Preached at Douglas Congregational UCC on Oct. 2, 2011, by Rev. Andy DeBraber with the text from Matthew 17:1-8 (The Transfiguration).
At the base of the grand staircase entrance to Lincoln High School, one of those grand old architectural gems they used to build, stands a monument to its namesake, Abraham Lincoln. “In front of Lincoln is a large tree stump. Kneeling on the other side of the stump from Lincoln, eyes looking up in hope and expectation, is an African American slave. The slave’s arms are stretched wide so that the chains linking his wrists rest on top of the stump. Feet planted firmly, lumberjack Lincoln stands poised with an axe above his head ready to come down and shatter the chains of the slave....
“Now did this really happen? No, not literally. But is it true? Absolutely. The language of metaphor, parable, and artistic representations often express profound truths better than the raw historical data - a reality that the evangelist authors of the gospels knew well.”
So, did the encounter we know as the Transfiguration, the story we just read, really happen? No, not literally. But is it true? Absolutely. The transfiguration is a vivid story picture to convey what the people following Jesus saw and experienced: here is one who is full of God, who is a great leader like Moses - freeing the people from oppression, who is a prophet healer like Elijah - calling for justice, who is blessed of God, who spreads the good news that we are beloved of God, whose words are wise and deep and meaningful. And all of this is life-changing, world-changing stuff. The images and words used to draw this story picture are taken directly from the well of their own Hebrew Scriptures and other religions of the time.
This picture - and the many others in the gospels - shed light for us on the questions “Who was Jesus?” and “Who is Jesus?” even as these questions demand distinctly different answers. The answer to “Who was Jesus?” implies a look at Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth. That fascinating study informs, but is far different from, the answer to “Who is Jesus?”
For us right now, right here, I ask, who is Jesus? As you consider your answer, know this: we are not looking for Sunday School answers. If those are your answers and they are meaningful for you, thanks be to God. But what I’m saying is that we want honesty here. And we are working in a realm and a belief system that says, contrary to what is so often projected, that there are many legitimate answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?”
This has been true throughout the history of the church. The great scholar John Dominic Crossan, to whom I owe the story of Lincoln High School, notes that while there is only one Jesus and only one Gospel (which according to him is that God looks a whole lot more like Jesus than like Caesar or Pharaoh), there are in the Bible four “according to’s.” We are always needing to reinterpret and reapply Jesus and the Gospel to our time and setting, just as the writers of the four gospels took their understanding and their community’s memories of Jesus and put them into four very distinct story pictures.
So again, I ask, “Who is Jesus?” for us sitting right here right now. The Jesus of history, the “who-was” Jesus, was a Galilean, Mediterranean Jewish peasant wisdom teacher, healer, and mystic. Our children’s curriculum says in its instructions to the teachers: “scholars...in the last 30 years...have discovered that a vast amount of the Jesus story that we have shared over the centuries is made up of a conglomeration of history, allegory, and myth borrowed from other ancient religions of the time.” Sorting out this Jesus of history and Jesus of story is no simple task. Some of us find this task entertaining. But what’s the point. The point would be to strip from Jesus all the cultural baggage that has accumulated on him over the ages to get down to some of the core truths.
One way of doing this, popularized by Marcus Borg, is to distinguish between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is, of course, the Jesus of history. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition -- all the ways that the followers of Jesus have continued to experience him after his death.
How we continue to experience Jesus after his death is the ongoing story of the resurrection. In other words, getting caught up whether the tomb was really empty and whether Jesus rose in a physical bodily way from the dead is a distraction that turns Christian faith into believing all this really spectacular stuff that happened a long time ago (walking on water, feeing the 5,000, the virgin birth). Rather, Christian faith is about our relationship to Jesus as a figure of the present. This is true regardless of what may or may not have happened on a particular morning in the past, which is where so many get hung up, rather than what it might mean to follow the Way of Jesus today. Many of you are aware, of course, that the earliest Christians were called “followers of the Way,” drawing on the frequent allusions in Hebrew Scriptures to the Way of Life as opposed to the way of death.
So again, what is our “according to” gospel? What would the Gospel according to Douglas Congregational UCC look, sound, and read like? How would Jesus figure in?
For all my years in ministry, I’ve wrestled with who Jesus is. I’ve dug deeply into the “Who-was-Jesus” work. I’ve sought him in the least of these. I’ve memorized the stories. What I have yet to experience is a personal relationship with Jesus. I’ve told you that before. Yet what I have discovered and believe with all my heart and soul is that Jesus offers the best way to live a deep and meaningful life full of God, both for individuals and for societies. People experienced Jesus as the fullest manifestation of the Divine in human flesh -- and many continue to experience Jesus this way. As Crossan puts it, Jesus is what God would look like with sandals on.
So when people ask (or more often insist on) whether someone has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior as their ticket to heaven (as happened at Mike’s Mom’s funeral Thursday), the question doesn’t compute. I don’t know what good simple assent does. I don’t know what it would mean to have my ticket stamped. I can’t believe all this spectacular stuff literally happened hundreds of years ago. I can’t believe the nets of God’s grace aren’t wide enough to encompass the many understandings of faith and faithful ways of living.
What I do know is that if we want to live life to its fullest possible depths and heights, to its fullest possible meanings, following the life and teachings of Jesus will lead us there.
What I do know is that if we want to know what it is to be most fully human, if we are finding life lackluster and boring, if we are trapped in certain ways of being, feeling, thinking, or living, listening to and reflecting on and acting according to the life and teachings of Jesus can be incredibly healing, freeing, and life-giving beyond measure.
What I do know is that living life on the margins, hanging out with or being one of the has-beens or the never-were’s, bringing healing in places of pain, speaking truth about injustice to the powers that be, and calling out the religious centers to live not by law but by grace, can get us killed - metaphorically for most of us here today, thanks be to God, but for others literally.
What I do know is that when that happens, death will not be the last word. Love, joy, peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness, healing, and grace - call them Jesus if you want - will never be held long in the grave. Amen.