February 14, 2021 / Transfiguration of Our Lord / Richard Holmer
1st Reading 2 Kings 2:1-12 / 2nd Reading 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 / Gospel Mark 9:2-9
The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ
The true and full identity of Jesus was not quite so clear or obvious to the first disciples as it now is for us. (Even though they saw Jesus in person and witnessed his miracles.) Bear in mind: you and I have the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight – 20 centuries of church tradition. Consider: the disciples did not have the New Testament available for ready reference. They did not have the creeds explicitly spelling out the faith claims about Jesus. They did not grow up in a church culture that celebrates Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection – a church quite comfortable with calling Jesus the Christ, Lord of Lords, the Son of God. They did not learn to sing at an early age: Jesus loves me, this I know. Jesus loves me, he who died Heaven’s gates to open wide. Quite simply, those disciples did not come to know Jesus the way you and I have come to know Jesus. Nothing prepared them for God showing up in person: the fullness of God present in Jesus, the son of Mary, their contemporary from Nazareth.
It was only six days before the experience of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountaintop that Peter had made his bold confession of faith. Jesus had asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” and then “But who do you say that I am?” All were silent, except for Peter, who said: “You are the Messiah.” However, Jesus stated that this was not Peter’s own conclusion but rather a truth revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. And what’s more, it became apparent that Peter really did not have a firm grasp on the identity of Jesus. When Jesus proceeded to tell them that he must suffer and die, Peter spoke up saying, “God forbid – this must never happen to you!” In effect, Peter presumed to tell Jesus what was best for him – not the sort of thing you do if you know Jesus is God.
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So it becomes apparent that this mountaintop experience was a key moment – a moment of profound revelation for those disciples. With their own eyes they saw the glory, the holiness, the divinity of Jesus: He was glowing with heavenly radiance. He was having a conversation with two holy heavyweights: Moses and Elijah. And just in case they weren’t quite sure about what they were witnessing, there came a heavenly voice-over: God proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
It still took a while for the disciples to fully absorb this amazing and transforming reality – and to keep it straight in their minds and hearts. We know how their faith wavered – that even after Christ rose from the dead, some still doubted. Nevertheless, the true identity of Jesus was revealed to them on that mountain. He was much more than a teacher or a healer or a prophet: Jesus is God’s own Son.
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For Paul, the moment of apprehending the full identity of Jesus did not come on a mountaintop, but on the road to Damascus. He was intent on persecuting the new followers of Jesus when he had a vision of the risen Christ – a dramatic and transforming moment. There was a blinding light, and Jesus addressed Paul personally, saying, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Paul makes reference to this Damascus Road experience in our Second Reading today. He writes: “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In an unforgettable, life changing moment, Paul came face to face with the risen Christ – and in his face he saw the glory of God. For Paul, Jesus was no longer a heretic to be despised, but a Lord and Savior to worship and to serve. Speaking of this encounter, Paul later wrote: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me . . . by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15: 8, 10)
There is a sense in which you and I may take for granted what those first disciples came to know and believe about Jesus. Two thousand years of tradition point to Jesus as the Son of God, the Word made flesh. Most of us are cradle Christians, having grown up in the church that worships Jesus as Lord and Savior. At the same time, Christ continues to make himself known. The glory of God continues to shine in the face of Jesus Christ. Every worship service presents an opportunity to see Jesus, to experience Jesus for who he truly is. Grace moments can come upon us unexpectedly, Jesus shows up, and we can witness the glory, the holiness, the divinity of Jesus – what Paul describes as “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
What is it that is revealed in the face of Jesus? For me it is the surpassing love of God. To see Jesus, to know Jesus, is to experience the depth and the breadth of God’s love for us. What is glorious and holy in Jesus is the awesome power of a love that is willing to die for our sake. This love is both free and liberating – and also a love that raises new possibilities and expectations. Jesus told his disciples, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)
It's a love that stretches us and pushes us beyond our comfort zone – calling us to love even our enemies.
It's a love that comforts us in our sorrows and challenges us to serve and care for others.
It’s a love that encourages and enables us to grow – a love that also requires us to grow and to change (you cannot know Jesus and his love, and remain the same. This is the hard truth that caused a rich young man to decide not to follow Jesus.)
The love made known in Jesus is a love that forgives – and a love that expects us to forgive others.
It is a love that gives us peace that this world cannot give – and a love so powerful that it disturbs the peace and rocks the boat.
It’s a love that heals broken hearts – and a love that wounds our vanity and pride.
A love that brings abundant life – and a love that calls us to accept humble duties, suffering and sacrifice.
There is nothing sentimental about the love God shows us in Jesus. In his love we see that love is gracious – and also costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the dual nature of such love: