Transfigured to be Fully Human

On the radio, travelling home from work one time, I was listening to the local Christian Radio station.  There was one of those preacher sessions.  He’s a relatively local guy from over the other side of the Melbourne, with a North American accent, I can’t remember his name.  He was preaching to encourage his congregation to accept that they would fail, fall short, of what they believed God wanted of them.  He connected this with Peter’s thrice denial, and failure, of Jesus.  He went on to say that Jesus knew that Peter would fail because Jesus was God and therefore he knew Peter’s weaknesses.

‘Der!’ I thought to myself.  I don’t need to be God to know that people are going to fall short of God and of my own expectations because I am human and I have experience of other humans.  It is my humanity that knows that others will fail and let me and others down.

There are those who clearly find this difficult to accept.  Even amongst clergy, struggling to live amongst their congregation, the human institution of the church, and those in authority over them, and some congregational members leaving because someone has not lived up to their expectations or has hurt them.

In the language of the scholars we speak about theology as the study of God: Theo logos, literally words about God.  The study of Jesus is called Christology: Christ logos, literally words about Christ.

There are two approaches to doing Christology: high and low.  The high and low have no relationship with high and low churchmanship, whatever that might mean.  High Christology begins with Jesus as the incarnation of God.  He is God who took on human flesh.  It begins with the idea that he is God.  Low Christology, however, begins with Jesus humanity.  Jesus is a fully human being who reveals that he is God incarnate.

This is where this Mornington Peninsula preacher and I diverge.  He is clearly a High Christologian and I am a Low Christologian.  I begin with the fully human Jesus who reveals the God incarnate in him.  I do not need Jesus to be God to know that Peter would let him down.  Jesus full human experience would have told him that.  What makes him different to most humans is his acceptance that other humans will fail him and his ability to forgive those around him who fail him.  He is realistic about our sinfulness.  He does not walk away in pain and disappointment.

Peter could not even accept that about himself.  When the cock did crow three times and had realised that he had denied Jesus three times, when Jesus looked at him during the trial, he went out and wept.  It was even worse for Judas, so full of remorse because of his betrayal for thirty pieces of silver, legend tells us he went out and committed suicide.  The power of this lack of human acceptance of our weakness that leads to failure of our God and one another is strong.  To suggest that you need to be God to realise that people around us are going to fail leads us to disappointment.

Males accounted for around 78% of suicide deaths and nearly 20% of all deaths amongst young men aged 20 to 34 were due to suicide.  I can’t help wondering, based on personal experience and conversations I have had with people, that suicide is the option chosen to resolve an inability to cope with the reality of disappointment, in self and others.  We are in great danger of disappointment when we expect of ourselves and others those things that attributes of God alone and not of humans.  I think Christology and a mature Christian faith must begin from the perspective of Jesus humanity if we are going to consider how we become more like him.

This human starting point is the approach we must take as we come to celebrate and consider the transfiguration of Jesus.  I have always contended that this experience was one of Jesus discovery of himself as much as it was of the disciples discovery of Jesus nature and identity.  The human Jesus takes 3 of his disciples away to be ‘by themselves together’ as my dad says.  It is Jesus custom to go up on to a mountain to pray, albeit a hill.  It is for them intended to be a time of prayer.  Indeed it is a significant time, where the disciples get a glimpse of Jesus’ messianic glory and Jesus is affirmed in his identity, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him’.  In prayer Jesus is affirmed.  It is in prayer, more often than not, that we get a glimpse of how much God loves us and affirms us.

The response of the disciples is truly encouraging for us in our humanity also.  Peter, witnessing this event, opens his mouth to change his feet, ‘he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.’  It is often the case, even when we have dramatic experiences of God that we do not understand what is happening.  There are many times when things happen and we do not understand why or what they mean.  We do not have, or have to have, all the answers in order to relate to God.  I have myself felt fear when God has revealed himself powerfully.

I was smiling inwardly on Thursday as a listened to a conversation among the members of the meditation group reflecting on the transforming work of God in their lives.  It was exactly what the story of the transfiguration is about for us.

Transfiguration literally means to be changed in appearance, to be metamorphosed.  It is, however, only a temporary change of appearance, but the internal change, the change within us, the shedding of past hurts, fears, imperfections, weaknesses, sins, dysfunctionality, oppressions, that enable the true us to be revealed.  Our salvation is a process of transfiguration.

We are not called to be like God except as much as we are created in the image and likeness of God.  We are called to be our fully human selves and the process of that revealing, that unveiling, I don’t want to say ‘that becoming’ because we are it already, however it is covered, hidden, and is to be revealed.

As individuals and as a faith community, our journey is the transfiguration journey.  We are on the journey of moving into and towards that which we were created to be as God continues to say to us, ‘You are my Beloved.’  At times we will be confused and even frightened as God undertakes that work in us; we will, however, need to enter into the opportunities that God has and is giving us for our transfiguration to take place.

