Do you know where Pirates like to dock their ships when they come up the Potomac? In Arrrrrlington! Sorry to start off the sermon with that! But I do have a Pirate thing which may lead into the theme of the sermon. It is something interesting I learned about Pirates last week. I’ve always assumed the eye-patch was the result of some mishap in a swordfight or something. Turns out it had to do with the eye’s adjustment to darkness. Pirates were always slipping below-decks to count their loot or something. It was pitch dark below decks. In order to keep from wasting time waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark they kept a patch over one eye. When they went belowdecks they would simply lift the patch up and that eye would already be adjusted. Sort of a primitive night-vision-goggle. Fascinating!
Now, what does that have to do with today’s scripture theme? Well, today is Transfiguration Sunday. One motif running through our service today is light. Two of our hymns deal with light: We Are Marching in the Light of God and This Little Light of Mine. The gospel is the account of Peter, James, and John witnessing Jesus sort of just light up in a bright light as his clothes became dazzling. This is the final Sunday in our season of Epiphany which is the season of light. My theme is this: Just as the disciples had to adjust their eyes to a brighter vision of Jesus, so we, too, may need to do just what the Pirates did: Keep one eye adjusted to the dark and one eye adjusted to the light.
For instance, we can see Jesus in two different lights. There is the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who lived for thirty-three years and did quite a ministry for the last three of those years – teaching and preaching and healing and casting out demons. This is the Jesus our eyes are accustomed to seeing each and every Sunday as we stand to hear either Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John tell about his life and times. We’ve come to see Jesus fairly clearly in that light. But that Jesus doesn’t exist any longer. He died. We don’t pretend that Jesus came back to life, skin and bones, and sits in the front pew each time we worship. If you see him sitting there then your vision is much better than mine.
No, the Jesus we meet and greet each time we gather to hear the Good News and share the Supper is the post-Easter Jesus – the one who left the tomb empty, who seemingly appeared and disappeared in his resurrection, sometimes recognizable to his followers – sometimes not. This Jesus, who eventually ascended up out of sight into the heavens, is the one the church has come to confess Christ – the Messiah. We have bestowed upon this Jesus titles which undergird our belief and faith in who and what he is … titles such as “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Savior of the World,” “Word of God,” “Light of the World,” “Bread of Life,” “Great High Priest,” and so forth. This is the Jesus who is really and truly present in, under, and through the bread and wine of communion. This is the Jesus who is in our hearts and in our midst.
Our eyes have adjusted to seeing Jesus in that light. Of course he is the Messiah – the Christ. Of course he is Lord. Of course he is Savior. Our eyes have so adjusted to that light that we can hardly imagine any other way of seeing Jesus. But Peter and James and John had only seen the pre-Easter Jesus … the carpenter become preacher become healer. The Transfiguration – this surreal scene in which Jesus appears to them in a much different light (literally!) – is a glimpse, for them, of the post-Easter Jesus. For one brief, shining moment they were able to see this human being as divine. They were given a blinding vision of him as Son of God, Lord, and Savior of the World. And just as soon as their eyes began to adjust to this new light, everything returned to normal. It was like it went from Technicolor back to black and white. Moses and Elijah weren’t there anymore and they found themselves making their way back down the mountain with Jesus asking them to tell no one what they had scene.
Our gospel reading today tells of two transfigurations, really. The first is Jesus’ transfiguration – or mystical change to a dazzling bright angelic figure. But the second is the transfiguration of Peter, James, and John – of their change to a newer and deeper understanding of who Jesus was. They came back down the mountain changed people.
But even as our eyes have adjusted to the post-Easter Jesus, we, too, are given glimpses of an even new and different way to understand this man from Nazareth. For instance. We have come to understand Jesus as more than teacher, preacher, and healer. We understand him as “savior.” We use the word “savior” in worship and in hymns. We have traditionally understood this as someone who “saved” us from our sins, or saved us from Satan, or saved us from hell. But in the biblical Jewish context (and Jesus was a Jew), “savior” was associated with liberation from bondage. The children of Israel were freed from Pharaoh’s Egypt. They were liberated, or “saved” from slavery. To confess Jesus as “savior,” in this traditional Jewish understanding, then is to understand him as the one who brings peace on earth through justice and non-violence… or saves us from injustice and violence.
This is a new light – and a rather blinding one. It becomes less and less about being saved from all the no-no’s we have done in life and becomes more and more about being liberated from those forces we have become slaves to. That’s a difficult adjustment for our faith-eyes to make.
Likewise with the term “redeemer” – a title we have given to the post-Easter Jesus. One way “redeemer” has been understood goes like this: When Adam and Eve sinned, Satan gained control of humanity’s soul. We all boiled in the same pot called “original sin.” Someone had to redeem us from this predicament, so God sent his son to pay the redemption. But in the Bible that word refers less to getting out of the devil’s jail as much as it refers to being liberated from forces of evil. For four-fifths of the world’s population it may mean being liberated from poverty and hunger. For you and me it may mean being liberated from those forces that say that we need to live the hours of our day either consuming things or being entertained. We need to be redeemed from that.
We are also invited to see “kingdom of God” in a new and brighter light. The kingdom of God is not the afterlife, or heaven. It refers to how God can transfigure things here in this life. We define “kingdom of God” in the Lord’s prayer when we pray, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Marcus Borg has said it this way: “The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and kings and emperors of this world were not.”
It’s sort of like we all need to be theological Pirates, keeping our eyes adjusted, not only to the pre-and post-Easter way of seeing Jesus. But also seeing Jesus today in ways which are radically different than the way we were taught in Sunday School. In one way, the newer vision can hurt our eyes, or it can transfigure us and we can come back down the mountain as changed people.
Text: Mark 9:2-9