I am preaching at Dover United Methodist Church again this morning. Here are my thoughts for Transfiguration Sunday.
By now you know that I am a Southern boy. As the saying goes, I am Southern born and Southern bred and when I die, I will be Southern dead. But this doesn’t mean that I am a “good ole boy” or that I hold to what some might say are the traditional Southern ways of life. Long ago, I dissociated myself from such Southern ways.
Like Molly Ivins, the noted political commentator from Texas who died recently, and Clarence Jordan, whose versions of the Epistle and Gospel readings were used this morning, I saw the hypocrisy of the many who sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight” on Sunday morning and worked the rest of the week to insure that the inequality of race and economic status remained the status quo.
I suppose that there are some who will view me a little different because I say I am Southern or because I talk with a different sort of accent. There are preconceived notions about what a Southerner is and does, just as there are preconceived notions in the South about New York and the North. But what I have concluded is that it is easier for me to say that I am a Southerner than it is for me to say that I am a Christian. And, if I should proclaim today that I am an Evangelical Christian, then one can only imagine the sorrow that will befall me. Today, if you say that you are an evangelical Christian today, you invite people to say that you are a ‘bigot’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘male chauvinist’, or a ‘reactionary’. But the same people who describe Evangelical Christians in those terms also describe Jesus as ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (1) This is a troubling dichotomy. It threatens the very nature of Christianity.
It speaks to our own personal encounter with God through Christ and how we relate that encounter to the people around us. So let me set the record straight in that regard. I am most emphatically an Evangelical Christian. I was baptized an Evangelical; I was confirmed an Evangelical; and I believe that I am an Evangelical Christian today.
By that I mean that I am committed to a strong global mission to share my Christian faith will all other people without prejudice or discrimination. I do this by either my own personal witness or by supporting others through my tithes, offering, or gifts. This belief is supported by Random House Dictionary of the English Language which says that an Evangelical “belongs to a Christian church that emphasizes the teachings and authority of the scriptures, especially of the New Testament, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself and stresses as paramount the tenet that salvation is achieved by personal conversion to faith in the atonement of Christ. It is interesting to note that an alternative definition indicates that evangelicals eschew or avoid the designation of fundamentalism. (2)
Yet, if you were to ask someone today, they would probably say that an evangelical is a fundamentalist. Jimmy Carter stated in his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” President Carter further expanded on this statement by saying,
There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.
He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (2)
These words are hardly the characteristics of Christ. Did not Christ seek to serve, not dominate? Did Christ allow all to come to him, not prevent them? How many times did Christ have to reprimand His disciples or the public authorities when they prevented people from coming to Him? How many times did Christ reprimand authorities who enforced the letter of the law without holding to the spirit of the law?
To be an evangelical Christian is to be one who takes the Gospel message out into the world. It means telling a message that brings hope to the poor; it means telling a message and taking action that will clothe the naked and feed the hungry; it is a message that gives a voice to the oppressed that are without a voice. It is also a message that speaks of the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others. It is not a message which excludes people because of their race, economic status, or lifestyle.
But the message of the Gospel is in danger of being lost to the voices and powers of fundamentalism. Our own denomination is threatened by these voices, who seek to bring in a rigidity and formalism far beyond the rigidity and formalism of John Wesley.
It appears that Christianity in America is a different sort of religion from what it was meant to be. It is one in which people can live their own lives, not one in which they seek the one given to us by Christ. The noted Baptist minister, Tony Campolo, noted that
… the last place where I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful.’ They don’t want to hear ‘love your enemies.’ (3)
I believe this is happening because most people today do not want to face God. As the people of the Old Testament reading for today (4) did, they want to see God through a veil, not directly. They are quite willing to let others tell them what to think and believe when it comes to having a personal relationship with God.
It was that personal relationship with God that caused Moses’ face to glow after every meeting he had with God. It is the same glow that surrounded Christ on the mountaintop in the Gospel reading for today (5). But there is a difference in the two situations.
As Paul explains in the Epistle reading for today (6), through Christ the veil has been removed. We are able to encounter God freely and without difficulty. Paul makes the point that the veil over Moses’ face hardened the minds of those who listened to him. They were so afraid of that glow that they would not listen to what he was saying.
But when Christ came the veil is lifted and, with the veil lifted, we are able to hear and understand. And, again as Paul wrote, we are able to see the glory of the Lord just as Peter, James, and John did and we are transformed. And through this transformation, through our own encounter with God, we able to take the Gospel message out into the world. Our encounter with God through Christ makes all the difference. We must realize that through Christ, we are able to do many things. Though many people today want Jesus to do the work for them, we must realize that we are now responsible to do His work.
When Jesus and the three disciples came down from the mountaintop, they encountered a father with a sick son. The father was distraught because the other disciples, despite all that Jesus had said to them and with the abilities that He had given them, were not able to heal the young boy. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it; rather, it was that they were afraid to do it. Jesus’ rebuke in the final paragraph of today’s Gospel reading came because the disciples were unwilling to take the next step, not in their inability or lack of skill.
Our encounter with God through Christ changes things. Now, we are the instruments of His peace; we are the ones who must take the Gospel message out into the world.
We live in a world that needs to hear the true words of Christ. We live in a world that needs to encounter God as He truly is, not as some have said He will be or was. The God who sent His Son to this world did so because He loved us; He would not send a Son to set us apart and exclude others because of who they are or where they believe. It is not the color of one’s skin or the nature of one’s life that brings one to God’s Kingdom; it is the openness of the heart and the willingness to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.
We hold communion today as a reminder that Christ is there for all who seek Him. Our table is open to all whose hearts are open and freely confess of their sins. I have observed pastors turn people away from the communion table, either because they were not members of the church or because they could not answer certain questions that would show their true belief. Communion is that time when you eat with Christ and when you encounter God. It should be an open table, open to all, not just those who know the “right answers” or belong to the right church. So it is that our table is open to all who seek the Lord.
We remember that Jesus open the doors of His ministry to all who came to Him. So too do we open the doors of our ministry so that all who seek Him will find Him. We have encountered God today; now we must help others to do the same.
We must remember what God told Peter, James, and John that day so many years ago on the mountaintop, “Listen to my son and do what He tells you.” We remember that Jesus spoke of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the afflicted and freeing the oppressed.
(1) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo
(2) Adapted from “Our Endangered Values” by Jimmy Carter
(3) Tony Campolo as quoted in Christian Week magazine and reported in SojoMail for 9/10/03
(4) Exodus 34: 29 – 35
(5) Luke 9: 28 – 36 (37 – 43a)
(6) 2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2