Sunday, February 19, 2023

Phil Kniss: Up and down the mountain

Jesus reveals His glory
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 16:24-17:8; Revelation 21:22-24

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It was just over a month ago we had another story from Matthew, that was a bit of a stretch for us practical Anabaptist-Mennonites. Here’s another one.

You might recall my comments on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, that comes across more like a mystical experience, than anything that resembles discipleship or ministry or service to the poor, or the many other ways we practice our practical faith.

Well, here we go again, another mystical experience that’s even harder for us to connect to. At least Jesus’ baptism had a connecting point for those of us who have been baptized. But the Transfiguration? How do we relate to that? Maybe some of you, in your lifetime, have had vivid and life-changing visions of Jesus standing before you. If so, that’s wonderful. You already have an “in” for grasping this story. I can’t really say that I’ve had any experience that parallels Matthew 17. So I need to come at it a different way. I suspect many of you are in my boat on this one.

Again, what helps me is to remember Matthew, and the context where this book emerged— Antioch of Syria, 70 AD or so. The church in Antioch was beleaguered, tormented, on multiple fronts, and they were in conflict with one another. Much of it centered on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Was Jesus the promised Messiah? now the exalted Lord of Heaven? or was he the leader of a short-lived Jewish movement, that had an impact while he was alive, but ultimately, turned out to be a lost cause (like many other Jewish movements at the time)?

This story in Matthew addresses that question head on— by drawing a line connecting the mountain and wilderness: Jesus’ heavenly and Messianic identity, and his very human life that was full of suffering. This story gives courage to the church in Antioch, reassures them that they need not deny Jesus’ Messiah-ship, in order to embrace his humanity, and the agonizing reality of the cross.

The bright, shining Mount of Transfiguration and the stark, barren wilderness of Temptation, are two faces of the same reality. God is equally present in both scenes. But God is encountered in very different ways. One without the other, is a story . . . half-told. 

On the Mount of Transfiguration we get a gleaming clear vision of this close connection between heaven and earth, where the veil that separates us from God is very thin.

But in the desert we see the shadows of our humanity, in this space where God seems far away, and we muck around in our messy life at the bottom of the mountain.

To see this connection between the mountain and desert in Matthew, you don’t have to turn back to chapter 4, where Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. You may recall that glory and suffering were connected there, too. When Jesus was baptized, heaven opened with light and sound and a voice announcing his heavenly origin. And immediately, in the next verse, he was whisked off to the desert to suffer and be tried by the devil.

That the same dynamic going in Matthew 17. The mountaintop experience takes place in the first part of ch. 17. But at the end of ch. 16 they are definitely not on the mountain. They are mucking around at the bottom, in the low places. Jesus talked about his future suffering and death, Peter objected loudly, and Jesus responded by calling Peter “Satan,” one of the lowest points of Peter’s life. Then Jesus reminded them all, if you want to follow me, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me to death.

And in the very next words we read, Jesus, Peter, James, and John, are on the mountaintop. And they have the epitome of mountaintop experiences. So beautiful was that vision, that feeling, that sense of awe, that Peter attempts to preserve the moment, make it stick. “Lord, it is good to be here. Let’s build three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Jesus paid Peter no mind this time. Didn’t even reply.

And then they walked down the mountain again. And the you-know-what hit the fan. Life got messy again. In the span of a few verses, three things happen: Jesus intervenes after his disciples fail in a healing ministry. Jesus breaks the news of his coming betrayal and crucifixion. And people pick a fight with Jesus over the temple tax. This is life as a disciple of Jesus—up and down and up and down the mountain.

I think we can identify with Peter’s impulse to preserve life on the mountain, to build some kind of container that will hold, keep, protect, the experience of the glory of God. For almost two millennia already, churches have tried to do exactly that— institutionalize the divine, manage the glory of God, make it permanent and predictable.

Back in 2012, Irene and I visited Mt. Tabor in Israel-Palestine, one of the sites that claims to be the Mount of Transfiguration. As we walked up the mountain, we approached a towering building, the very stately Church of the Transfiguration. Engraved in marble on the front of the building, was the exact scripture we read this morning, from Matthew 17, albeit in Latin. An inside, a lot more beauty and permanence, trying to capture the glory of God that in Matthew 17 was fleeting. I couldn’t help but think, “Well, I guess Peter finally got the shelter he wanted to build.”

Isn’t it ironic, that a huge, ornate, marble structure sits there to memorialize a place of momentary glory, where Peter was brushed off for trying to build a structure to contain the moment.

I’m not suggesting that building physical structures and memorials is a bad thing. They have a role in our aesthetic life, and spiritual life. But at least in this case, there seems to be something ironic about that building in that place.

It’s not an accident, that in the church liturgical year, Transfiguration Sunday comes three days before Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the season of Lent. There is intentionality there. One helps us prepare for the other. 

Both are necessary for our theology to be complete. Jesus is the divine and glorious sovereign of all creation. And Jesus lived a fully human life, and knew suffering, pain, loneliness, despair, abandonment, loss . . . and . . . joy and wonder and love and delight and humor. 

In three days from now, in the evening, we will be in this same space, marking ourselves with ashes, remembering our mortality, our weakness, our sin. But today we bask in glory. We remember our deep connection to the divine. And we celebrate it.

The distance between Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday is purposely close—because glory and suffering can coexist, hand-in-hand. There’s only so much I can say about this story, with language that relies on rationality. Prose has its limits.

One time, quite a few years ago, I preached our Transfiguration Sunday sermon in poetry. I decided to revisit those words this week, and substantially rewrote a portion of them to share with you now, to finish the sermon this morning.

Spirit House
Phil Kniss

“It is good for us to be here.”
Peter the man, impromptu plan in hand,
Gushed to the son of Nazareth,
Now awash in glory from another world,
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Let me build some houses.”

This erstwhile fisherman—who once,
On a whim, quit his boat to follow Jesus to
Who-knows-where—now wants to settle,
Build a place to stay, a structure to contain,
Protect, preserve, fix in time and space this
Fleeting brush with heaven.

Nothing new, this notion to build a
Container to house God’s glory.
Abraham stacked stones for an altar
To mark his moment with God.
Moses built a holy box to hold the holy
Presence.  Solomon, a temple, with pillars.

Ah, pillars! From massive marble bases,
They rise majestic, tall, immovable,
Supporting structures monumental.
In Matthew’s Antioch, now Turkey’s Antakya,
Walls, roofs, pillars lie in rubble, trapping
Bittersweet memories of glory days.

Containing heaven’s glory is ever futile.
Reflect it, yes. Capture, no. Like Peter,
We seek pillars strong enough to
Hold whatever house we cherish.
Or are the pillars we seek more like pipes,
More like these shining ranks behind me?

Not in organ pipes, per se, but in the breath
Blowing through them, is God’s music heard.
Pipe or pillar or house are but means
By which God’s free Spirit moves where it will.
Spirit-breath has oft laid low earthly houses
Meant to enshrine a heavenly visitation.

How then do we know if, like Peter,
Our pining for permanence builds houses
That imprison God’s free Spirit, or if,
Like these pipes, our structure invites
God’s spirit-wind to blow free?
How do we know? Listen for the music.

—Phil Kniss, February 18, 2023

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