Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)
Scripture: Mark 8:27-9:8
For the last five weeks, I’ve been coaching a group of people on Facebook who are reading through the Bible in a year. Genesis was fascinating for several weeks last month, and Exodus was pretty good too, but this week we’ve really hit the skids—it’s Leviticus. I’d forgotten just how many laws are in Leviticus. The book goes on for chapter after chapter with instructions for animal sacrifices, inspecting houses, dealing with skin diseases, and other unsavory topics. Yet group members bring even these readings to life with their wisdom and personal stories. Earlier this week we discussed how the beautiful and intricate priestly garments must have become horribly stained by day after day of sacrifices. It led into conversation about the marks that life’s work leaves on our clothes and our bodies. How do stains and marks give witness to the work we’ve done well (or otherwise)? One person, Carolyn, says: “I find that the marks that are left from my work as a clinical social worker (now retired) are on my mind and heart…after journeying with people through the pain of abuse, family dissolution, etc. etc. I can still feel the sadness of many of those people.” Cynthia Miller wrote about her father, who was a coal miner: “His clothes would be so dirty & greasy that my mother would not wash them at home less they wreck her washer & dryer; she took them separately to our town’s only laundromat once a week. My father worked very hard to pay for college for my brothers and me because he once said he wanted us to have the kind of jobs where we shower before work, not after. My dad is a loving & faith-filled man, and I never forget his sacrifices for our family.” Both these are examples of the costs that come with serving our deep desire for another’s gladness. Ask a parent, a teacher, or anyone else whose life’s calling is much more than just work. If you love deeply, you will suffer much for that love.
Our friend Peter wants the deep love without the suffering. Dear Peter has been travelling with Jesus since he was called to be a disciple in Chapter 1. He’s seen powerful preaching and miraculous healing. Everything is going so well, and Jesus’ fame increases day after day. It’s gotten so glorious that people are comparing Jesus to John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the other great prophets of old. When Jesus asks what the disciples think of him, Peter dares an audacious reply: “You are the Messiah.” And Peter gets it absolutely right! He is the first person in Mark’s gospel to correctly recognize that Jesus is the Savior the Hebrew people have been waiting for.
But the problem in Peter’s answer soon becomes clear. While he’s gotten the title right, his understanding of that role is all wrong. The Messiah, Jews of that time believed, would come back with supernatural power to restore the throne of King David. The Messiah would command armies of angels that could go toe-to-toe with legions of Roman military might. The Messiah for whom Jews have waited hundreds of years would finally cast off Roman oppression and restore righteousness. The Messiah—at last—was here to fight “for truth, for justice, and for the Jewish way.”
Yet Jesus says the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,” those who have been the keepers of the tradition to this point. The Messiah, Jesus says, will be killed, and after three days rise again. What in the world?? Preacher William Barclay says that, “When Jesus connected Messiahship with suffering and death, he was making statements that were to the disciples both incredible and incomprehensible.” No wonder Peter moved to rebuke Jesus—“This is crazy talk, my Lord.” Maybe even Jesus himself wished it weren’t so—wished for the power and glory without the marks that would be left by whip, thorns and nails. Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so sharp in his response to Peter—because the disciple has given voice to Jesus’ own temptation to have something great without having to suffer for it.
But this is the Truth, Jesus says, not just for the Messiah but for all who follow as disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This is the paradoxical way of faith—be humble and serve, rather than seeking all the glory. Only thus will true living and the Realm of God be found. Jesus commanded the disciples to keep a lid on his identity as the Messiah, but he shared the reality of his own suffering quite openly. He modeled what he wanted all who followed after to do as well. Deny the glorification of the self, take up a cross of self-giving service, and follow.
“God gave us life to spend and not to keep”, William Barclay writes of this passage. He continues: “What would have happened to life if everyone had wished for nothing but to remain comfortably at home, and there had been no such person as an explorer or a pioneer? What would happen if every mother refused to take the risk of bearing a child? What would happen if [people] spent all they had upon themselves? The very essence of life is in risking life and spending life, not in saving it and hoarding it. True, it is the way of weariness, of exhaustion, of giving to the uttermost—but it is better any day to burn out than to rust out, for that is the way to happiness and the way to God.”
The social worker Carolyn loved her clients enough to let her heart break. Cynthia’s father loved his children’s education enough to suffer in the coal mines for them. And God’s own Beloved Son the Messiah left all the glory of heaven to walk this lowly road, to suffer and die before being raised again, all out of incredible, incomprehensible love for the world.
Usually on this Transfiguration Sunday, I and other preachers focus on the power and glory at the mountaintop. Moses the greatest lawgiver and Elijah the greatest prophet, Jesus walking and talking as one of them. Mysterious cloud, blinding light, a voice from heaven. But today I am hearing anew the voice of God, telling the disciples and all who can hear along with them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Listen to him when you’re tempted to choose the easy way out. Listen to him when the life of faith is difficult and you feel all alone. Listen to him who joins us on the road of discipleship and suffers for love along with us. Listen to him when there are so many other voices clamoring for power, for influence, for votes and for allegiance. Listen to him who says “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
While we could rest in awe at the splendor on the mountaintop, what will have more lasting impact is the path of discipleship that follows. Mindful of today’s Super Bowl, my colleague Nathan Williams says, “the Transfiguration is really the halftime show of the gospel—it’s impressive, but the real event is what happens down in the dirt.” When Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and into the scrum again, he’ll be going directly to Jerusalem, leading us through Lent and to his suffering, until we see the Messiah in true glory on the other side of death.
In Oprah’s “Belief” series, the episode we’ll watch after worship today, we encounter three stories of people who take on challenges for the sake of their faith. A woman struggles to forgive the man who killed her son, a boy does his first land-dive to bring rain for the crops of his village, and a mother goes on pilgrimage to seek her son’s miraculous healing. In this final story, we see her gather with thousands of other pilgrims on a days-long horseback journey through the Mexican desert to the shrine of Christo Rey. The statute of Jesus at Christo Rey is fifty feet tall, towering majestically over the throng of seekers at his feet. But when you watch the episode today, look for what is near his feet. Two cherubs—baby angels—holding up crowns to him. One is the crown of power for our everlasting Lord, and the other is a crown of thorns. The glory of Christ is found in his suffering love.
Let us pray: God of mystery, you call us to follow you even when the way is difficult. Accompany us on the journey of faith ahead in the weeks of Lent and in the trials of life. Show us your transforming grace, that by setting ourselves aside in service to others, we may know your everlasting service to us. Amen.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, revised ed. in The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 199.
 Barclay, 205.
 Posted in the “Narrative Lectionary” Facebook group.