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Church as providers not consumers

I have been thinking about the Inauguration Speech of John F Kennedy in relation to our expectations as church, during which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”   What does this mean for our church, our parish?

Before I say anything, let me indicate that I am not an economist and really don’t have any idea about economic theory and models.  However, I am engaged politically and I am economically competitive.  By the latter I mean I loved that the Australian Economy became the go to economy during the global financial crisis and the Australian dollar became worth more than the US dollar.

However, I do appreciate that put pressure on our export markets and made our imports markets more affordable.  As the leader of a not-for-profit church, I also appreciate that the lowering of the interest rate by the reserve bank of Australia, although good for me as a mortgage holder, it is not good for the finances of a church comprised of mostly self-funded retirees.

In my own lifetime there has been a changing economic priority in Australia.  I remember the emphasis being on savings.  At Primary School we were encouraged to save money.  During school time, once per week, we would make deposits in our Commonwealth Bank accounts through a bank representative that came to the school.

Clearly that was before Paul Keating, then Treasurer, floated the Australian dollar and led us into the recession we needed to have, and encouraged us to tighten our belts.  Later, I recall the government of the day introducing income tax on the interest earned from savings.  This, perhaps, marked the beginning of the decline in emphasis on savings.

Even later was the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) as a means of obtaining revenue on the basis of people’s spending as we shifted from being savers to consumers.

Now we know that the Reserve Bank of Australia chooses to increase or decrease interest rates on the basis of inflation, determined by employment figures amongst other things.  I don’t get inflation; this simply means people want higher incomes to pay for things.  This fluctuation is therefore determined by how much excess money people have to spend to obtain things.

In the economics of our capitalist democracy we are dependent upon having money to spend to keep the economy going.  You may remember, during the global financial crisis, the $900 bonus the Rudd Labor Government gave us to go out and spend to keep the economy above water.  Our economics is driven by and dependent upon consumerism.  We have effectively become a consumer society where we pay for products and others to do labour on our behalf in order to provide us with more leisure time.  But of course we have to work harder and longer to pay for them.

But this consumer culture is not limited to economics.  It has become a part of our general culture.  We have become consumers.  We participate in things for what we can get out of it.  We make choices on the basis of what suits us.  And we have even allowed this consumer culture to permeate the church.  I am conscious that so many Christians, even Anglicans ones, go church hopping to find a church that meets their needs.  Members of churches have become consumers of ministry rather than doers of ministry.

An example of this consumer culture within churches is expressed in an expectation that the Priest, Minister, Pastor, Leader will visit them and undertake the ministries of the church; after all, that’s what we pay them for.  I suspect in many churches this one of the reasons they are struggling.  Another example of consumer culture within the church may be seen when the worship which is focussed on a group of skilled musicians providing high quality music. Must admit I am a bit envious of this, but it means even the work of worship, which is what liturgy means, is done by others upfront, on a stage and consumed by those attending.

The antidote for a church adopting this consumer culture of our society is to paraphrase John F Kennedy.  As church we ought to remind one another, “Ask not what the church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.”  Former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late William Temple, is credited with saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  The challenge is that the church Christ calls us to be is for the benefit of others not for ourselves.  We are not consumers, but providers.

And why should we be consumers.  Our participating in church is already the greatest expression of consumerism.  We are benefitting from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to restore us in relationship with God.  It is not to us now to consume, rather it is our task now to contribute to enabling the church to continue its commission to make disciples, to baptise and to teach.

When Jesus says to all his disciples, in response to James and his brother’s mother’s expression of what she wants for her boys, he says, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)  Jesus stands the things of his culture on their head.  To serve and not be served challenges the potential consumer culture in the church.  To be served is to be a consumer.  To serve is to contribute to the ministry, or enabling the ministry, of the church to be undertaken.  It is allowing the church to do and be whatever it needs to do and be rather than what we want it to do, or how we want it to be.

Fundamental to this is, of course, our being disciples; being those who are learners of God as he is revealed to us in Jesus.  The prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord to the people of Judah, God’s own people.  Let’s get biblical prophecy right.  They are words of warning, not the future, to God’s own people, not the world.  The problem, they have become self-absorbed; he says, “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted—that is, the whole land.  And you, do you seek things for yourself?  Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh.”  (Jeremiah 45:4-5)

We can get self-absorbed in our own discipleship.  It is amazing how often, when I hear people praying, their prayer consists of a shopping list of the things they want God to do for them.  A more important paraphrase of this statement, fundamental even to our contribution to church, indeed is important in asking how we can contribute to the ministry, or enabling the ministry, of the church is, “Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for your God.”

This is a theme for the readings for our celebration of St James.  It is a challenge to letting our participation in the church to be purely as a consumer and calls us to enabling and doing for the purpose of the church, being providers.

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Luke 24:13-35 – Blockages to recognising the risen Jesus

I love this story of the two disciples, Cleopas and another who is not named, on their journey to Emmaus.  While on the journey they are talking about the events in Jerusalem over the last few days.  While they are walking, Jesus comes ‘near them’ and walks with them on the way, but they do not recognise Jesus.

