Monday, February 19, 2007

Transformed by Jesus

Here is my sermon from this past Sunday.

“Transformed by Jesus”
the Rev. David C. Bocock
February 18, 2005

· 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Luke 9: 28-36

His given name was Leslie Leonard but everyone just called him "Pete." Pete was the son of very devout parents. They saw to it that the seeds of faith were planted in him. They were there to nourish the seeds along. Once he got out on his own in life, however, it appeared that the seeds of faith had not taken very deep root in Pete's soul. He sowed wild oats instead. He appeared to have left behind the faith of his parents. Early on, life went well for Pete. He married, had a son, and was involved with a number of businesses. He had some success in his life. What was most successful about him was his personality. Pete was a charmer. He had a ready smile for all whom he encountered. People who were swept into his life's orbit couldn't help but like him. He was just that kind of guy.

As the years passed by, things were not easy for Pete. His marriage failed him. His only son failed him as well. And then the greatest tragedy of all occurred. His health failed him. In his early 40’s he was stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. He was totally blind and paralyzed from the neck down. Eventually he got back the use of his upper body though his eyes and his legs never recovered. After some years, one of his legs had to be amputated. Suffering covered Pete's life like a blanket. Blind and crippled Pete had every earthly reason to be bitter over his state in life. He had every earthly reason to complain. He had every earthly reason to hate life and God. But he didn't.

Miraculously, as his suffering increased, his faith increased as well. He hinted at times that there in his hospital bed, in the first days of his MS, God had been revealed to him in a special way. Whatever the reason, Pete was a new man. The faith planted by his parents blossomed at last! People often went to visit Pete. After a visit to him, a man said of his experience, "I went to cheer him up and it was he who cheered me up. It's always like that with him." His pastor spoke similar words about Pete. "I don't go to call on Pete in order to minister to him; I go to call on Pete when I need someone to talk to; when I need someone to minister to me. I take my problems to him. In his blindness he sees more than just about anyone I know."

As long as he was able, Pete was in church every Sunday. There was a space reserved for him in the last row where his wheelchair would easily fit. Through the cajoling of his pastors, Pete also served many terms on the church council. He was one of the leaders of his congregation. His common sense and his faith tested-by-fire helped him to pierce to the core of many of the issues that faced the congregation. He was immobile of body but mobile of mind and thought. When Pete died, the whole congregation mourned. On a bitter winter day, the church was full for his funeral. The pastor put into words that day what most of them had thought. "We saw in him the glory of God," the pastor said, "the glory of God shining through the depths of human suffering. "

Pete had experienced a transformation in his life. Though some may not look at life and faith as he did, his faith burst into bloom as a result of his tumult. I cannot say that through his illness, he found redemption. But I can offer that in spite of his circumstances, he found God and it was God who transformed him.

Last week we looked at the question, What is a Christian? We talked about how the various New Testament authors all give a similar response although not an exact one. Jesus told us that we’re Christians when we love others, act humbly, and follow him. Paul agrees with Jesus although he sometimes adds more theological interpretations to include Jesus’ resurrection and that salvation happens because Jesus shed his blood for us on the cross. Paul adds distinctive theology that is different than Jesus—but only in so far as he explains how we’re saved. Do we need to understand that? Paul seems to think so. However, taking the New Testament writers and summing up what they all agree to, we ended the conversation by giving this definition of a Christian:

A Christian is someone whose identity is being transformed because of his or her relationship with Jesus.

And we summarized the sermon in that the one who is a Christian is the one whose very being and identity are shaped by Jesus. This morning, I want us to look at what happens as we are being transformed as Christians. This is the perfect Sunday to do that as we participate and celebrate The Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is an event reported by the synoptic gospels in which Jesus was transfigured upon a mountain (Matthew 17:1-6, Mark 9:1-8, Luke 9:28-36). The original Greek term in the Gospels for the Transfiguration is the word we use, more commonly known as metamorphosis.

The Gospels state that Jesus led three of his apostles - Peter, James, and John to pray at the top of a mountain. Once at the top, Jesus became transfigured, his face shining like the sun, and his clothes a brilliant white. They claim that Elijah and Moses suddenly appeared with Jesus and talked with him; Matthew and Mark do not say what the conversation was about, but Luke states that it was about Jesus' future death. Once they had spoken with each other, the Gospels state that a bright cloud overshadowed them (Luke also says they entered into the cloud), and a voice from the cloud proclaimed, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," paralleling a similar event during the Baptism of Jesus. However, this time the voice adds, "Hear him."

Traditionally, the event was considered to have literally happened, and it was believed that the event took place on Mount Tabor. Some modern scholars however, together with the ancient Gnostics, believe that the Synoptic Gospels were originally meant to be understood allegorically, for how these men could have been recognized by anyone unless they were told who they were. Whether by suspicion or by allegory, traditional Christianity has interpreted Moses and Elijah to represent the Law and the Prophets, respectively. Their recognition and conversation with Jesus symbolizes how Jesus fulfils "the law and the prophets" (Matthew 5:17-19).

