With the New Year, I’ve decided to indulge you, my vast army of readers, in a brief update on my whereabouts and activities.
In Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, the Royal Tenenbaum’s, the title character, Royal Tenenbaum, played by Gene Hackman, is a quick witted, narcissistic, and failed lawyer. Broke and recently ejected from the hotel in which he had lived for decades, Royal cons his estranged family into believing that he is dying of cancer, in the hopes that they’ll let him move back in to the family house. When they discover the fraud, they kick him out again. Standing next to the cab, he exclaims to his son, “I feel like a different person, I really do.” Confused and a little exasperated, his son replies, “Dad, you were never dying.” Royal enthusiastically exclaims, “but I’m gonna live!”
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a textbook case of a false gospel. Royal deceives his family, and once they are on to him, he tries to deceive them a second time with good news.
Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday
This Sunday is the last of the Church year. In some Church calendars it is called Christ the King Sunday. Next Sunday we begin the new church year with Advent, a season that for a long time now the Church has recognized as a time of preparation.
For what are we preparing, you may ask? I spoke with my kids about this briefly yesterday. After we joked about preparing for gifts, for Santa, for good food, for time off school, one of them eventually asked, why do we need to prepare for Jesus’ birth. It happened already. Aren’t we just remembering?
Aren’t we just remembering?
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry
You may hear, in this poem by the poet and scholar Wendell Berry, the resonance of Christ’s words in the sermon on the Mount, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[a] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Jesus well understood the fear and despair that seem endemic to human life. We have created a collective life for ourselves, a culture that rewards those who worry, those for whom the anxiety of survival and success leads them to live guarded lives, what Berry calls taxing lives of forethought.
Why do we worship the things that we worship? Why do we develop the attachments that we do?
This week, as I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself wondering “why does Jesus invoke the name of God and the name of Caesar in the same breath?”
The Pharisees inquire: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
As we just heard, Jesus answers their question by asking for a coin. Now the coin that they handed Jesus was a denarius, a roman coin made of silver, about the size of a dime. The denarius was the most common coin of the Roman Empire’s currency. As Jesus indicates, the denarius has the face of Caesar Augustus on it, and is imprinted with words that declare Caesar’s divinity. The coin probably said, “Tiberius Caesar, the son of the divine Augustus, the Augustus.” Tiberius was the Caesar, the emperor at the time, and was the stepson of Octavian, the first to be called Augustus, a name that itself conferred divinity. On the back, the coin declares Caesar “pontifex maximus,” the greatest High Priest, the one who connects us to the Gods.
Earlier this month, I was in Boston for a conference, and while there, I had the opportunity to preach. My sermon that Sunday was on the Transfiguration, a story that is about how unsettling God’s glory can be, and about St. Peter’s sometimes humorous tendency to put his foot in his mouth. What I like so much about that story, is the fact that Peter’s life can be a powerful exemplar for us all. Peter’s mind is renewed, and this gives us hope that our mind’s can undergo the same transformation.
As we read today, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, or the Christ in some translations. And then, in the next chapter, on the side of that mountain, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is tested, affirmed, and strengthened. That renewal is necessary to be able to see Jesus for who he really is, the Christ, the Son in whom the Father is well pleased, the Son that we are supposed to listen to.
Seeing Jesus as he really is, for who he really is. That sounds like a tall order. Hundreds of thousands of pages were expended on this task in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Children and adults alike have inquired about this Christ whom they have never met in person. Will the real Jesus please stand up?
But as St. Paul tells us, there is more at stake in the question of who Jesus is than just knowing that strange and wonderful miracle worker from Palestinian who lived two millennia ago. Knowing Jesus, Paul says, renews our mind.
In a remarkably compact passage, Paul tells the Romans that their bodies and lives should be presented to God as living sacrifices, that they should offer themselves up for transformation. Not just any transformation, but one that will make it possible for them to discern God’s will. I don’t know which is a taller order, knowing the real Jesus or knowing God’s will!
But Paul doesn’t just tell the Romans that they should be so transformed, he in fact tells them how this transformation will happen, and it’s both awe inspiring and humbling, and perhaps humiliating to some. The thought that we all have spiritual gifts is wonderful, and should give us confidence in the Church, the confidence that through the Church God can work in the world.
But there’s more: neither you, nor I, nor anyone else has all the gifts. Unlike Pokemon, I can’t catch ‘em all. Instead, the Spirit has given me some gifts, and has given different gifts to others. What this means is that I have to rely on others for their gifts, and that they have to rely on me. Together, we make a body, and as bodies go, one member is only one part of a whole body, and yet that “just one part” is also crucial to the health and vitality of the whole body.
What is your part in this body? How do you know what your gift is? You might even be wondering whether you have a spiritual gift.
Looking back at Peter’s exchange with Jesus, we see that it’s only after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ that he begins to see who he himself is, who he is becoming. And Peter has already traveled with Jesus for many miles. Jesus exclaims that what Simon peter, the son of Jonah, has just said, what he knows, doesn’t come from “flesh and blood.” Rather, it comes directly from the Father in Heaven. And it’s because of Peter’s confession that Peter is now moving toward a different vocation, a different set of habits, a different mind. Of course, he doesn’t get it right immediately. But Peter is on the way to offering himself up as a living sacrifice, his act of spiritual worship. In other words, Peter’s change, Peter’s gift doesn’t come from Peter. It comes from God.
Jesus being the Christ makes Peter the Rock. It isn’t Peter’s confidence in himself that makes him the Rock. Rather, it is faith in Christ that will be the foundation of Christ’s new community. It is faith in Christ—and not ourselves, our ideologies, our actions—that is the foundation of the Church today.
