Text: Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration)
I sometimes feel tension in the church between glory and humility. The Way of the Cross is a humble one in which Jesus walks with us and helps us to accept loss as a path to new life.
And yet, we yearn for glory; and Transfiguration Sunday is one of the occasions that we celebrate glory. Each year, just before the season of Lent, we read of Jesus’ face shining like the sun on a mountaintop.
The transfiguration is fleeting, as are all the moments of glory in Jesus’ life. I count seven such moments for Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew in a life that is otherwise one of poverty and loss.
Matthew starts his Gospel with the dream of a humble man, Joseph. In the dream, an angel tells Joseph that the child to be born to his betrothed, Mary, will be a saviour. This is the first glimpse of Jesus’ glory. After Jesus is born into this poor family in Bethlehem, Magi from the East arrive who hail the baby as a king — a second glimpse of glory. But when the Magi depart, Jesus becomes the target of a murderous campaign by King Herod, which forces his family to flee to Egypt where they live as refugees.
After Herod’s death, Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Palestine to the obscure town of Nazareth. When Jesus has grown into adulthood, he is baptized alongside humble sinners in the River Jordan by John. There, the Spirit of God proclaims Jesus as God’s Beloved Son — a third glimpse of glory.
But immediately after this, Jesus is swept into the desert by the Spirit for 40 days where he is tempted by the Devil. After surviving this trial, Jesus begins healing and preaching throughout Galilee. He walks on water, calms the storm and feeds the multitudes. At the end of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus admits to Peter that he is the Christ, a new king for Israel — a fourth glimpse of glory. But he also tells a distraught Peter that he is a king who will be betrayed, rejected, and killed.
Right after this dire prediction, Jesus’ is transfigured on the mountainside. In this transformed state, Peter, James and John see him with two of Israel’s heroes, Moses and Elijah — a fifth moment of glory.
Jesus does not linger on the mountain. He returns to the valley and begins his fateful journey with his friends from Galilee to Jerusalem. He enters Jerusalem in triumph on the day we call Palm Sunday — a sixth moment of glory. But five days later, Jesus is arrested, tortured and killed.
Following the crucifixion, Matthew shows a brief scene between the resurrected Jesus and a small group of disciples. The resurrection, although a private and quiet event, is the seventh and final moment of glory for Jesus shown by Matthew.
According to Matthew, Jesus’ life begins in obscurity, and ends in obscurity. The church says that this is not the end of the story. Jesus will come again with great power, we are told. But of that time or day, no one knows.
Jesus lives a humble life with seven brief moments of glory. His life reveals God to us, but not a god of majesty and victory. Jesus is killed, and he helps us confront our own mortality and rise to new life with him.
Why is Jesus’ life one of poverty, pain and humility?
Two responses come to my mind. One is the circumstances in which the stories of Jesus were first told and written. As all four indicate, Jesus was crucified. And all four were written following the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s Temple.
A God whose Holy City is utterly destroyed is one who lacks the power and majesty usually associated with divinity. A God who is crucified is one who has put aside displays of power and might.
A second response is that our lives also lack glory. The humble nature of Jesus’ life is a model for us as we stumble towards freedom from oppression and sin. We trust that God’s Grace leads us to healing and liberation. But it is a path that is less about glory, I believe, than it is about grief.
In my life, grief has sometimes opened a painful path to transformation. Grief is not complaint or self-pity; it is pain that includes acceptance of one’s self and one’s humble situation. With grace, grieving leads to the acceptance of a reality that might, from other perspectives, appear shameful.
The state of the United Church of Canada can provide an illustration. Our church was founded in 1925 in a blaze of enthusiasm. After weathering the Depression and World War II, the church entered into what people call our glory years in the 1950s and 60s. Sunday schools burst at the seam. A new church building opened somewhere in Canada every week. Our cultural influence and political clout were unmatched.
But for the past 50 years, the church has declined in size and power. Today we have very few children. The average age of people in the pews is around 70. We close at least one church each week. This is true not just of the United Church, but of all mainline Protestant churches in Canada. It is a reality that is also starting to affect Pentecostal and fundamentalist denominations.
Decline is not what we desire, of course. But I believe that we can also experience Grace in it. If the church can grieve its decline, we may be able to accept a changed reality and find new life. This new life will not be like the glory we remember. Indeed, it may not look like any kind of church we can imagine at present.
The first disciples wanted military victory and power. Instead they followed a saviour who was killed and led them to a new life of Love. It was not about ego or nation. It was about being awake to all of reality, both what they liked and didn’t like. Jesus was crucified, the Temple was destroyed, and the Empire remained. But the God beyond power and pride also remained. This was the God who is Love.
I pray that over the next few years, the United Church can accept its decline. I am not saying that Mill Woods United Church should wrap things up. I am encouraged by the energy in our worship and outreach and new shoots of growth sprouting up. But I don’t believe that the so-called glory days are coming back, at least not in a way we could recognize.
The first disciples seemed to need glimpses of glory like the Transfiguration. But the real transfiguration of Jesus came not on a mountaintop, but in death on a cross.
Jesus was raised to new life by God at Easter in a private moment of awe and mystery. Palm Sunday and the crucifixion were newsworthy events witnessed by large crowds. Easter Sunday was only between Jesus and a handful of his friends.
All individual lives pass away. All nations and churches pass away, and God’s Grace does not prevent these losses. Instead, God in Christ helps reveal that our small agendas are illusions and that we are part of a great web of Love.
Glory is revealed in the deep history of the cosmos, of life, and of human culture. It is a glory that does not lie with one individual or church. It is glory that is available to all who accept God’s grace to get out of our own way.
The church has sometimes been unwilling to accept the quiet glory that is revealed in the Way of the Cross. Instead, it has tried to build an empire or fantasized about a terrible victory in a Second Coming of Jesus as a warrior King.
I prefer the quiet resurrection that was revealed to a handful of disciples on the first Easter and that is here for us at any moment. Jesus comes a second or a billionth time whenever we accept reality just as it is. This might be a reality in which we grieve because a country or religion has ceased to be, just as the kingdom of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem ceased to be.
Regardless of loss, reality is the only place where grace is found. In the face of loss, we continue to value life and love. We trust that God’s Love overcomes loss, even if this might not look like the glory for which we once yearned.
Thanks be to God.