I had the privilege of working for a while with the Rev. Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. Gordon was one of the most influential church builders and preachers of our times, venturing into new ground so far as a way to be a vital church is concerned. He was brought up half Southern Baptist and half Presbyterian. But what he turned all that into was something quite unique and utterly transformative for the church as a whole and for the individuals who became part of his church.
One evening, Gordon was speaking to a group of people from different churches in different parts of the country. Near the beginning of his talk, with a characteristic twinkle in his mischievous eyes, he said to us: “When two Christians meet for the first time, they ought to introduce Jesus to each other, because your Jesus may not know my Jesus.”
I dare not speak for Gordon because I can only guess what he was getting at in that provocative remark. Maybe he was recognizing that, across denominational lines, there are so many different theologies and biblical interpretations and cultural lifestyles that colour how we Christians understand Jesus for ourselves and present him to others. Maybe there was a hint in what Gordon was saying suggesting that we each shape Jesus into someone or something that fits for us; that we can be comfortable with personally.
There really are a lot of different images of Jesus out there. Son of God. Saviour of the world. Personal Lord and Saviour. Miracle worker. Social and political rabble-rouser. Defender of the poor, the oppressed, the outsider. Ticket to heaven. Teacher and moral example. Sacrificial lamb. Servant leader. Friend. And certainly more. Who is Jesus to you, to me? I wonder how we would introduce Jesus to each other if we tried to put words to our sense of who Jesus is as we know him.
The Gospel reading this morning – literally – shines a light on Jesus and asks us that very question: “Who is this Jesus, anyway?” Not just in some general sense, but to each one of us personally. As the story of Jesus unfolds in the Gospel of Matthew, we have had a chance for a while to see him in action and listen to his teachings. In this incident that we call the Transfiguration, the early disciples – and we through them – are being asked to step back and take stock of what we have seen and heard. Is he someone to take seriously or someone we can dismiss? Is he somebody special or just one among many? How will our lives change because we give him space in our lives? Above all, who is he for me, for you?
The incident is related in other-worldly details. Jesus with his inner three – Peter, James, and John – go up to the top of a high mountain. There they have a mountain top experience, in the way we often use that term to describe something unusual and life-changing. They watch as Jesus’ appearance changes. It is like a bright spotlight is aimed at him. Even more, it is as if an inner light goes on inside him and he glows from within. If that wasn’t enough, then the three astonished disciples watch and listen as two long-ago and legendary figures from the Hebrew Scriptures – Moses and Elijah – appear and have a conversation with Jesus. The experience comes to a climax as a bright cloud descends and envelops them all; and from that cloud, they hear a voice saying words that echo Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” They are stunned, muddled, overcome with fear, and cower on the ground. When they dare open their eyes, everything looks plain and normal again. Jesus touches them gently to rouse them, telling them not to be afraid. And as they descend the mountain – going back down to earth, so to speak – Jesus orders them to keep quiet about what happened, at least until after the resurrection.
Such an experience in the first place and such a story passed down afterwards certainly challenges us to ask the question of the day: “Who is this anyway?”
The passage itself offers an answer to that question. We need to understand that Moses and Elijah are not random Old Testament characters; they represent the Hebrew Scriptures. In common usage, the Jewish people of the time often called their scriptures, “The Law and the Prophets”. So that, in this instance, Moses represents the first five books of the Hebrew Bible referred to as “the Law”, while Elijah stands for the writings of the Prophets. In this coded language, what the significance of this passage is meant to convey is this: that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures – that Moses and Elijah give credibility to Jesus for the people of his day by acknowledging him as their logical successor. And with God’s voice affirming Jesus, we are meant to realize that Jesus is someone special indeed and that we ought to take him very, very seriously.
So, in the times in which this Gospel was written, this passage was meant to convince the Jewish people of the day that Jesus was truly the Messiah, the one sent from God as long promised in their scriptures, the one, maybe, who would free Israel and restore it to its former glory. There were many pretenders to that throne. There were many who came with high expectations only to fizzle out in disappointment. Jesus and the early church had stirred up a lot of controversy and there were competing factions for him and against him. This was the church in Matthew’s circle making the case for Jesus as the Son of God and the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of a Messiah.
Well, that is not a completely irrelevant issue for us today. But we are not Jewish people, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and reduced to being a subjugated province of the Roman Empire, arguing over whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, and, if so, what kind of Messiah he is. We are people, though, who are still being challenged to decide who this Jesus is, and whether he has significance for our lives and for our times. So, to sit back in amazement at a story like the Transfiguration puts us on the spot this morning and asks us the question: “Who is this anyway?”
