2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
For many of my brothers and sisters preaching this morning this text explodes from the pages with an affirmation that our God and our God alone is holy and sacred. A few preachers, blinded by the allure of postmodernism and haunted by the possibility that the religious tapestry of this world might carry more legitimacy than some might wish to consider, groan under the weight of Paul’s glorious claim.
Simply put, a traditional reading of this text begins and ends with the confirmation that Christ is Lord. Any pertinent knowledge to be gathered concerning the nature of God is initiated and confirmed by staring deeply into the face of Jesus. That said, I know that you are a group of devout and intelligent folks who cringe when any religious conversation begins with those two dismissive words, “Simply put.”
Understanding God is not simple. Knowledge of God is an ageless mystery that has confronted every culture of humankind. Is declaring “Jesus is Lord” the beginning and the end of any dialogue or does this affirmation limit us from participating in other conversations? I invite you to join me on a journey this morning. It is a journey which will encourage you to cling to your own affirmations concerning God yet ask you to be open to other conflicting voices.
Our journey begins in Corinth. Early in his missionary journeys Paul helped to establish a church in that cosmopolitan city. From the day the first metaphorical stone was laid, the foundation of that church was out of balance. The congregation was composed and dominated by varying traditions and cultures. Some were Jewish converts who had been raised on the gifts of the Torah. Others were more familiar with varying Greek and Roman traditions. It was Paul’s design to bring them together as one in Christ.
It was a noble experiment, but one that caused Paul a great deal of pain. Paul, trying to use language familiar to the Jewish converts, spoke of Christ as the new covenant who was exposing them to a new law. Immediately this raised questions concerning the Law of Moses. Paul found himself in a quandary and used an analogy that might not have been particularly helpful.
In the initial chapters of Second Corinthians Paul stated that the new law of God was not written in stone but on human hearts. Furthermore Paul argued while Moses had viewed this glory, a veil was placed over his face to keep the Israelites from seeing the glory of God. But with the resurrection of Christ, the veil was removed, revealing both the face of God and the promise of life eternal.
So what’s the problem? It seems in celebrating the power of the resurrection, Paul unintentionally throws Moses under the bus. Let me state this differently. If I asked you, “What is the ultimate goal of your religious experience,” how would you respond?
Here are some frequently given answers:
To live eternally with God;
To be reunited with family and friends forever;
To love God with all my heart, soul, and mind;
To love my neighbor as I love myself;
To strive for inner peace;
To enjoy enlightenment and the highest wisdom;
To discover spiritual emancipation;
To affirm there is no god but God;
To live in harmony with God;
To enjoy God and glorify God forever.
Which if any one of those answers would you eliminate based on your faith journey? I doubt it will surprise you that each of those answers come from our own Christian tradition. What might startle you is that most of those answers also are also celebrated by other religious tenets outside the Christian experience. A major separation between most religions comes in how one celebrates and defines heaven. In all religions other than Christianity entrance to a heavenly reward is based on human action. As Christians, our key to eternity is understood through the incarnation and resurrection of the one we call Jesus. God became human and lived among us. To quote our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, “God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.” That is a critically unique presupposition in understanding who we are as Christians. In order to drive this point home, instead of celebrating the glorious inclusiveness of God, Paul appears to negate the very essence Judaism, that being the Law of Moses.
You might think I am nit-picking but historically the third and fourth chapters of Second Corinthians have been consistently used to develop sermons that were not only anti-Jewish but became the springboard legitimizing violence by Christians toward Jews for over 2,000 years. Is that really what Paul intended? Certainly not. Paul wanted the folks in Corinth to celebrate the uniqueness of Christ. But I also believe Paul wanted them to live life as Jesus lived it. The foundations of that lifestyle rest solely in those commandments written in stone.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the Sunday we celebrate a mystical occurrence when three of the disciples witnessed a holy moment as Jesus stood between Moses and the prophet Elijah. As the clouds of heaven swirled around these prominent figures of not just one but three religions, the disciples of our Lord heard God declare, “This is my son; listen to him.” What God did not say was, “This is my son; ignore what you have heard from the past.”
The three religions that originate from Abraham define themselves through moments on a mountain. Moses goes to Sinai to discover something about the essence of God and is given the Ten Commandments. When Moses returns, God reveals God’s self as gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love. God was saying to Moses, “If you desire to keep my commandments, go down the mountain and tell my people to act like I act.”
Moses partner at the Transfiguration, Elijah, had his own mountain top experiences. The first was Mount Carmel when Elijah stood toe to toe with 450 prophets of Baal. At the end of the day, only Elijah remained standing. Unfortunately Jezebel was not at Carmel. When word reached her of Elijah’s victory she put a bounty out on his head. The prophet escaped to Mount Horeb where he hid out in a cave. When God finally spoke to Elijah, the words were hardly complimentary. “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Elijah quickly responded, “I did everything you asked but Israel has forsaken you. I am the only one left who worships you and they want to kill me.”
God said, “Go out and stand on the ledge.” A great wind came up, then a storm with rain and lightning. Elijah feared for his life. Then there was silence. Finally the voice of God said once again, “Elijah what are you doing here. Return to the valley.” The message was loud and clear. First, Elijah could not hide from life. And second, no one, not even Jezebel, could stand against the word of God.
The third man standing between Moses and Elijah on Mount Hermon was Jesus. His inspiration also came from the mountains. Be it the Sermon on the Mount or Golgotha, the mountain top moments of Jesus were divine. But his inspirational words and deeds were observed in the valley.
Even if we go beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mohammed climbed Mt Hira and was visited by the angel Gabriel. In a series of vision Mohammad was given what we now call the Koran. Mohammed considered the ethical teachings of both Moses and Jesus to be divinely inspired. The first commandment of Islamic teaching and the first commandment of Mosaic Law are identical, “There is but one God.” When the visions were complete, Mohammed was not allowed to stay in the safety of the cave. He was commanded to return to the valley and share his visions.
Moses, Elijah, Jesus even Mohammed found inspiration in the mountains. But the followers of each of these religions lived exactly where we live today, in the valley. The valley is filled with contradictions. The valley is filled with confusion. Sometimes the valley is even filled with hate. Worst of all, often that hate is experienced and even initiated from those who claim Moses, or Mohammed, or even Jesus to be their inspiration.
It pains me that words of compassion, words of reconciliation, words of love, words initiating from God can become so twisted when they make their way to the valley.
I know God through the inspiration and the resurrection of the one we call Jesus. He is my Lord. He is my savior. And he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Ellie Wiesel knows God through the inspiration of the one called Yahweh. Wiesel claims Yahweh to be the Master of the Universe. Wiesel also claims Yahweh as the one who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Sami Rosouli knows God through the inspiration of the one he calls Allah. Born in Iraq, Rosouli speaks for millions of Muslims who have always understood Allah to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Each of us, in our own way, anxiously waits to see the face of God.
Each of us, in our own way, earnestly listens for the voice of God.
But sometimes, in the desire to be faithful, what is seen and heard is compromised by voices of fear and confusion who try to isolate God from the rest of God’s creation.
Then God, or Yahweh, or Allah responds, “If you love Me with all your heart, soul, and mind, you will love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
By doing so the light of God shines on each of us.