evangelism today. In contemporary society, proclaiming the good news has become an exercise in which the news that’s proclaimed is usually only “good” if you’re a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and preferably male. The proclamation of the Gospel is no longer necessarily an affirmation of God’s grace and unconditional love of human-kind (albeit at times also a challenge to how we live our lives individually as followers of Christ and collectively as a community of faith); it’s often, at least as heard from those who receive the most air time in the public forum, an affront to the very same divine grace and love it purports to proclaim. The opinions and positions attributed to “evangelists” or “evangelicals” today are often ones of exclusion, not inclusion and doctrine overshadows practice as the basis on which one is judged worthy to claim the name Christian and join the exclusive club. In that context, neither John Wesley nor Jesus himself would qualify as an “evangelist” or Christian.
Insights from Scripture
So what about the words from Luke’s Gospel we heard today? Is there good news to be found there, and if so, is it good news for us? When the good news of the Gospel is held up to our lives, are we a reflection of that good news, or does it make us squirm so much that we politely ask a Methodist preacher not to bother occupying the pulpit here at St. Michael’s after today? Let’s take a look...
The Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is, I think, one of those passages in Scripture where you can get so entangled in the question of whether the events happened exactly as described, (that is, Jesus changing in appearance; Moses and Elijah suddenly appearing, and talking with him; a voice (presumably God’s) speaking from a cloud declaring Jesus as God’s Son, the Chosen of God), that you might miss the actual message the passage means to communicate. If you ask me whether I believe the events recorded by Luke – this miracle – actually happened as described, I’ll tell you that, sure, I believe in divine miracles, but I don’t know exactly what happened on the mountaintop in the presence of Peter, John and James that day; it’s a mystery. I am sure of a couple of things, though (well... pretty sure...J ). The mountaintop experience was, I think, an Epiphany, and could have been received by Peter, John and James as such. God revealed that Jesus embodied the entire Law of Israel and all the teachings of the Prophets. Jesus was the embodiment of the entire story of the Chosen People up to that point. This was what God communicated by the presence of Moses and Elijah – in whatever way that happened – with Jesus. But that had to do with past and present. The future was communicated by God’s voice from the cloud: Jesus was God’s Son and was the revelation of God’s eternal plan; past, present and future. But what could have been an Epiphany for Peter, John and James at the time was evidently rather lost on them. I imagine they were completely overwhelmed by whatever happened in their presence, but in typical human fashion immediately tried to bring it under their control, instead of simply allowing the experience to wash over them in all its transformative power. Instead of allowing this divine encounter to permeate their being, they sought to get things under control by building a couple of lean-tos and ordering in some pizza so everyone could sit around and chat for a while before they all had to go back home. Please understand that I don’t mean to be disparaging of the disciples; I might very well have had a similar instinctive reaction (maybe not the order-in pizza part though). The point is that human instinct perhaps obfuscated what God intended to be a fundamental revelation of who Jesus was and is. And if we are too enmeshed in the details of the story we might miss the revelation too. Jesus was the perfect incarnation of the entirety of God’s will and action in human history (and perhaps from the beginning of time) and a perfect reflection of God’s eternal will for God’s creation.
And it’s in the verses immediately following Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that we get a glimpse of what this revelation, this Epiphany, means for us. The next verses in this chapter of Luke are these: “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met [Jesus]. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son...Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him’...Jesus answered...‘Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.” (Luke 9:37-42; NRSV)
The first act of Jesus recorded by Luke after the Transfiguration was for Jesus to heal a demon-possessed boy; a person who the society of his time would probably have shunned out of fear born from a lack of understanding of his ailment. Jesus, affirmed by God as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets and as God’s Son; Jesus, the perfect incarnation of the entirety of God’s will and action in human history and the perfect reflection of God’s eternal will for God’s creation, turned immediately to embrace a boy from among those who society had placed on the margins in order to give him the healing, transformation – and transfiguration – he needed.
In a general sense we can consider this demon-possession as metaphor for the ugliness that manifests the demons of our world. It might be the demons of xenophobia, white nationalism and classism manifest in the ugliness of systematically devaluing, marginalizing and discriminating against people of sacred worth because of their sexuality, racial, cultural and ethnic heritage, or economic status. It might be the demon of hubris, by which those who are called to serve God place themselves instead in a position above God, carrying out human agendas while invoking God’s name, manifest as the ugliness of the church acting as gatekeeper, creating a barrier to the experience of the unconditional love of God by those the church judges to be unworthy, having brought human doctrine to bear instead of truly proclaiming – and living – the Good News of Jesus. And this is certainly not an all-inclusive list. Demons and the ugliness through which they are manifest abound, reminding us of how broken our world is.
And so, what are we to do?
The good news is that Jesus, God’s Son and Chosen One was the perfect incarnation of God’s grace and unconditional love. Jesus is a mirror for the love of God for all God’s creation, a love freely given to each of us just because God has chosen to; a love that exceeds our ability to fully comprehend. The resurrection of Jesus is our assurance that this love will always prevail, no matter how ugly the world around us might be and, if we allow it, this can be for us the source of strength we need in order to engage the world, in all its ugliness, knowing that the world will not be our undoing.
The bad news is that as followers of the Way of Jesus we are called to be agents for the same grace and unqualified love of God for humankind – and all creation – God has revealed through Jesus. We are called to not only fully acknowledge the ugliness to which the demons of our world give rise, but also to confront, transform and transfigure it, with God’s help, so that at least the part of the world within our reach is a more perfect reflection of the will of God as Jesus has revealed and lived it.
Let us be among those who engage the brokenness of the world around us through nothing less than the unconditional love of God. Let us seek the transformed worldview – the transfiguration – that will empower us in our work. May it be so.