The Church’s first scripture for today takes us back to the beginning, to the first book of the Bible- the Book of Genesis.
We heard an excerpt from the great story of Abraham, whom God chooses to be the founding father of all the Israelites.
God offers Abraham a relationship, what the Bible calls a “covenant”. Remember, the God of the Bible is not an idea or a feeling or a vague cosmic force. The God of the Bible is a living, divine person, and as such he desires we relate to him person to person in a relationship.
Today’s excerpt from the great story of Abraham presents dramatic scene in which God presents his plan to Abraham, a plan which will place Abraham in a pivotal role- Abraham will give rise to a family and this family will become the means by which God will act in the world in extraordinary ways.
God’s relationship with Abraham will have real life and real world effects and consequences. So must it also be with our own relationship with God.
A relationship with God is not merely a quiet, passive, inner experience, but it always initiates a new way of life. A relationship with God changes us, indeed, it compels us to change. Change is one of experiences that we tend to dread because it compels an act of faith in the encounter with the unknown. Our status quo lends credence to the illusion that we are in charge and in control of outcomes. A relationship with God accepts that God is in charge and purpose and meaning in life are revealed, not so much in an attitude of control, but in an attitude of receptivity that is willing to accept God’s will as ever more important than our own.
Where will Abraham’s new way of life take him? He cannot fully know. He can only trust and wait. Where will the Church’s way of life take us? We cannot fully know. We must trust and wait.
Abraham’s experience of what I have just described provokes in him what the Bible describes as “a deep, terrifying darkness”. It is in Abraham’s encounter with what frightens him and what is unknown that engenders in him the experience of genuine faith- Abraham accepts God’s offer of a relationship, knowing that this relationship will be on God’s terms, not his own, and it accepting a relationship with God means that his life will change forever, opening him up to experiences he will not control and to possibilities that he had never considered to be possible.
Abraham’s experience, and the description of faith as “a deep, terrifying darkness” might confound our sensibilities, accustomed as we are to a culture’s construal of faith as limited to a positive, emotional experience. Faith can and does evoke positive emotions, for authentic faith imparts meaning and purpose to our lives. However, limiting faith to positive emotions distorts faith’s true significance, and risks making faith into something akin to how Karl Marx described religion- as an opium of the people. Authentic faith, accepted for how the Bible describes it, looks and feels a lot like what Abraham experienced- an experience that didn’t just make him feel good, but that changed his life, and ultimately, changed the world.
The other reality of authentic faith that is presented to us in this story is the relationship of authentic faith and the acceptance of a relationship with God with sacrifice. It is in the midst of a sacrifice that Abraham encounters the Lord.
There is no relationship with God without a sacrifice. Why? Because a relationship with God is always about love and the condition for the possibility for love is sacrifice. A relationship with God without sacrifice is merely pretend and love without sacrifice is merely a pretense. As it is with our relationship with God, so also it is with our relationships with one another.
Thus, the pinnacle, the high point, what the Church proclaims as the source and summit” our lives- the Holy Eucharist, is a sacrifice. We offer ourselves to God as a sacrifice in response to God offering himself to us.
The Eucharist is a great sacrifice, indeed the greatest sacrifice. It can only be this, because through the Eucharist we receive God who is love- and there is no love without there also being a sacrifice.
(The presence of the crucifix in our sanctuary signals this truth to us, what we receive here is a sacrifice, what we do here is a sacrifice- there is no other worship that God desires, except the sacrifice of the Eucharist, through which we participate in Christ’s sacrifice offered on the cross).
Our second scripture is an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which the Apostle highlights for us the truth that this world is not all that there is, and the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead reveals this awe-filled truth.
The limitation of human experience to this world is a persistent temptation, but to do so misunderstands the purpose of the world, which has not been created by God as an end in itself, but as a means- a means by which God introduces himself to us and through which we pass to a world greater than this world. We call this new and greater world heaven.
During Lent, the practice of fasting highlights to us to truth that this world is not all that there is, and that ultimately, they pass away. We do not live by bread alone, at least worldly bread (or worldly food) for worldly bread only satisfies us for a moment and we will hunger yet again.
Instead, our desire is for the food that sustains us and prepares us for our lives in the world to come. This food is the divine life of Christ himself and this nourishment is given to us in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist prepares us for heaven, which is why our participation in the Eucharist cannot be accepted by us as simply a spiritual option, but it is a grave necessity. For, without the Eucharist, we will face our journey to the world of heaven malnourished and find ourselves in the presence of Christ unprepared.
The hunger we experience in our fasting and the longing for food we endure should be taken by us as a sign that our hunger should be for the Eucharist and our longing should be for the food that the world at its best directs us towards, but cannot give- the divine life of Christ.
Christ the Lord reveals that the purpose for which this world was created as a means to introduce us to God and to get us to heaven. When we construe the purpose of this world as being as an end in itself, the meaning and purpose that this world is meant to give, becomes elusive and our experience of the world becomes frustrating.
The Eucharist reminds us again and again of the purpose for which God created the world. The world was created to take us to heaven. We return again and again to the Eucharist to remind us of this revelation.
Finally, Christ’s Gospel for today presents the dramatic mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus.
By this is meant that the disciples of the Lord Jesus see him, if only for a privileged moment, for who he really and truly is- he is God.
It seems just a few weeks ago that we gathered to celebrate the dramatic mystery of the “Christ-Mass”, the privileged moment when the Church reveals to us through the awe-filled wonder of our worship the mystery of God, who in Christ, has accepted as his own, a human nature, and through that human nature has experienced for himself, a real, human life.
As Christians, we do not believe that God is merely an idea or a feeling. Nor do we accept that God is merely some vague, cosmic force. Instead of these reductions, we believe that God, in Christ, was born, lived and died as one like us, and in doing so, demonstrated his love for us. For God in Christ did not have to do these things, but accepted them as the means by which he would meet us face to face.
The story of the Transfiguration reminds us that the humanity of Christ is not the end of who he is, but the means by which he uses to reveal to us that he is God.
There is a line in the text of today’s Gospel that presents all this to us in a way that should cut deeply into our hearts.
It is a line at the beginning of today’s Gospel that reveals that in Christ’s conversation with the prophets Moses and Elijah, that the three spoke about “his exodus” and what “he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem”.
What is Christ’s exodus? What did Christ accomplish in Jerusalem?
Christ’s exodus and his accomplishment is his acceptance of suffering and his passage into death on the cross. It is here, God in Christ’s experience of the reality of a human nature becomes total, complete- God enters into the rawest facts of being human- the experience of death itself, with all its fear of the unknown, with all its terror of oblivion. He permits himself only the act of faith that we all must make in the face of death- an act of faith that believes that death is not an end, but it is a new kind of beginning. All this Christ does so as to draw humanity close to himself. All this Christ does so that when we enter into the raw facts of life ourselves, we do not do so alone, but we do so with him.
An idea cannot do what I just described. No can a feeling. Nor can a symbol. Nor will a vague cosmic force.
But God in Christ can, and for our sake, he does.