The Transfiguration – Year B (February 11, 2018)

Mark really wants us to notice how white Jesus’ clothes are. I’ve said before that Mark is the New Testament’s “fashionista.” He writes with such economy of expression that his comparatively long discussions of clothing must be important. What’s important about Jesus’ clothes being white? Only one other time does Mark refer to a person as wearing white clothing: it’s the guy at the empty tomb on Easter. That man, I’ve also mentioned before, is probably supposed to be the same man who got caught wearing a towel to Gethsemane, and who escaped when Jesus was arrested. He is stripped of his clothes and then seen again Easter morning with the gospel on his lips: “You seek the crucified. He’s not here. He was raised.” This man is not crucified, but he participates in the death and resurrection, he is brought low and raised high, he is baptized if you will. And as one who is baptized, he bears witness. Witness comes at a cost. Not every Christian gets crucified or fed to lions. Being a baptized Christian demands witness.

Often, witness takes the form of deeds that are socially difficult or costly. That’s the case for the Christians to whom Paul writes in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians lived in a world that did not care about Christ or about the Church. Corinth was founded by Julius Caesar on the site of an ancient port city. Caesar gave the spot to retired Roman soldiers, who in time built a flourishing port of their own. So, imagine if you will a patriotic commercial culture with a high view of the military. It’s hard, I know. What would this culture value? Success. Profitability. Loyalty to fellow citizens and the nation. Now, it is not identical to our culture. We seek personal innocence or lack of guilt, whereas they sought corporate honor or lack of shame. But we get a sense of what drove the average Corinthian. Paul comes into Corinth and tells the people that God is a political dissident hanging dead from a tree. You can see why there might be some conflict.

Apparently, Paul is receiving complaints from the Church that they aren’t growing as fast as they’d like. They’re not successful. They’re not profitable. The biggest complaint is that Paul’s gospel of Christ the crucified dissident—it’s a little bit of a downer. Couldn’t we snazz him up a little? It’s hard to be Christian in Corinth because so much of life in Corinth conflicts with life in Christ. One of the constant challenges involved necessary social gatherings. You brought honor to your family through social standing and profitability, and you achieved these by attending the right parties and by sacrificing, praying, and making donations at the right temples. Whether you’re at temples or house parties, there are altars to gods (and none of them are Jesus). And whether you mean the prayers you’re saying to those false gods, your actions are designed to advance you and your family at the expense of someone else. That does not reconcile with the worship of an executed political dissident. That contradicts the God who gives life at God’s own expense.

So, the Corinthian Christian attends a church that lacks the cultural markers of success and worships an executed political prisoner, but this Corinthian lives in a city where the only way to thrive socially is to participate in idolatry. That is the context in which Paul writes: “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” It’s tempting to hear those words and triumphantly say, “God blinded you, but I see, so I’m better than you.” Really, Paul is saying something closer to, “I know it is hard, Corinthians. It’s hard for everyone. This world does everything it can to keep you from seeing God. These folks, they don’t see what God does; you do, and you have to keep at it.” That’s what I mean by witness being socially difficult.

The Corinthians may have a kindred spirit in the Gospel of Mark, in the man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. That scene is the partner scene to the Transfiguration. It’s an odd partner, at first blush, but if you look closely at Mark’s structure, yeah, this is it. In a sense we could rephrase that man’s question as, “What do I have to do to be transfigured? How do I get clothes that white?” Jesus tells him to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus. The man goes away “deeply grieved”—like Jesus in Gethsemane—because he has many possessions. In this man’s case, his wealth and his stuff are gods to him just like the idols in Corinthian temples, just like the values of Corinthian culture. Jesus says, “If you want to follow God you can’t have other gods.” And he must hit home if the guy is having a Gethsemane level of grief.

Jesus grieves in Gethsemane. Jesus prays—God is praying!—prays that he not have to lose everything. Ultimately, he accepts: not my will, but your will be done. Jesus bears witness in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He pays the price of being a baptized witness. That’s how Jesus gets to wear the white gown of a baptized witness. We often say on Transfiguration that we see Jesus’ true nature shine through for a moment. We do. In Mark, that true nature is as the one whose life, death, and resurrection bear witness. Living, dying, and rising, Christ—God—frees people from the priorities of this life and builds a new community that we are all called to enter as little children. Living, dying, and rising, Christ—God—demonstrates this is difficult and costly, and we can do it because Christ is the strength by which we do it. Like the man at the tomb on Easter, we can wear the baptismal gown because Jesus wears it also.

In the face of our idols—our possessions, our false priorities, our false gods—the Transfigured Jesus bears witness to God. The rich man in Mark had his possessions. The Corinthians had their social pressure to succeed. What do we have? Maybe it’s our emphasis on our children. I mean, taking care of your children is a good thing. You’re supposed to do it. I want the best for my kids. I want clean air, food, and water, a safe home, and quality education. That’s not wrong. Do I obtain those things by denying them to others? Do my kids eat because someone else’s kids starve? Do they get a good school because someone else gets a bad one? The Transfiguration tells us, it is Jesus who asks me those questions. The Jesus who healed and fed and gave life on the margins asks, “Are you denying life? Because you don’t have to. There is a way, through God, for everyone to have life. You may have to give up something that this world treasures, though.”

Maybe it’s our consumer economy. That’s as second-nature to us as social pressure was to the Corinthians. Consuming is god, according to our society. I don’t mean paying your bills or buying groceries. I mean the system that says your purpose is to purchase. That system claims to be eternal and omnipotent. And, I’ll admit, our system has produced wonders. Since the end of Word War II when we decided to keep producing and consuming at wartime levels, we’ve seen our world transform. The system has in it the potential to eradicate poverty and most diseases. Do some of us get to escape poverty and disease by denying wealth and health to others? Do some of us see our space transform for the better because someone else’s space is transformed for the worse? Do I have access to the good stuff because I deny access to others? The Transfiguration tells us it is Jesus who asks me those questions. Jesus asks, “Are you denying life to your brothers and sisters? You don’t have to. There is a way through God for everyone to have life. You may have to give up something this world treasures, though.”

We can give up what this world treasures and follow God because Jesus has already done it for us. Baptism is where God marks us with the promise that Jesus has done what needs to be done and will do in us what is required in any situation. We get the white gown that Mark goes out of his way to describe. This morning, we give that white gown to Montgomery Joseph Morrow. We give him the clothes of a baptized witness. We will tell him (and since he isn’t old enough to remember this, we’ll tell his parents and godparents and all the rest of you), that thanks to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Montgomery Joseph can trust God, can proclaim God to anyone he encounters—either in word or in deed or in both—can care for others and the world God made, and can work for justice and peace. And yes, he can do these things to the extent a nine-month-old can—and if a nine-month-old can, I don’t want to hear any complaints from those who are older. He can do those things and be a baptized witness because today Christ frees him from the false priorities of this world. Today Christ makes Montgomery part of a new community, where we, as Montgomery’s fellow children of God, will work with him to live as God calls us, to deny life to no one and give life to everyone. It comes at a cost, that Christ has paid. And it comes with the white gown of a witness.