Posted by Wes Spears
[[Here's my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday (6 March). This is the manuscript I had to work from in the pulpit. I ended up going totally off notes for the ending before bringing it back to the Lord's Prayer at the end. This was delivered at West Side Baptist Church in Cullman, Alabama.]]
“On the Mountain He was bright as the lightning, and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Fourth Theological Oration XIX.[ii]
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 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.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” [iii]
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
For the Churches that use the Church Calendar in the Revised Common Lectionary to determine their sermon topics, they are all hearing sermons like you on the Transfiguration this morning. This is not a passage I would have freely chosen to preach on because it is not an easy one. However, I have poured over those blessed saints and preachers who have come before us, and I think I may at least have one thing valuable to say on the topic. If I may, I would like to set the stage with a quote from one of the great teachers of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He said of the Transfiguration: “On the Mountain He was bright as the lightning, and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.”[iv] He says it so beautifully, the great rhetorician that he is, but I would like to spend the next few minutes unpacking what that may mean.
We will do so with three questions. The first, like all three, seems elementary, “Who is Christ?” The second, “What is the Church?” The third, “What is required of us?” That last question may be the most important of the three, so stick with me until the end.
At first impulse, my response to this question of “Who is Christ?” is:
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.[v]
These are the words of the Nicene Creed that the Early Church set down in its first few centuries. I think they are very important words that unite all Christians in every part of the world. So, in light of this, what does Matthew tell us about who Christ is?
In just the preceding chapter, Peter makes a claim about Christ. This is when they are walking toward Caesarea Philippi, near where the Transfiguration happens in Matthew’s narrative, and Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They respond to him with a variety of answers:
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”[vi]
What this passage is telling us is that Jesus is more than just a good teacher. John the Baptist was a revolutionary, someone who challenged the religious status quo. Elijah was a prophetic witness who was a constant agitator of the monarchy. Jeremiah was that weeping prophet who wrote to his people in exile. They are all wonderful, transformative, and holy people, but there is something different about Jesus. Christianity makes this claim, that Jesus is unique among men. This is why the early Church set down at Chalcedon this creed and teaching that
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the unity, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.[vii]
In less involved and less bloated language, that means that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully man. That is a complicated solution to answer a complicated theological problem, but what does it mean for the Church? I am not a practitioner of theology that has not usefulness for the Church. If it does not aid us in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven in cooperation with Jesus Christ, of what use is theology at all? So how does this understanding of Christ lead us to change the world?
I think we have to begin with the idea of the Incarnation if we are to understand quite the significance of what is happening here. The idea that God would redeem the world was not a new one when Jesus came. The prophets had spoken to Israel that some day of reckoning was coming for them, and there was always this hope of God coming to make things just again. It seems like, given what happens in the Person of Christ, that they had a somewhat foggy understanding of what this looked like. But from time to time, they are so right. Those are the points when it talks about fulfillment of the Scriptures in Matthew.
A few chapters before the Transfiguration is one such moment when Jesus embodies the message of the prophets in a way that none of them could. He learns that the Pharisees are plotting to destroy him, and the Scriptures tell us that
When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. [Sound familiar?]
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” [viii]
This is descriptive of what the mission of Christ is, to bring hope and justice to all people. What does that mean for us? First we have to understand the Incarnation better, like I was saying earlier. The Incarnation is such a dramatic and unexpected act on behalf of God that I think it takes us off guard. What kind of God do we serve? We serve a God that would humble himself and,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.[ix]
The radical nature of the Incarnation is that God did this. This is the act of our redemption, the assumption of humanity by the God of the universe. He assumed our fragility, our confusions, our doubts, our worries, all of us, for he has not redeemed what he has not touched, according to St. Athanasius. In redeeming us in this way, in an act of atonement such as St. Paul described in Philippians 2, we are called to “take up the cross and follow [him.]”[x] St. Gregory Palamas says it well:
Through the fall our nature was stripped of divine illumination and resplendence. But the Logos of God had pity upon our disfigurement and in His compassion He took our nature upon Himself, and on Tabor He manifested it to His elect disciples clothed once again most brilliantly. He shows what we once were and what we shall become through Him in the age to come, if we choose to live our present life as far as possible in accordance with His ways.[xi]
What does that mean? It means living like he taught us to live in his Incarnate example. It means living like these words are true, that
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.[xii]
it means living like the salt of the earth[xiii] and the light of the world.[xiv] It means non-retaliation, turning the other cheek, giving away your cloak.[xv] Living after the Incarnate example of Christ means “lov[ing] your enemies and pray[ing] for those who persecute you.”[xvi] It means that we must pray,[xvii] give to the poor,[xviii] and serve no other master than ours in heaven.[xix] It means not being concerned about the material things of this world,[xx] but instead, as theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says well, “to make the world the world.”