In the narrative, after the cloud dissipates, Elijah and Moses disappear, and Jesus and the three Apostles head down the mountain, Jesus telling his Apostles to keep the event a secret until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. The Apostles are described as questioning among themselves as to what Jesus meant by "risen from the dead" (Mark 9:9-10), remember, this was before it had happened. The Apostles are also described as questioning Jesus about Elijah, and Jesus responds ...Elijah comes first, and restores all things ... but ... Elijah has come indeed ... (Mark 9:12-13). It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah, as predicted in the Book of Malachi (Malachi 4), and the three Apostles are described as interpreting Jesus' statement as a reference to John the Baptist.

When we think about transformation, we find ourselves in the midst of our Christian identity. We discover that transformation is both something that happens mystically as well as something that inspires us to diligently change ourselves through discernment, prayer, and action. In the case of Jesus being transformed on Mount Tabor, he showed us what our heavenly bodies will look like. When we die and go to our eternal home, we will be transformed in a new spiritual body.

In our Corinthian text, we discover what can happen when our lives are transformed by Jesus in the here and now. Pete’s life was radically changed and when he began to look inside of himself, he found that while he had little power to change his outside circumstances, he had abundant power to transform his spirit. The Apostle Paul says that whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away and we can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And more so, when that veil is removed, the Spirit can make us more and more like Jesus as we are changed into his glorious image. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)

As a result of this transformation, we discover something more. That something more is what Scot McNight tells us in that we are made to be in union with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Our sin cracks our relationships in each of those four relationships so we are “cracked” in our relationship with God, self, others, and the world. The gospel is the work of God to restore us — to heal us through exposure and transformation — so we will become the image of God that happens when we turn and trust in God. “When that happens,” says McKnight, “we will be holistically healed and will become ‘agents of embracing grace’ with everything we encounter. We will become spiritual and transformed people who glow with God’s presence because we are rightly related to God, self, others, and the world.”

This is what happened to “Pete,” although his body was broken, he was a man who was transformed with a glow of God’s presence. All who knew him or was changed by his pastoral heart, all witnessed an earthly manifestation of an eternal reality. Pete was a changed man and everyone who met him was affected by it.

When you or I or anyone meets God, we change. This change is manifested in a new outlook, a new way of being, a behavior that is born out of grace, and one that sees things, people, and situations as if a veil was removed from one’s eyes and we see things as they really are. And, we see more. What we see, what beliefs we encounter, and how that affects us will be studied as we embark upon our Lenten season.

Beginning this week and lasting up until Easter, we will examine our faith, our beliefs, and how these have been interpreted throughout our Christian history. The purpose of this inspection is to help us better understand who and what we Christians study and believe about God. And, it is to help us understand how to be and live our lives more faithfully as men and women, and boys and girls, who have been transformed by Jesus.

In some ways, this study will be like a journey. A journey to explore who we are and who we can become. This journey begins this coming Wednesday for our Ash Wednesday services. And it will continue on the Sundays through Lent as well as the Wednesday nights in March. This Wednesday, we will have a brief service in the afternoon and the evening to receive our ashes. The symbolism of the ashes that are applied to our forehead echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ash over one's head signifying repentance before God. It is also a time of personal introspection as we look inwardly to discover and discern the ways in which we do not always reflect God’s image in our lives.

So I invite you on this journey. This journey will be adventurous, sometimes disconcerting, many times uplifting, and almost always revelatory. It will show us who we are and who we may become—as we explore the traditions of our past and the possibilities of our future as people who have been and people who are being transformed by Jesus.

Let us pray…

Monday, February 12, 2007

Leap of Faith

Several of our members enjoyed the movie, Leap of Faith for our Sunday night movie. The movie stars Steve Martin as a traveling evangelist/con man. In the movie, he and his "ministry team" get stuck in a small Kansas town and decide to set up their tents and have a revival. During their stay, the Rev. Jonas Nightingale's (Steve Martin's character) begins the revival by getting the poor residents to give him their last money as a testimony of faith.

What Nightingale later learns through the contentious efforts of the local Sherriff (played by Liam Neeson), is that the almost 25% of the town is unemployed and the rest of the town faces certain ruin due to a lack of rain (if it doesn't rain soon, the farmers will loose their corn crops). In the story, Nightingale's chief of operations Jane (Debra Winger) is falling for the handsome local Sherriff, a man of principles, the kind of principles that Jane is feeling herself void of.

And, there is another principle character in the story, a boy named Boyd (Lukas Haas) who was crippled as the result of a semi-truck accident and wants to be healed.

The story line is exceptional, the warped excuses of the evangelist are explained, and the ending is wonderful. There is enough stuff in this movie to have an evening full of after-dinner conversation.

After the movie was finished, we all had a nice conversation about faith, our messiness in doing good and discovering that even in spite of ourselves, we can find God's grace.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What is a Christian Anyway?

One of the chief responsibilities of being a Christian, at least in the United Church of Christ, can be summed up as also a Prime Directive of sorts. It is our responsibility to reinterpret what it means to be a Christian in every generation. And this is no small feat. It takes great insight and discernment as to how we use our faith to inform and transform our culture.

But in order to do that effectively, we must, admittedly ask ourselves, What does it mean to be a Christian?

Here is one of the best responses I've read in ages. It is from a friend's blog who is quoting another friend. Instead of linking you to that friend of a friend, I'll just direct you to my friend. And, while you're there, have a looksee at his blog.

Thursday, February 01, 2007