Just recently I stopped at the service station in Bannockburn to fill my truck with diesel.  A rider on a motorbike pulled up and began filling the tank with petrol.  As I walked past he said, ‘Gooday, Tim,’ and I looked at him, I am certain, with that look that says, I recognise you but I don’t know who you are.  I wasn’t so rude as not to say hello and ask how he was going, but my look was enough for him to tell me that his Rodeo had packed it in and the motorbike was his leisure vehicle.

At the time this did not give me any further clues to this person who clearly knew me reasonably well and I felt I should have known.  I held onto the idea that I would know him better as someone who normally drives a Rodeo and I wouldn’t ever imagine riding a motorbike.

It’s funny how an incident as insignificant as that can persist in your mind; thinking who was that person.  It was some days that the penny dropped and I realised who that person was… one of the Brothers from the Community of the Transfiguration, formerly in Breakwater, now just down the road from me in Teesdale.

I popped in to the Community on Saturday for a number of reasons, mainly to simply catch up, but while I was there I had the opportunity to apologise to the Brother for not recognising him.  We talked about how easy it is to know someone well, but when they are out of their usual context and in different costume, it seems to slip out of our consciousness.  I recall a member of St Stephens not recognising me initially down the street, because their conscious image of me is, I presume, in a white alb with vestments.  I have not recognised people I have played bowls with because the only image I have had of them was in their white bowls uniforms in the context of the bowling club.

This story of the Road to Emmaus does not surprise me that the disciples did not recognise Jesus when he walked with them.  Firstly, although they were disciples, they weren’t one’s that were in the close group of the twelve; we have not heard Cleopas mentioned previously and the other on the road is not even named.  Secondly, they were still in a mental haze about Jesus being alive.  He was dead and buried, but

some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.[1]

These two disciples weren’t particularly close to Jesus and his appearing to them was outside their context of understanding, for ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’[2]  It wasn’t until he did what was familiar to them, breaking the bread as he had done in the past, that they recognised the person who had been walking with them to be Jesus.

The accounts of the disciples’ responses to Jesus are important because they are, as the disciples of the writer’s future, our stories.  We, too, can find it difficult to recognise the risen Jesus with us.  Perhaps even more so than those disciples who knew Jesus in his earthly existence because we are those who, as we heard last week, have not seen Jesus but have come to believe.

The writer of the letter in Peter’s name has some understanding of this danger of being distracted from not only recognising the risen Jesus, but trusting in the promise of grace that is ours in him, ‘do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance,’ he writes.[3]  What we formerly understood, what we formerly believed, like Cleopas and the other disciples were so convinced that Jesus was going to redeem Israel in a particular way, can obscure our seeing Jesus’ presence and the way God is at work through him that is different to our way and our expectations.

The letter of Peter may not have originally been such, but it contains what appears to be a sermon for a baptism event.  This baptism is taking place under the threat of, or actual, persecution of the early Christian Church, possibly by the worst of the Emperors, Trajan.

I can imagine how threats upon life could be a distraction from seeing God at work; the revealing of Jesus Christ; the promises of an inheritance won for them by Christ’s death and resurrection.  We don’t need to look too hard in the context of our own world to see how illness and accident becomes a distraction from seeing the risen Christ at work in their life and the life of those who are experience adversity.  By this I don’t mean that God wills terrible things to happen to people so that good things can come.  It is apparent, however, that people cannot see what can be when they do not continue to trust in God when bad things happen.

So, what are the things with which Peter’s hearers might be drawn back to of their ignorance?  It is probable that the writer of Peter is addressing converts in the part of Galatia that Paul has not been to – Paul often went to the places where Jews would be found despite being seen as a missionary to the Gentiles.  So these converts would more than likely have been converts from Greek and Roman paganism.  No real threat to the authority of Trajan – the Emperor was, after all, also worshipped as a god.  The temptation would be to return to the worship of creation and the Greek/Roman gods they formerly had in their ignorance.

The letter in Peter’s name gives us a hint to the things that we might be an obstruction to our recognising the risen Jesus and trusting in the promise of grace won for us in the resurrection,

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.[4]

How easy is it for money and wealth to become a distraction from the things that God wants to reveal to us and to this, I would also like to add, as those who do, science.  Not that these things are in themselves opposites to being people of faith, but they do speak of the desires to which we can return because we have been conformed by them in our former ignorance.

It is potentially easy for us to miss the presence of the risen Jesus and the potential of the working of God when we continue in our expectations that things will continue the way they are and keep the things of God in a place where we expect the things of God to happen.  The resurrection encourages us to be a people who expect God to reveal himself and open our eyes that we might recognise him at work in, through, and around us, and move us into the new things he wants us to experience wherever we may be and in whatever circumstance we are in.

[1] Luke 24:22-24

[2] Luke 24:21

[3] 1 Peter 1:14

[4] 1 Peter 1:18-19

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