Psalm 22:23-31 | Mark 9:2-9
The journey of lent, as I suggested last week, is a journey that begin with a recognition of who we are: “you are my child, beloved, with you I am well pleased”, and ends with a declaration of our calling, our mission: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news”.
So if we are to begin our journey by considering who we are, then it’s a fortunate coincidence (by which I mean I’d love to be able to say that I planned it like this, but unfortunately I didn’t), the series of sermons that ran up to lent ended – with the sixth day of the creation story – in a declaration of just that – who we, as humanity, are.
If we are to base our Lenten journey on who we are, that is where we begin. We, each of us, and we, as a community, are created by God; creatures of his creation, sharing with the animals and plants, rocks and waves the basic reality of being created: not derived from ourselves, not the master of our fate, not self-made men or women: when push comes to shove, not God, not divine, not eternal.
And at the same time, we, each of us, and we, as a community, are uniquely made in the image of God, gifted with the creative power of God, entrusted with the care of God’s creation.
But that is just who we are as humanity. That is the truth that we share with all men and women who live and who have ever lived and who ever will live – of all nations, of all faiths (or none), of all ages.
For the start of our Lenten journey we need something else. For, just as Jesus’ time in the wilderness did not start with a simple declaration of his humanity, but with his baptism, and God’s declaration “this is my son, the beloved”, so our Lenten journey begins with our identity not just as people created by God and in the image of God, but people who share that baptism, who have heard the call of that same spirit, who have chosen to enter into that story.
For who we are is a question that cannot ever be answered in isolation. If you want to ask who someone is, you might try to answer the question with an incredibly detailed analysis of the individual: a psychological profile, a complete DNA map, a thorough physical examination.
But I suspect we would all recognise immediately that those things are not the whole story – indeed, are not even the most interesting part of the story. They are things that a skilled biographer would most likely ignore, or at most pay minimal attention to.
To the question of who we are, all the interesting answers lie elsewhere. And in particular, they lie in that strange network of interconnected life that we call relationships. Who we are, ultimately, is shaped – defined – by the network of relationships that we are embedded in.
And who we are – in the context in which we ask this question, at the start of our Lenten journey – is therefore ultimately shaped by the relationship that makes us Christian: our relationship with – or to – Jesus Christ.
We are Jesus’ people. That has to be the place where we begin this journey.
Which, in a strange way, is why the odd, uncomfortable story of the transfiguration is such an important part of the process of lent.
In fact, even the fact that we find this story odd and uncomfortable (at least, I do… perhaps you are very comfortable with this part of the story – in which case it may be that todays sermon is more for me than it is for you. Sorry about that. I’m happy to give a full refund upon request). Part of the reason that we find this story uncomfortable is that it plays to an aspect of Jesus that we aren’t so familiar with, that isn’t so simple a facet of our tradition.
For as is so often the case, the faith asks us to hold truths in tension with one another. And whenever that is so, some of us sit more comfortably with one pole, and some with the other, and all of us struggle to live with the creative tension between the two.
We – most of us, in the Uniting Church – are generally pretty comfortable with the image and language of Jesus as friend, and companion, with the image and language of God as parent, as lover, with the image and language of the spirit as God’s presence, encourager.
But the story of the transfiguration takes that man Jesus – that challenging and confrontational man, that welcoming and accepting man, and shows us another side to his reality. For the language used – dazzling white, as no one could bleach them – speaks deliberate echoes of the appearance of God: and the voice of God, repeating the words heard at the baptism “this is my so, the beloved” but then giving them a new twist, with the command: “listen to him” – all points to a greater reality. This is not just our friend, our Guru, the one who has come to declare the presence of the kingdom of God: this is the king.
And that goes to the core of who we are. For we, the people of the Church, are by definition, the people of Jesus Christ. And it makes the world of difference to who we are, then, whether that Jesus is the wise teacher and reliable friend, or the king of the kingdom, the image of the creator.
I wonder, as we reflect on who we are, whether the words of a friend of mine ring true – that we in the Uniting Church are very good at working for the kingdom of God, but really quite poor at recognising the king of the kingdom.
Peter saw it – and for all that his response gets mocked, even by the author of Mark’s gospel – he is the one who gets something of what has happened.
We, instead, tend to get embarrassed by the story; the Jesus we are comfortable with is very human – even if the perfect human. But the tradition of the Christian faith has always sought to live in the tension that declares Jesus to be fully human, and at the same time, fully God. If the transfiguration is the divine nature of Jesus shining, for a moment, more strongly, then that might be the very reason we feel less comfortable with it.
But it is the scandalous challenge of the gospel; that when we decide to say that we are the people of Jesus, we are claiming for ourselves a share in that declaration: that he was, as the epistle put it, in very nature God.
This is who we are: the followers of the man who is God. This is where we begin our Lenten journey: not just people, created in the image of God; but believers in Jesus, the Christ.
Followers of the one who is God: and, as we journey towards the end of Lent, of the one who turns out to be the God who chose to die.
But perhaps that is a thought for another week.