Feb. 23, 2020

Matthew 17:1-9


Arius was a 4th century priest and theologian most known today in association with the great heresy of Arianism, which we are most apt to hear as a denial of the divinity of Jesus.  Interestingly, not too long ago I heard a preacher talking to his church about Arius as if Arius did a quick and partial read of scripture and then misled a huge branch of the church into wrong thinking based on a kind of cursory study.   The preacher warned his church about taking scripture out of context and then basing your whole understanding on it, which is not a bad warning, except that’s not at all what Arius did.

It’s easy to dismiss those who disagree with us.  In this case we were being asked to dismiss Arius along with everyone else (a huge chunk of Christendom) who were gullible enough to follow the lead of someone who didn’t do his homework, (which was actually kind of ironic.)  As I see it, if Arius was a dummy certainly some of those other folk weren’t.  But, Arius wasn’t a dummy.  By many accounts he was a brilliant and learned scholar who based his arguments not just on scripture, but also in conversation with other highly regarded theologians of his day.  He didn’t invent his views and in fact they were tolerated along with other disputed views by a broader church that was called to decide on matters of Orthodoxy by an emperor who had political motivations for forcing the decisions.

What’s interesting is that Arianism is not the denial of Christ’s divinity.  It is a denial that the Son is co-eternal with the Father.  To quote Arius, “There was a time when the Son was not.”  Arius believed so strongly in the unity of God that the argument that he advanced was that the Son became God because God made him God.  That’s not saying that he’s not God – at least, not exactly.  Not the way it’s often said today, as if Jesus was a wise teacher and a faithful profit, but nothing more.  In fact, I bet Arius would roll in his grave over such a claim.  To him that would be heresy!

Okay, so who cares about all this?  Or, put another way, what difference does it make?

Well, the orthodox argument is that the very meaning of life and the nature of salvation are at stake, but that’s about it.

Their reason for upholding the divinity of Christ was based on their experience of salvation as a sharing in the life of God through an ongoing relationship with the risen Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul gives words to it when he says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  If salvation is a kind of union with the divine then only the divine could offer it.  Christ had to be divine one way or another for salvation to be what the early churches believed it to be.

On this last Sunday before the season of Lent the lectionary always calls for us to turn to this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Before Peter, James, and John, at the top of the mountain, Jesus shines a bright white, the prophets of old appear, and in a terrifying moment a cloud covers them all and the voice of God calls Jesus his Son.  Against the backdrop of all this early Christian theology the story serves as a kind of revelation of the nature of this Jesus with whom the disciples have been traveling.  The healings, the feedings, the teachings, all of them are rooted not in the magic of a special guy, but in the divinity of God Godself.

But, what is equally interesting is that the vision ends as quickly as it arrives and when the disciples look up and emerge from their fear over the presence of God what they see is “Christ alone.”  And what this very human, real, touchable, and tangible teacher does is bring them back down the mountain, back to the places they already know, back to the familiar.  Writes Isaac Villegas, “God’s presence transfigures this life.  Ordinary revelations are here and there and everywhere – the whole world held in God’s hands, gifts offered to us not as possessions under our control but as abundant and unpredictable grace.  Transfiguration is an invitation to return to our communities and our lives with renewed attention and patience, awaiting the luminescence of the mundane.  To attend to the present and wonder at the ordinary; to let this life astonish with the sacred.”[1]

Part of what made for the ordinary and familiar in the days of the disciples remains the same for us today.  When they came down the mountain they were met by human need.  “Have mercy,” says a man whose son is grasped by seizures.  And of course there remains out there a whole world if not pleading for mercy certainly pleading for help, and what we discover is that our capacities for experiencing the glory of God and a transfigured world are connected to our readiness to join with Christ in ministering to people.

This story from an elementary school teacher named Sharon comes to mind.  She says, “I had a powerful experience this week, and I’m not sure what to make of it.  Tuesday, as I was lining my class up to return from recess, I noticed that Janny wasn’t in line.  So I went looking for her.  I found her curled up on the slide, crying.  I knew her dad had just moved out of the family house and her parents were thinking that the marriage was coming to a fast end.  So I waved to my student teacher to take the class inside, and I sat at the bottom of the slide and invited Janny to come out.  I asked her, ‘What are you doing hiding?’  And she just started to cry.  When I saw her tears, my heart broke.  I felt called to her, in some way like Jesus was calling to me.  But it was weird, because as much as I felt Jesus calling me to share in her sadness, I knew Jesus to be with me.  Jesus was joining me, even – and this sounds crazy – acting through me.  All of a sudden I felt calm.  It was like in the smallest way, but a real way, I was born for this little flitting moment.  So I just sat with her and assured her that I wouldn’t leave her.  I told her that anytime she wanted, we could talk, and that I understood how hard this was but she wasn’t alone.  Her eyes said more than I could understand, but I had this powerful sense that my words, my presence, mattered.   I took her by the hand and we walked back to the classroom.  And I know somehow that this was the most important day of my teaching career.  Of course, I’ve accomplished things that may seem more important when it comes to education or whatever, but I couldn’t shake how significant this moment felt.  And I don’t want to.  I felt taken into something bigger.  I feel like this little moment mattered, that what I did in the world did something big, even though it was truly so small and so quick.  It had to be a God thing.  After school, I found myself thinking about it again, and I started crying.  That moment of caring for that little girl made my life – my little job in the dog days of flu season – full.  Full of God’s presence.”[2]

That, it seems to me, is how transfigurations happen.  They happen when we see into one another’s eyes and approach one another as persons.  They happen when we bend to the other and meet the needs of people with compassion and love.  They happen when we listen to the nudgings of the Spirit and allow it to direct us and embolden us to step beyond ourselves in order to find ourselves with Christ in acts of ministry.

And, the last thing I’ll say is that our capacities to see the transfigurations around us are directly related to our willingness to see this spiritual journey that we are on as a collective one, to share our stories, and to make new ones together.

[1] The Christian Century, Feb. 12, 2020, page 19.

[2] Andrew Root, Pastor in a Secular Age, pages 265-266.