Sermons That Work

And He Was Transfigured…, Last Sunday in Epiphany (A) – 2005

February 06, 2005

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’

There is a certain irony to celebrating World Mission Sunday with the Gospel for the Transfiguration—an accidental, uncomfortable, and yet chillingly cutting irony.

The irony is that a Gospel that celebrates the revelation of Christ in a glory that transcends time and space, that permeates culture and custom, also wittingly or not illuminates the worst of what world mission can be and serves not so much as inspiration but as cautionary tale.

The Transfiguration is one of the more powerful visual images of the Gospel. Matthew’s language paints a vivid picture:

Jesus is up on the mountain, his face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming dazzling white.

Jesus is shining brilliantly.

Jesus is at his most glorious.

Jesus is white.

No, the author of Matthew’s Gospel was not making a racial statement and yes, the text does indeed speak only of his clothes being white. But the connection is still there. This watershed moment of revelation corresponds with Jesus becoming white. And even if it didn’t mean anything back then, you can bet it means something now.

And it provides an important lens through which we can examine what we really mean by world mission.

When you mention “world mission” to most people, the images that come to mind are straight out of our colonial past. The Gospel must spread to the ends of the earth and we are the chosen instruments. Christ thus becomes something that we have that others do not. We become the teachers and the world our students, and the more they come out resembling us, the better.

This is the history of much of the spread of Christianity. In Ghana, it is disappointing and saddening to learn, Anglican churches still use not native liturgies but Church of England liturgies in Elizabethan English. Even worse, the images of Christ in many of the places remain white.

For them, the language of their faith, the language with which they approach God, and the images of Christ that focus their worship are not their language and their images but essentially European or Western language and images.

The saddest and most ironic moment reported from Ghana recently involved a black congregation singing, as a processional, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” from their Anglican hymnals—a hymn that glorifies white Westerners delivering Africa “from error’s chain” where the “vile heathens…in (their) blindness bow down to wood and stone.”

White visitors to Ghana are also saddened and shocked to find that small black children flock to them wherever they go because of the color of their skin, and sometimes rub their forearms against those of the white visitors, trying to get the white to rub off on them.

It was the same sadness a white teacher felt in her inner-city elementary school class several years ago when her racially-diverse class of first graders picked the white face as the most beautiful in a lineup of faces of different races and colors.

When World Mission Sunday was established by General Convention in 1997, the rationale was to challenge “congregations, dioceses, and provinces to learn about and become more fully engage in God’s global mission.” That language is insightful. The “mission” of world mission is not ours. It is not us spreading something we have and others do not. It is God’s mission. It is us becoming a part of, becoming partners with each other and with God in God working out the divine purposes all over the earth through all the people of the earth.

World Mission is about transfiguration—about the world shining with the glory of God—but it is not about Jesus becoming white. In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

World mission is not about a white Jesus. World mission is about seeing the transfigured Jesus who isn’t white. World mission is about those of us who are white, who are people of extreme global power and privilege (and in a world where 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day, that’s pretty much all of us), surrendering the image of the white Jesus as normative, surrendering the power to define Christ for the world. World mission is about honoring the continuing incarnation of the Body of Christ in different colors, cultures, tribes, and nations.

World mission is about seeing the transfigured Jesus who isn’t white. About us seeing the incredible power and beauty in the Jesus who is Ghanaian, Salvadoran, and Korean. And not just seeing him but humbly following him into places where he teaches us in language and custom that is not our own.

World mission is about our radical dependence on each other around the globe. About the great truth that we are necessary for each other’s salvation and that no one part of the body is greater than another—and that we disengage from each other at our own great, great peril.

And that leads us to the second cautionary tale of this Gospel reading, and that’s the story of Peter.

If consistency is a virtue, you’ve got to hand it to Peter because you can always count on him to be utterly human—utterly, enthusiastically, rockheadedly, blockheadedly human. And Peter doesn’t disappoint in this story.

Confronted by Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ, Peter reacts in the most basic human way possible—wanting to capture and preserve the moment forever. “It’s good for us to be here,” Peter said. “Let’s build three booths … one for each of you.” Not only did the trio deserve places of honor, Peter wanted the moment to last.

And why not? This was an incredible experience of divine revelation Peter was having. When we experience God in a powerful way it is natural for us to want to preserve the means of that experience. It is natural for us to want to enshrine, to preserve, to stay on that mountaintop.

But God would have none of it. The experience was meant to shape Peter, James, and John’s understanding of Christ—not to be the final word of it. In the blink of an eye, Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus stood alone. The moment was gone. Soon, they were on their way down the mountain.

We can all probably feel compassion for Peter. Because we know that when we experience God, when we experience Christ powerfully, we would all want to stay on that mountaintop, too. We would want to stay resting in the presence of God. Let the world go on without me, we think. Just let me rest in this amazing moment.

But Jesus did not let his disciples stay on that mountain but led them down off it. And immediately he went about the work of healing and casting out demons and confronting the authorities about money and power.

And that’s the second lesson for us on this World Mission Sunday. For if we are to let go of the white Jesus of “personal salvation” (and that is really an oxymoron!), it means leaving the safety of the mountain, the safety of a life of comfortable, risk- and commitment-free worship and living. It means going down that mountain and being Christ for the poorest, loneliest, sickest, and most destitute in the world even as they reveal Christ to us.

This Sunday is a hinge for us. With this week, we move from Epiphany into Lent—going literally from the mountaintop into the desert.

The mountaintop is much more comfortable and the pull to stay there is incredible. But the desert is where Christ leads us. Christ leads us there because that’s where so many of our sisters and brothers whom he loves live, and he is depending on us in our incredible wealth and abundance to care for them.

But Christ also leads us there because he knows that as much as they need us, we need them and the Christ they incarnate for us. Christ leads us there because our common destiny is as partners in this mission of God.

Christ leads us down the mountain and into the desert, because the true transfiguration, the true shining forth of God in all God’s glory happens when we follow him there together, giving to each other from what we have, honoring each other for who we are, and bowing reverently to the Christ who resides in each and in all.

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Christopher Sikkema


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