The Church, I believe is that of which St. Gregory of Nazianzus spoke earlier. It is the “mystery of the future” into which we are “initiated” by Christ as he stands on the mount of Transfiguration.[xxi] The Church is God’s plan for the world, and there is no Plan B. Let’s return to the passage from Matthew 16, which I read from earlier:
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For the flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[xxii]
The Church has some pretty significant responsibilities, doesn’t it? That’s part of what I was getting at when I quoted Hauerwas saying that the Church’s duty is to make the world the world. The Church knows what it means to authentically live and what the world is supposed to look like. It is our obligation not to force the world to be that way, but to live that way as a witness to the world as to what they are supposed to look like. However, too often it seems that the Church looks not too much different from the world. How are we to be a community of witnesses to the world if we talk the same and look the same? We should be different, and not arbitrarily so. We are different based on the ways that we live our lives. If you live like the Sermon on the Mount demands, you will look different from the world — and there’s no guarantee the world will like you for it. This is the Church, and it is this very Church that is required of us. The task of the Christian is the Church.
But let’s return to our primary text for this morning. We see the apostles, the founders of the Church, climbing the mountain with Jesus and they see these miraculous things. They saw that “On the Mountain He was bright as the lightning, and became more luminous than the sun,” as I’ve quoted again and again this morning, and Jesus was, “initiating us into the mystery of the future.”[xxiii] And so he also initiates us.
For is this not the command to the entire Church? “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Christ is our authority, our leader, our most sacred head of the Church. Does our own confession not claim that we are “under the Lordship of Jesus Christ”? Is not even Scripture, according to Baptist teaching, to be interpreted by Christ? We claim that “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” and that our Church is “under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Is that not what we believe and is that not what this text is saying? Indeed, Leo the Great one wrote of these words (“listen to him!”),
These things, dearly-beloved, were said not for their profit only, who heard them with their own ears, but in these three Apostles the whole Church has learnt all that their eyes saw and their ears heard. Let [the faith of all] then be established, according to the preaching of the most holy Gospel, and let no one be ashamed of Christ’s cross, through which the world was redeemed.[xxiv]
Some would have you believe that the foundation of our Church is founded in a very narrow, literal, and fundamentalist way of looking at this book, but I claim that it is more than that. The foundation of our Church is found in these words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is how we know how we are to act, how we are to read this book, by listening to Christ alone. And this is why we live why we do, why I have described the Church as I have, for it is he who trumps all else — we obey his command above all else. And so, Leo continues,
And let not anyone fear to suffer for righteousness’ sake, or doubt of the fulfillment of the promises, for this reason, that through toil we pass to rest and through death to life; since all the weakness of our humility was assumed by Him, in Whom, if we abide in the acknowledgement and love of Him, we conquer as He conquered, and receive what he promised, because, whether to the performance of His commands or to the endurance of adversities, I the Father’s fore-announcing voice should always be sounding in our ears, saying, [“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”] Who liveth and reigneth, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[xxv]
Let us then pray together as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
They will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
And so I say, go in grace and peace and live like Jesus.
[i] http://www.lectionarycentral.com/sttransfig/sttransfig.html for more resources
[iii] Matthew 17:1-9, New Revised Standard Version
[iv] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Fourth Theological Oration XIX.
[v] The Nicene Creed, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)
[vi] Matthew 16:13-16
[vii] The Chalcedonian Creed, text from The Early Creeds, WORDsearch, 2006.
[viii] Matthew 12:15-18, 21
[ix] Philippians 2:6-8
[x] Matthew 10:38
[xii] Matthew 5:3-9
[xiii] Matthew 5:13
[xiv] Matthew 5:14
[xv] Matthew 5:38-42
[xvi] Matthew 5:44
[xvii] Matthew 6:5-15
[xviii] Matthew 6:1-4
[xix] Matthew 6:24
[xx] Matthew 6:25-34
[xxi] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Fourth Theological Oration XIX.
[xxii] Matthew 16:13-19
[xxiii] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Fourth Theological Oration XIX.
About Wes SpearsWes Spears is a student of religion currently enrolled at Samford University. Read more: http://reluctantbaptist.com/about-the-author/.
Posted on 7 March 2011, in Bible, Church, Scripture and tagged Jesus, Christ, Isaiah, Peter, Jeremiah, Philippians, Church, Sermon, Alabama, Messiah, Nicaea, Chalcedon, Stanley Hauerwas, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew, Incarnation, Creed, Lectionary, Baptist, Church Calendar, Transfiguration, Sunday, Cullman, West Side Baptist Church, James John, Moses, Elijah, Chalcedonian Creed, Nicene Creed, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Son of Man, fully God, fully man, nature of Christ, John the Baptist, Atonement, Kenosis, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Palamas, Leo the Great, to make the world the world, Baptist Faith and Message 1963, Christology, Christological. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.