Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, 26 February, Transfiguration Sunday.
If it has not been evident by my past writings and statements, let me state it now that I am not all that crazy about “seeker-sensitive services”, “megachurches”, or the current trend towards “a prosperity gospel.” I do not see how we can serve the Lord or advance the Gospel message when we concentrate on removing all signs of Christ in our churches or we seek to bring people into church with the promise that there will be something at the church that they can do anytime they want to. Nor can we change the Gospel message from a promise of hope and redemption to one of reward for effort and virtue.
Yet, these are the things that we are doing in our churches today. We have removed the Cross and references to Christ from our services for fear of scaring away those who have never heard of Christ. We have modified our music to be more what the seekers are likely to hear during the week; we have modified our music to be more performance than participation. Again, all in the name of not wanting to scare off those who don’t know of Christ or the power that church hymns bring to the individual.
We use models of church growth based on the growth of megachurches where, as I understand it, the goal is to create “mini-churches” within the main body of the church. Each of these “mini-churches” is based on common interests of the members of the church. So it is possible to have a variety of social activities going on at the church, each in the name of bringing people closer to Christ. But the descriptions that I have heard make it sound more like a collection of social activities rather than a gathering for worship and prayer.
And the message that is broadcast through many of these churches is one that God will reward you for your efforts; God will reward you for leading a virtuous life. It is more “Christians are supposed to be wealthy and healthy; if you are not, then there is something wrong with you.”
We are reminded that this approach to the Gospel message was the impetus for John Wesley to rebel against the Church of England and its lack of consideration for the poor and downtrodden of 18th century England. We are reminded that Jesus began his ministry “in Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 15 – 19 (with the internal quote coming from Isaiah 61: 1 – 2)
But this is not the message that most people hear in church today. As a result, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4: 3 – 4)
Clarence Jordan, the noted Southern preacher “translated” that passage in Cotton Patch Gospels as (starting from verse 1), “So then, since God has shared this responsibility with us, we are not going to chicken out. And what’s more, we’re making a clean break with shameful secrets and with playing the imposter. Nor are we going to twist the Scriptures. On the contrary, by coming out plainly for the truth we lay ourselves, in God’s presence, squarely on the conscience of every man. So even though our good news is unclear, it is unclear only to those whose lives are falling apart at the seams. They have let the god of things blind their faithless minds so that the illumination of the glorious news of Christ, who is the very image of God, could not penetrate them.” (2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 4 (Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan).
Whether you read the version in the lectionary or Clarence Jordan’s translation, I think the answer is very clear. We cannot answer the questions asked by those who seek answers in ways that mirror the world around them. They, speaking of the seekers, are expecting those answers since their minds are still in the world around them, the god of this world as Paul writes or the god of things as Clarence Jordan writes.
Even the disciples were like these seekers of today. When Jesus took Peter, James and John with Him to the mountaintop and they saw Jesus received the blessing of God (Mark 9: 2 – 9), Peter’s first reaction was to build a monument to the event. This would have been an act typical of the world in which they lived. Encounters with God always resulted in some sort of monument. But Jesus counseled the three not to do or say anything because it was not time. As the commentaries point out, the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry would not be done until Jesus went to Calvary. To celebrate the Transfiguration as the fulfillment of the ministry would be an incomplete celebration.
But that is what many people do today; they celebrate the presence of Christ before the suffering because they do not want to hear about the suffering. They do not want to see the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven as something that requires sacrifice and an event yet to come; in our modern day instantaneous society, what is happening now is more important that what may come. Do not speak of sacrifice or what is to come; tell me what I need to know now. And make it simple so that I do not have to think about it. All this does is create a new religion that though it calls itself Christian is a perversion of the true meaning.
What should we be seeking? As Elijah walked down the road and his meeting with God, Elisha ran after him, afraid of what is to come. Elisha expresses many of the fears of today’s seekers for his mentor and leader was about to leave him, putting the burden of the ministry and the prophecy on his (Elisha’s) shoulders.
Elisha’s cry was for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. In that society, the principle heir received a double portion of the father’s goods. Elisha wanted that concept to apply to the transfer of spirit as well. As the reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 2: 1 – 12) indicates there were many prophets who could have easily become Elijah’s successor. It can be assumed from what transpires in the later chapters of 2 Kings that Elisha’s request was not done out of pride but rather out of humility. He wanted to be the man of God who would follow Elijah’s model. His request indicated that it would take the God-given spiritual power that Elijah had received.
But the seekers of today, though grasping at the “cloak of Elijah”, are doing so out of pride rather than humility. How can they understand what Elisha wanted when they are being told only half of the story?
Our challenge today is not to fall into the trap that so many churches and pastors have fallen into; we cannot simplify the message when it means changing the message. We must tell the Gospel message and we must act out the Gospel message through our words, our deeds, and our lives.
It will be alright in this process to use new music but let the music hold the power of the Gospel; let the music express the power and glory of Christ, not simply chant a few verses that have no meaning or message. It is alright to change the way in which we worship; let us not change the power that can be expressed and felt in a genuine worship of our Lord and Savior.
Let us tell the message of the Gospel; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the poor and downtrodden that they are not forgotten; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the sick and dying that healing is coming; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the prisoners of the world, those in prison, those oppressed, those in the jail of their mind, that freedom is near. Let us tell the world the story that brought us to this place; let us tell the Gospel message that there is hope and promise.