Transfiguring Decline

My inaugural sermon at St. Thomas of Canterbury, last week, Transfiguration Day, August 6. just so happens I was able to touch on a lot of themes that characterize my ministry.

Luke 9:28-36

1.

Today is Transfiguration Day.

Imagine what it must have been like on that actual Day of Transfiguration for Peter, James, and John.

Who was this man, Jesus, exactly?

Yes, he’d called them away from their routine lives, offering a message of hope, redemption, and salvation. His was a good message. And convincing! So they’d left their routine lives and followed him.

And they’d witnessed him teaching, proclaiming good news to the oppressed and marginalized. They’d seen him perform miracles. Why, they’d even seen him raise a person from the dead!

But, really, was Jesus any different than the string of other messianic figures who’d popped up from time to time in the ancient world? Surely he wasn’t really God himself! He was a great teacher, a profound spiritual leader, and a healer. No doubt about it! So, godly, yeah! But God himself?

He leads these three disciples up a mountainside. And near the top, something spectacular, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying happens. Jesus, this great, godly, spiritual friend and leader, actually lights up!

What? How does a person light up? How does a person, shrouded in the darkness of a cloud, suddenly become illuminated brighter than the noonday sun?

And then, that voice! “This is my Son,” it booms, “my Chosen; listen to him!”

So, the disciples are left with few options. Either, one, they’re going insane; two, they’re dreaming; or, three, this man Jesus, their spiritual leader, teacher, friend, and healer, is actually who he says he is; and he is actually doing what he says he’s doing.

If we go with option three, Jesus is not merely a man, not merely another messianic figure to rile up an oppressed world; but he is actually God incarnate.

And that means—if we go with option three—that means he is accomplishing what he said he would. Namely, he is ushering in an entirely new age. The old is passing and the new has come. The kingdom of the old world, of humanity, is fading into darkness; whereas the kingdom of the new world, God’s world, is becoming more and more apparent, all around us!

What an exciting day for me to begin my tenure at STC! Transfiguration Day!

2.

One of the last sermons I preached was on Trinity Sunday, June 11. So, naturally, in preparation for today’s sermon, I’ve been drawing connections between the two, between the Trinity and the Transfiguration.

An important connection stems from the relationship within the Trinity.

Consider this: if God is Trinity—one-in-three and three-in-one, as our theology maintains—then God has always been this way. Always! As in, before the cosmos was ever created; as in, after the cosmos is fully transfigured into the new heavens and earth. God has always been three-in-one and one-in-three—outside of time and space, inside of time and space, always!

That means God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has always and will always be in relationship!

Well, what do you imagine this relationship to be like?

Do you imagine that it is characterized by one boss and two subjects? Does the Father employ the Son and the Holy Spirit to do his bidding?

If so, I imagine there would be disagreements, arguments, fights, and other kinds of divine drama taking place continuously. I imagine the Christian Trinity would then begin to look more like the Greco-Roman pantheon, where, for example, the lesser god Hermes deceives and manipulates the greater god Zeus in order to get his way.

But that just won’t do. For that understanding of the triune God—hierarchy—actually contradicts the definition of three-in-one and one-in-three.

Instead, the Trinity lives and dwells together in perfect unity, in perfect harmony, co-equally, and co-eternally. God, the Trinity, is love.

Huh. Sounds like something some ancient guy named Jesus once said, eh?

And that—that perfect harmony, unity, and co-equality—is what Jesus said he was doing. The Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus in his incarnation was ushering in, invites us to be a part of the very Trinity.

3.

Now, the early church seemed to catch on to Jesus’ message—right up until the turn of the fifth century or so.

The early church called together ecumenical councils—meetings of bishops all over the world, as far as Christianity had spread—to hammer out theological differences.

You know what the chief focal point of these councils was? The Trinity.

And from these councils a statement of faith has descended to us, largely unchanged; a statement of faith whose primary theme is the Trinity; a statement of faith we still confess together weekly.

We call it the Nicene Creed.

But around the turn of the fifth century, things began to change in the church. One bishop began to feel more important than another. And so he became the archbishop. Another responded by calling himself another fancy term: metropolitan.

One Christian city—or center—called itself more important than another. Oh, they were all important, to be sure. But one had to be in charge, after all. I mean, come on! It’s simple common sense. For all that Trinity, Pie-in-the-Sky idealism, we can’t really function in co-equal relationships after all, can we? One archbishop must be in preeminent authority over all other archbishops and metropolitans. One archbishop must be the, shall we say, Papa, aka Pope?

And so, around the turn of the fifth century, church government became hierarchical.

Just like ancient Roman government.

And thus, then, the church looked more like ancient Rome—with its emperor and senators and equestrians—than it did the Trinity.

But I thought Jesus was ushering in a new era, an era of harmony, unity, and co-equality.

I thought his followers would no more be subject to the oppression of the secular establishment, like the hierarchical structures of the Roman government.

I thought, too, they would no more be subject to a religious establishment which capitalized on fear to dominate its subjects.

I thought the Transfiguration was not simply about an individual man being transformed before the eyes of a few other individuals.

I thought, instead, the Transfiguration was about fundamentally altering all of the cosmos: about transforming the world from darkness to light, from death to life, from oppression to liberation; about eradicating hierarchy so that all humanity—no, all creation!—should dwell together in unity, harmony, and perfect love; in that divine dance that is the Trinity!

4.

At one point in my Trinity Sunday sermon I asked my audience to imagine what church might look like today if that turn-of-the-fifth-century change had never happened.

What if the church had continued to develop its theology and understanding of a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity? What would it mean for our liturgy? What would our music sound like? What would our art look like? What would our architecture feel like?

These are good questions for us to consider too. For today, as in the day of Jesus, a transfiguration is taking place. And it’s affecting you and me, STC, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, mainline Christian denominations in the US, even Christianity all over the world.

Church isn’t what it was forty years ago. Attendance is down. People who do attend aren’t attending for the same reasons they used to. Church no longer satisfies the social longing it once did. Missing church is no longer the social taboo it once was. On the pragmatic side, people aren’t giving as much as they used to.

All this leaves church leaders (like me) scratching our collective head. What about rents? What about missions? What about our dues to the diocese? Is our way of doing church still sustainable?

It’s a kind of transfiguration. Around the world on this Transfiguration Day the church is experiencing a profound change.

Very interesting that my first Sunday celebrating at STC is Transfiguration Day, eh?

So: Transfiguration Day is about much more than the transfiguration of an individual man—a good teacher, spiritual leader, and healer. Jesus’ Transfiguration destroyed all ideas of him being anything less than God incarnate.

Transfiguration Day is also about the church’s transfiguration.

It’s time to destroy all ideas that we are anything less than a divine institution. It’s time to leave behind the old models—the old hierarchies, the top-down leadership, the idea that “Father knows best,” and so on—and return to the even older models of Trinitarian relationship, of divine dance, of harmony, unity, and love.

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