Above the Below

Sometimes the deepest questions are both obvious and surprising at the same time. The very first question for the early Christians was this: how could God’s chosen be the crucified, since this was an accursed kind of death?  They weren’t expecting that, for the most part. They worked it out by listening again to the books that we call ‘the Old Testament,’ though they were simply ‘the bible,’ since the book we call the New Testament were only beginning to be written.  But wait a minute. The good news about Jesus were new. And their proclamation of grace was different than the holy works of the law, the Torah. So why do we really need those earlier books of the early history, the law, the prophets, and wisdom… If you have 5.0, who needs 1,2,3, and 4.0? Of course the answer of orthodox Christianity is that we need them very much, and that they remain part of the final revelation of God for humankind, namely Holy Scripture! But why exactly?  The New Testament has clear answers to the human spiritual quest- but answers alone don’t make sense without the questions. And the words used for all the important questions use the Old Testament. The God of creation, who made the world out of love alone, and no necessity, though he is not a part of the world- we rely on the Old Testament for that. The people of God, who are called into a relationship called ‘covenant’ with that God, for the sake of all the world, we rely on the Old Testament for that. Then there are the themes of Lent- sin, repentance, sacrifice, forgiveness, found in the story of Israel’s exile and return, all.  Finally, the anointed one to come to usher in the kingdom of God at the conclusion of history- found uniquely in the Old Testament. You can’t speak a language without vocabulary, and faith needs a language we learn, as well as a plot-line we have a bit part in. 

Sure, but once we have gleaned these ideas, these words, this background, why do we still need the Old Testament? Couldn’t we reject it like a booster rocket, especially  since God seems there to be rather rules-obsessed and harsh?  This question was asked in the early second century by an heretic named Marcion. He was surely wrong: why else would we have an Old Testament lesson every Sunday in order for us to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was born more than half a millennium after most of those writings?, but it remains important to know why he was wrong.

There is a famous painting of Jesus from Germany in the late Middle Ages, by an artist named Guenewald and a town named Isenheim. It was actually painted in the time of the plague of the black death. Jesus’s skin is pock-marked, so that his suffering can be readily related to that of his followers. Biblical theology always touches the lives of its hearers at the deepest and most distressed levels.  The centerpiece of the painting, and of our spiritual lives, is his crucifixion, though we might like to glide past it to something more cheery.  But the painting of his saving death is not a depiction of him alone. To his left is John the Baptist, holding the Old Testament prophecy and pointing with a great finger toward the cross.  On the other side is Mary embraced by John, as the dying Jesus himself commanded, with Mary Magdalene near them mourning her sin and his death to forgive it.  As an aside, I cannot think of a better meditation for your Lent then an extended gaze on this picture every day. The reason is that it depicts what the Church really is.  Jesus the summation of hope and waiting on the one hand, Jesus creating the Church from the blood and water flowing from his side on the other, the community of welcome and gratitude that results.  The death of Jesus is a surprise, but upon reflection it is the fulfillment of God’s promises.  We as Church are, on the one hand, pointing toward his dying side, and gathered from it, on the other.  There must then be characters, and a story, of which Jesus, dying and raised, is the centerpiece.

So what does all this have to do with the Gospel for this Sunday, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, since it took place before the final journey to Jerusalem and the cross? The answer is everything.  First of all, Moses and Elijah appear. They represent the Old Testament witness, the law and the prophets. They are pointing to Jesus, just as John the Baptist had earlier- they are likewise two great fingers pointing to him. In fact, in the Gospel of Luke we learn that they are discussing his ‘exodus,’ his journey across, using a work that links the crossing from death to life here, with the one Moses himself described in the Book by that name. While we do not meet Mary, we do meet the disciples, who want a place to dwell with Jesus, as in the booths in the wilderness also in Exodus. And they will have a place to dwell together with him, but not there and not yet, but on the far side of the events to come. Finally you will remember that at the end of the vision glorious, we hear that they saw ‘’Jesus alone.’ He is the centerpiece here too, not yet crucified, though he is determinedly walking toward his coming death.

When the disciples see Jesus alone, and get back on the disciples’ road with him, Moses and Elijah disappear. It is on this that I want to focus with the moments remaining.  Remember how John the Baptist says in the Gospel of John, ‘I must decrease that He (namely Jesus) might increase.’ Decreasing, we might say receding? What does that mean? Isn’t it the opposite of leadership, of bold discipleship, of standing up for Jesus? Well, we are for all of that, but we are leading people toward…Jesus, not ourselves…we are to encourage discipleship, not of ourselves but the Lord, and we are to make our witness, but as Paul says in II Corinthians, not of ourselves but of Jesus, and ourselves as servants for his sake.

To lead by receding, to grow stronger in decreasing. This is a mystery to the world, which knows mostly victory and defeat. But what we are describing lies yet deeper at the heart of the doctrine of God himself, the Son exalting His Father in prayer, the Spirit raising the Son from death for the right hand of the Father, the Father stepping back as his own Son suffers and is alienated, the Spirit demurring and yet descending so that the Father can say that the Son is beloved. The disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, where they will fail at what we describe, full of bravado until they run away. But after the resurrection, they will be given to understand, to prevail as they surrender, to learn to love the sheep as they surrender their care into the hands of the Lord they follow.

You and I are about to embark once more on the path of learning anew to be a disciple, on the road of Lent.  At the heart of that education is witness, neither accomplishment, nor despair, not control not fatalism, but witness. And the form of witness is receding before this ascent. Though they did indeed fade away, Moses and  Elijah appeared for a time, the right time, in order to point, and then they were gone, but the one to whom they pointed was not gone. And the disciples appeared, eventually, to witness, as did Mary and John and Mary Magdalene. And in doing only this, with a single heart, by grace alone, they came to shine like stars, and light up a way to give way, which is to stand up as they recede and so to witness. May the divine education in this art continue in these your servants, whom we confirm in your name, and in us, Lord, Amen.    

Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.