Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass 1st Sunday before Lent 2015

2 Kings 2.1-12
2 Corinthians 4.3-6
Mark 9.2-9

Every year on the Sunday before Lent we read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This is related in three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in all three it occurs at a crucial turning point in the story: just after Jesus has first spoken of his forthcoming death, and just before he sets out with his disciples on the final journey to Jerusalem. From now on the story is one of contradiction and opposition, ending in rejection and death. But that journey is framed by visions of glory: the transfiguration, before it begins; and the resurrection, after it ends.
So let us look at this story, as Mark relates it. To understand the transfiguration we need to see where it comes in Mark’s bigger story. Just before this scene Peter had identified Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus then spoke of his rejection and death, which the disciples did not understand, indeed Peter was appalled by the idea.
In common with most people Peter thought that the Messiah would have a relentlessly positive story: a military leader who would lead an army to a glorious victory and freedom for Israel. So Peter is horrified when Jesus says that the Messiah will be rejected and killed. Impossible! But Jesus, who is indeed the Messiah, knows that this is the path he will follow.
Why will he follow this path? Because the Messiah must be faithful to God, in the middle of a world that is not. The world expects a violent Messiah because the world is captivated by the myth of redemptive violence – the idea that we can free ourselves from violence by being violent. So when someone comes along opposing the whole way the world runs, preaching radical non-violence, the God of unconditional love, the world simply isn’t tuned into that message. If Jesus opposes the way the world is, then he must be a violent threat, and therefore must be eliminated by violence.
This is the way the message of Jesus will be perceived, so that is why, if he is faithful to it, he will walk the way of the Cross.
But there is a higher authority than that of the world, a truer perspective – God’s perspective. God sees that Jesus is faithful, while the world is not. So in the transfiguration, when the cloud overshadows Jesus, the voice comes from heaven, just as it did at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But this time the voice adds: “Listen to him!”
Listening to Jesus is what the disciples have not been doing, and are still not doing. They don’t understand that God’s truth and righteousness will be established in the world by a path that renounces violence. The story of Jesus will seem to be so entirely negative, so incomprehensible to them, that in the end the disciples will not be able to follow, and will desert him and run away.
This may be why St Peter wants to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. The glory he can understand, but not the way of the cross that Jesus has been talking about. So he wants to fix everything there, to stay with the glory without giving up the myth of redemptive violence. But that he cannot do. And as the vision fades and they come down the mountain he finds himself bewildered again by talk of Jesus “rising from the dead”. What can this mean?
Like all of us, Peter needs to listen to Jesus. Six days earlier, after talking about his death, Jesus said, “truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”.
And now three of them have indeed seen that, in the Transfiguration. What they have seen is that Jesus inaugurates the kingdom by living it. He is the one person in the world who lives as God wants the world to live. In his transfiguration he appears as the “Son of Man”, humanity restored. But he shines with the uncreated light of Divinity. The Human One is the Beloved Son of God. The overshadowing cloud of God’s glory shows his identity with the Father. Moses and Elijah are there not as his equals but as his precursors. They are honoured by being in his presence, not the other way round.
And as there are two of them we can read them also as witnesses, there to testify to who Jesus is, as though Jesus had been summoned to court to give an account of himself. In apocalyptic literature, books like Daniel and Revelation, those who appear clothed in white are those who have been persecuted on earth but have been vindicated in the higher court of heaven. So too Jesus, destined to be opposed and persecuted, is here see in dazzling white as his vindication is pronounced from the cloud of glory: “this is my Son, the Beloved”.
This is what Peter gets wrong. The Kingdom of God is not humanity doing its usual violent stuff but with infinite god-like power. The Kingdom, instead, is humanity turned about and transformed and leaving its violence behind. The Kingdom is seen in power when Jesus does the will of the Father. And those who follow him will enter the kingdom too if they remain faithful.
Jesus calls his disciples to follow his path of radical obedience to the Father’s will, even in the midst of a world that is deeply resistant to that will. This will not be a path of success or victory, as the world understands it. It will be a path of darkness and contradiction. It will often be marked with rejection, and sometimes by the violent opposition of a world that does not want to renounce its violence. We can all think of some of the great risk-takers for the Kingdom: Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day.
You may have heard on the Sunday Programme this morning about Father Giacomo Piazza, a priest in Calabria who works with disabled people and was the only person to have the courage to take on properties confiscated from the Mafia. He has received many death threats, usually on feast days of the Church to make the point, such as a bomb sent on Christmas day. But Don Giacomo said the Mafia, who despise disabled people, were disorientated when they came with machine guns and were confronted by people with wheelchairs. “The people in wheelchairs were conscious that they were making a gift to their city, the gift of lifting some of the fear”, he said. They started a small revolution, and now others have had the courage to take over Mafia property and turn it to good use, too.
In this country there is no threat of violence to Christians. But any bishop who speaks out on behalf of the poor, or against violence, is liable to be ridiculed in the press, and told to keep out of politics. As if the gospel could somehow not be read as political. All Christians will be called on from time to time to confront evil and make a stand against the violence of the world.

But however hard and contradictory the path might seem, it is shot through with glory. If we are faithful, our story will merge into the story of Jesus, and become part of the proclamation of the Kingdom. Those who are faithful, even if rejected and opposed on earth, are vindicated in the higher court of heaven. The truth shines out in Jesus glorified, in Jesus raised from the dead and vindicated by the Father. However persistent the violence of the world, the Kingdom of God is the ultimate truth. And we are to be its faithful witnesses, allowing the Kingdom to become real and visible in our lives. Allowing our lives to become part of the vision of humanity turned round and transfigured into the image of Christ.

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