Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Fellowship of Jesus Only

(A Transfiguration Sunday sermon/Communion meditation based on Mark 9:2-9)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday on the Christian calendar, the day on which we remember and reflect upon that amazing event in which Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus being transformed before their eyes—we are probably meant to understand this as a prefiguring of the glory that would be his in his resurrection—and having a conversation with Elijah and Moses, the content of which neither Mark nor Matthew tell us but of which Luke says, they “spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

Today we are also observing the Lord’s Supper through which, as Paul said, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

I find that combination very interesting; both events teach us of the kind of people we who are the disciples of Jesus Christ are supposed to be.

Upon witnessing the Transfiguration, Simon Peter stammered out something about putting up some booths for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses to dwell in; perhaps Peter was just trying to be hospitable, maybe he had the Feast of Booths in mind, or maybe he thought that they could all just settle down there and wait for the end of time to roll around. Or, perhaps we ought not to put too much weight on what Peter said anyway, since Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (v. 6).

As an aside, I would like to note that such should be our reaction more often than it is when we have an experience with God or when we catch a glimpse of what God is up to; we should be so in awe that we just don’t know what to say and so we shouldn’t say much of anything—we should just be in awe. We are, after all, talking about what Almighty God is up to!

When Peter finished spitting out his words, a cloud enveloped the scene and a voice from the cloud, which we should take to be the voice of God, said, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (v. 7). And when the three disciples looked around they saw no one “save Jesus only” (KJV). God told the disciples that it was Jesus to whom they were to listen and for them there was no one to listen to except Jesus. They were to be, in other words the Fellowship of Jesus Only. We who are disciples of Jesus in these days are members of that same Fellowship; Jesus, the beloved Son of God, the culmination and epitome of God’s plan of salvation, the Incarnate Word of God, is our Lord and we are to listen to him and to him only when it comes to ultimate issues, to the matters of life and death.

What were they—and what are we—to listen to Jesus say? What kinds of things did and does Jesus say that they needed to heed and that we need to heed? Well, the only thing that Jesus said in close proximity to the Transfiguration event was his instruction to the three disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after Jesus had risen from the dead (v. 9). It is a theme of Mark that Jesus did not want too much said about who he was until the time was right for the truth to be fully revealed. After Jesus was raised they could and did tell it all and all of us live on this side of the resurrection and so we know the whole story and so we can tell the whole story and so we should tell the whole story—with our words and with our lives.

Indeed, as the current members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only we are also members of the Fellowship of the Resurrected Jesus and that makes a huge difference. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh established the Russian Orthodox diocese of Great Britain and Ireland. He tells the story of how he came to meet Jesus through his reading as a young man of the Gospel of Mark:

While I was reading the beginning of St Mark's gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will.
This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist…. I discovered then something absolutely essential to the Christian message — that the Resurrection is the only event of the Gospel which belongs to history not only past but also present. Christ rose again, twenty centuries ago, but he is the Risen Christ as long as history continues. Only in the light of the Resurrection did everything else make sense to me…. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact
. [I was pointed to this by Richard J. Foster, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. 77.]

Now, in light of the fact of the resurrected Christ whom we have experienced and do experience for ourselves, we know that we should listen to him in all things. His resurrection has validated his life and his teachings; we have no doubt of his ultimate and utter authority.

So I ask again: what did he say to which they were to listen and to which we should listen?

He said that the way of grace that shows itself in a life of service and sacrifice is God’s way for his people. That’s what Jesus said just before the Transfiguration and that’s what he said not long after it. Just six days before the Transfiguration (and just a few sentences before it in Mark’s telling) Peter had made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah and then Jesus had explained what that meant, “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing—a thing that obviously could not accurately describe the fate of the Messiah, Peter thought—Jesus in turn rebuked Peter and then Jesus said about all of us who would follow him,

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it…. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (8:34b-35, 38).

There it is again: we are to listen to what Jesus says, and what Jesus says is that the Christian life is all about giving yourself away. Yes, there is resurrection at the end but the path to resurrection goes through love and grace and mercy and service and selflessness and sacrifice.

Then Jesus led his disciples down from the mountain on which Peter had wanted to park and stay—we can’t stay on the mountain, can we?—down into the valley where human beings with all their needs dwelled, and where human beings with all their needs still dwell—and for now that’s where we belong, isn’t it? To be members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only means to be members of the Fellowship of the Crucifixion—inspired by and filled with Jesus, we give of ourselves to meet the needs of people, to heal their hurts, to feed their hunger, to touch their lives, to show them the One who can forgive their sins.

And then, to hammer the point home, Jesus told them (and us) again: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (9:31). “But,” Mark tells us, “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (9:32). Understand, though, that after his crucifixion and resurrection they got it—we know that they got it because they lived it!

So it must be with us. We are about to gather around the Table of the Lord. As we do we will “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” How do we proclaim that death? Well, we proclaim it by taking the Supper and we proclaim it with our words—but we also proclaim it with our lives. “This is my body,” he said—the body that was sacrificed and broken for us. “This is my blood,” he said—the blood that was spilled for us. And if we are going to be the Fellowship of Jesus Only—the people who listen to him, if we are going to be the Fellowship of the Resurrection—the people who have encountered the resurrected Lord and who know that he must be listened to, if we are going to be the Fellowship of the Crucifixion—the people who know that the way to glory, the way to eternity, the way to God, is the way of grace that shows itself in service and selflessness and sacrifice—then we will be the people who put that way first in our lives.

So as we eat the bread and drink the cup, let us ask ourselves some questions. When we have the opportunity to forgive this week, will we? When we have the chance to give something up for the Lord and for someone else, will we? When we have privilege to go out of our way and to break our routine to help someone, will we? When we get the chance to break the cycle of sin that escalates when we hold grudges and take vengeance by instead practicing radical grace and mercy, will we? When we have the opportunity to love someone who is hard to love, will we?

Let us take the bread and the cup as members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only. Let’s listen to him. Let’s not be ashamed of his words. And let’s show it with our lives.

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