Confessing that Jesus is the Christ isn’t just about knowing Jesus, although that’s an incredibly important part of it. Rather, As Jesus tells Peter in today’s reading, knowing who Jesus is changes how we see ourselves. Jesus being the Christ, the only son of God, offers us the chance to change, to become renewed in our minds together, and to offer ourselves up as holy and living sacrifices.
In her short story, the Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor symbolizes the glory of the transfiguration with a peacock. More precisely, her characters’ responses to that peacock show us how disruptive glory can be, and how easy it is to miss glory. For O’Connor, prejudice and hard-heartedness are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to perceiving glory.O’Connor depicts this in the character of Mrs. Shortly, whose blindness prevents her from truthfully beholding the glorious majesty of the peacock that lives on the farm. Mrs. Shortly has “unseeing eyes,” literally ignoring what’s immediately before her. Instead, Mrs Shortly prefers her delusional “inner visions,” daydreams in which her fantasies are fulfilled in grotesque and sociopathic ways.
Another character, Mrs. MacIntyre, is also blind to the glory around her. But her blindness is of a more mundane and perhaps sympathetic sort, although we know that for O’Connor the mundane and relatable usually turn out to be the most destructive elements of her stories. Mrs. MacIntyre’s forgivable annoyance at the peacock and the remarkably efficient Polish immigrant who is resurrecting her declining farm becomes something nefarious, as Mrs. MacIntyre uses that annoyance to justify her complicity in the gruesome death of that immigrant.
O’Connor wants us to see that glory is often perceived as disruption to the normal, efficient order of human affairs. It is a sad story to be sure, but a poignant demonstration about how our failure to perceive people and situations as they are — especially those that are right there in front of us — is not simply a failure of our eyes, but more importantly of our hearts.
So too with the disciples in today’s gospel. Although the disciples aren’t quite the narcissistic and tragic characters of O’Connor’s story, there is nevertheless a moment, a subtle and mundane moment, when they come dangerously close to completely losing sight of what is taking place right before their eyes. Peter’s offer to build tiny houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might be humorous, but it’s an example of the ways in which the heart, when overwhelmed, attempts to normalize and contain the overwhelming.
In this case, Jesus appears in overpowering radiance, showing himself in divine splendor to the disciples. The disciples, in their awe, don’t know what to do, until Peter, making what appears to be a respectful gesture, offers to commemorate the moment with a memorial, a physical structure to symbolize the importance of the event. And yet, Peter’s offer serves another, unspoken purpose: Peter wants to block out the struggle with the mysterious and confusing thing taking place before his very eyes by institutionalizing it. Peter’s strategy is one that we’re familiar with: it’s one of avoidance.
Just verses before today’s reading, Peter utters his famous confession that Jesus is the Christ. Now this confession comes after a series of vignette’s in which Jesus performs miracles and is confused for a resurrected John the Baptist. After asking the disciples who they think he is, and then hearing Peter’s confession, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be persecuted, executed, and then rise again after three days. We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: this must have been disappointing and disruptive news, especially to the zealous among Jesus’ inner circle.
And yet, there, on the side of that mountain, in the presence of a transfigured Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Peter experiences something so overwhelming and perhaps quite confusing. Does Peter’s offer suggest that he doesn’t quite understand what it meant to say that Jesus is the Christ?
It’s crucial to remember here that Peter, James, and John are on the side of the mountain in the first place because Jesus invited them there to pray, as he does with all of his disciples so often throughout Luke. For Jesus, Prayer is the key way he relates to and knows the Father, and the Father’s will. It’s how he is one with the Father. Through prayer, Jesus invites the Father to do his will in the World. And Jesus invites his disciples to be one with him and the Father through prayer.
For Jesus, prayer shapes us; it shapes our desires, our habits of thinking, seeing, and hearing. Prayer, we might say, is how we see God, the world, and ourselves as we truly are.
So, It’s not surprising that Jesus would show himself truly to his disciples in this specific context, that is, in the context of prayer. For it is by, in, and through prayer that the Father and the Incarnate Son relate to one another, and likewise that God desires to deepen his relationship with his people. And of course, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the disciples haven’t quite caught up with Jesus on this matter. Just as the disciples still have so much growing to do in their relationship with Jesus, they also have so much growing to do in the life of prayer. Prayer and relationship with Jesus work together, for it is only in prayer that the disciples will see Jesus in his glory.
Going back to “The Displaced Person,” we see that O’Connor’s characters’ fundamental problem is their struggle to bend reality to their wills, to bend the servants and immigrants on the farm to their wills. And when that doesn’t work, they struggle to contain those people and events through more nefarious strategies.
And of course, this is the human problem, isn’t it? We work so hard to domesticate life, to make things safe and secure that it’s easy in the midst of all this to confuse God for another one of these disruptions that we so detest, to add God and our neighbors to the list of things we need to domesticate, to contain. The disciples, in a seemingly innocuous gesture, are guilty of this very same posture. This is why the story of the Transfiguration is important, for God’s glory can not be contained.
Years later, we read that Peter is still contemplating this event. He recognizes now that the voice from heaven is not a disruption to his reality, but rather is the lamp, the light that shows him true reality. Peter challenges us, even today, to open ourselves up to this true light, the light of Christ, that is continues to reveal itself in the interior voice of the Spirit. Peter challenges us to be men and women moved by this Spirit. Indeed, to be transformed into such women and men, to be shaped by the Spirit in prayer, is to be transformed into the image of the transfigured Christ. Embrace this transformation, for doing so is the calling not of a select few, but is rather the true calling of all Christians.
Church of the Advent, Boston