Meeting the Jesus you Thought you Knew

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All four gospels have Jesus acclaimed as God’s beloved Son by the unmediated voice of God. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, from which this Sunday’s lesson comes, that declaration is made on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-43). In John’s gospel, it comes as Jesus is entering Jerusalem with his disciples following the raising of Lazarus. John 12:27-36. There can no longer be any question in the minds of the disciples about who Jesus is. But, like us, the disciples are struggling to make sense of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son and what it means for them to follow him.

I think that about sums up my own poor life of discipleship. I did not have the misfortune of growing up in a faith community where God was painted as an angry judge, where the devil was lying in wait for me behind every TV show and every hit song or where every stray thought constituted a sin against the Holy Spirit-for which there is no forgiveness. I grew up in a Lutheran tradition that emphasized grace over all of these things. Thus, in my early years, I had the notion that being baptized set me apart for certain privileges. I got to go to heaven when I died. I could get forgiveness for anything I might do wrong. Using the name of Jesus in prayer unlocked God’s inner office and somehow got my petitions closer to the top of the divine inbox.

In my teens, Jesus was transfigured for me. As I became more deeply involved with discipleship through participation in my church’s youth activities, I discovered that faith is relational, not transactional. That is to say, I learned that it is less about accepting a set of doctrinal propositions and more about trusting in a person, namely, Jesus.  God was no longer a distant abstraction for me, but a loving Father with a “plan” for my life. This new dimension of understanding deepened my appreciation for worship, Christian community and the importance of public witness. A flame had been lit in my heart. I wanted desperately to grow in my faith and discipleship. Still, my understanding of Jesus remained very “me” centered. The piety practiced by me and my peers was heavily weighted toward knowing Jesus as our “personal savior” and cultivating the inner life for its own sake. Additionally, we were captive to a limited moral universe that emphasized personal ethics over responsibility for the welfare of the larger community. We were particularly preoccupied with sexual sins and the “impure thoughts” that led us in that direction. I suppose this was in no small part due to the fact that we were, after all, adolescents boiling over with hormones and in the throes of discovering our sexuality. Sadly, our faith, as then constituted, was inadequate as far as giving us much direction beyond “thou shalt not.”

As I entered college, I experienced yet another of Jesus’ transfigurations. I became aware that Jesus’ love extended to the whole person and that salvation was for the world. I discovered that sin was not merely a personal matter, but a systemic one manifested in the persistence of poverty, injustice, racism and sexism. I came to understand that following Jesus is not consistent with neutrality on these matters. I learned that discipleship must necessarily have a public dimension. I was introduced to our church’s efforts to combat hunger, poverty and racial injustice. I was also confronted for the first time with gay and lesbian believers who opened my eyes to what my church was doing to these children of God through its moral teachings and practices of rejection and exclusion. Seeing Jesus in them transfigured him for me once more. I was thereby compelled to re-think much of what I had been taught.

I am not through seeing Jesus transfigured. These days I struggle with what it means for a son of white privilege to hear the call of Jesus to discipleship and respond. In trying to find my place in Jesus’ mission to bring good news in a world of racism, patriarchy and economic inequality, I often find myself just as blind, clueless and tone deaf as Jesus’ disciples were as they consistently failed to listen to, understand and obey him. Just when I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover that I don’t. He is always showing himself to be deeper, more complex, more compassionate and more generous than I have the capacity to imagine.

It is fitting, I think, that our Lenten pilgrimage is prefaced by the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This Sunday, we will hear the voice of God declare of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” In the following weeks, we will strive to do just that. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we learn who Jesus is. But it is only in following him down into the plane that we will discover what that really means and what it means for us to be united with him.  As we make this journey once again through the forty days of Lent, the phrase from Luther’s Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” should be ringing in our ears.  It is important that we enter into this season each year with the expectation that Jesus will again be transfigured before us, that we will see him once more in a different light and that we will greet the Easter sunrise with a deeper, fuller and more mature faith in him and a clearer understanding of the new life into which he calls us.

Jesus, it seems, will always be a mystery however much we may love him, however zealously we try to follow him, however near to us he is. Like the daughter in James Lenfestey’s poem, he will always remain “a mystery in a story.”

Daughter

A daughter is not a passing cloud, but permanent,
holding earth and sky together with her shadow.
She sleeps upstairs like mystery in a story,
blowing leaves down the stairs, then cold air, then warm.
We who at sixty should know everything, know nothing.
We become dull and disoriented by uncertain weather.
We kneel, palms together, before this blossoming altar.

Source: A Cartload of Scrolls, (pub. by Holy Cow! Press, c. by James P. Lenfestey 2007). James P. Lenfestey is an American author and poet, a former college English instructor and editorial writer for the Star Tribune. He has produced multiple collections of essays and poems and has edited a number of anthologies. He is chair of the Literary Witnesses poetry series, teaches at the Mackinac Island Poetry Festival and lives in Minneapolis with his wife. You can find out more about James L. Lenfestey at the Poetry Foundation website.

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