Have you thought about that question lately? We identify as ‘Christians’, which suggests that this ‘Christ’ is pretty important to us. So how is this Jesus, this Christ, important to us? What does he mean to us? How would we introduce our Jesus to someone who didn’t know him at all or who knew him in a slightly different way than we do?
Maybe we have never really thought about that question at all. Maybe we just take it for granted that we are Christians and have never thought too much about what that means. Maybe we have just adopted what the church has told us about Jesus without making it very personal or real for ourselves.
More likely, we have been at this so long that we answered that question some time ago but have not thought about it much since. So maybe the edge is a bit off our passion about Jesus. Maybe we have changed and grown in our lives but we have not spent time allowing Jesus to grow and change with us, so that we continue to ride on something that was urgent and meaningful for us once but has grown kind of stale over the years.
So, today, God speaking to us through the scriptures asks us to take some time to reflect on that question – wrestle with it even – so that Jesus becomes very real and personal and alive and life-changing for us again. “Who is he anyway?”
Now you might be waiting for me to answer that question for you. To give you the right answer so that you can conform your thinking to it – or to argue against. Well I am not going to do that, because it is important that it not be the right and acceptable answer, but that it be a very real and personal answer for each of us. Something that we can give not just our intellectual assent to, but something we are prepared to lay our lives on the line for.
But what I will do is give you a bit of a glimpse into my own very personal answer, not to suggest that it should be your answer, but to encourage you to reflect on what words you would use to speak about Jesus for yourself. I am not going to give you my full and comprehensive answer. Just a couple of quick brush strokes to sketch out the beginnings of my answer. Just enough, maybe, to get your own little gray cells tingling and your own pictures of Jesus flashing a bit in your imagination.
I had a few super heroes as a child. The Lone Ranger and Superman were two of them. But the one who stirred my imagination the most was Robin Hood. He was the nobleman forced into exile by corrupt power that had ousted the legitimate ruler. He was the outlaw who was the truly righteous one. He was the one who championed the poor and the oppressed, stealing back from the rich what they had stolen and restoring it to its rightful owners. He lived rough in the forest on the edge of society, with a bunch of other rag-tag and rebel followers. So, when I had outgrown my childhood fantasies, wasn’t I amazed to start reading the Gospels and finding Robin Hood there all over again, this time called Jesus! Remember, the times I am talking about were the 60’s: the time of the counter-culture, the hippies and social activists and, in my case working in the theatre, the artists. As I read the Gospels in my twenties, I found another rebel who was not just a work of fiction but a man for all seasons. And I was ready to join that band and head into today’s Sherwood Forest with him. Now, my understanding of Jesus has grown and matured a bit over the decades since then, but this has remained constant: to me, Jesus is the consummate rebel and radical who invites us to join the counter-culture standing against the apathy and the corruption of mainstream society that is stacked against, not only its marginal members, but even against God, the legitimate ruler of all that exists.
One more little glimpse into my Jesus. He is the Way, as he called himself and as the early church was called after him. My soul longs for God, to live in union with God, to know God, to be one with God, to become true and real and fulfilled in God. And Jesus teaches and models for us a Way to seek and find and experience God for ourselves. It is a Way of prayer, of servanthood, of compassion, of simplicity, of sacrifice, of radical inclusion, and more but, above all, the Way of love. I falter in my attempts to follow that Way. The culture around me – even in the church – makes it so difficult to see and stay faithful to that Way. I am embarrassed, really, by how feeble are my attempts to follow the Way of Jesus. But each week, in the silent time in our opening prayer, I try to return to that Way and begin another week with that image of Jesus leading me.
How would you answer the question for yourself? Who is this Jesus anyway? Who is he to you? How does he fuel your passion for life? How does he give meaning and purpose to your life?
I would love to hear you talk about that. I don’t want right and acceptable answers. I want real and personal answers. For Jesus is so much more than anything we can reduce to a nice, neat theological formula.
There is a bit of Jesus that each and every one of us knows for ourselves. By sitting around a campfire in Sherwood Forest or at Camp Christopher, or at a table at Dr. Java’s or in the Red Room or in your kitchen, and sharing our personal experiences of Jesus, a fuller picture of this strange and marvelous and intriguing person will emerge.
Together, we can shine a light on him and let what we see absolutely blow our minds and change our lives. I know it did mine.
The Rev. Ted Hicks