I delivered this sermon at Saint Andrew’s, Rome (GA) on Sunday, February 2/26/17 for Transfiguration Sunday (Year A) according to the Anglican Church in North American Sunday Lectionary.
I first learned about Lent when I was in high school from a Catholic friend of mine. She told me about how she was going to give up chocolate and soda for several weeks until Easter. I thought, that’s cool, but why? She said so we can join with Christ in His suffering. OK, so not having sweets or soda helps me become more like Jesus? That seems easy enough, I’ll join you. I lasted about 2 weeks before I had a soda and just threw it out at that point. I had already screwed up and thus, I didn’t need to try any further. Once I failed, it was over. I was tarnished, done for, stained, and un-clean. And that was just over soda and sweets.
How many of us have been that way about other things in our life? We start a diet, then have a cheat moment, and then we just give up. We have inappropriate relationships through high school and college and think now I’m worth nothing and already ‘ruined,’ so there is no more need to stop what I’m doing! Well, I didn’t go to the gym today, so I might as well not go tomorrow. I already lied about this one time, I’ll just keep it going now.
This all reminds me of a story that I read about an Orthodox Monk on Mt. Athos. Mt Athos is a place in Greece that houses several monasteries and is considered very holy by Orthodox and Catholic believers:
Story of Elder Paisios and the Alcoholic Monk
Our lessons today tell two stories—one of Christ’s Glory and one of man’s resignation to the cross. I think it’s so appropriate for us to have Transfiguration Sunday before the start of Lent. What better way to start a time of fasting and penance than to have hope that in the end—God wins, death, sin, and the grave are defeated, Love conquers evil.
To understand where Paul is coming from in this passage from his letter to the Philippians, we need to understand what was happening just a few verses before this to set the stage. Paul began chapter 3 speaking about missionaries who were coming around to the church in Phillipi trying to make the Gentile converts take on the Law fully and submit to circumcision. Paul reacts negatively to these ‘dogs’ (Dogs was a Jewish term of contempt for Pagans) who were doing ‘nothing but harm’ to the Church. It’s important to grasp that Paul was still a Jew living under the Jewish moral law. Paul then makes his case that if we are going by pedigree or credentials, he can make the strongest case against any of these ‘missionaries.’
Paul is the uber-Jew. He kept the Law to a ‘T.’ He can out Pharisee the Pharisees. He is by the law, without fault. Then there is the ‘but’
Paul starts our Epistle lesson this week out with a But. I am the perfect Jew and kept the law BUT…
I have given all up for Christ. I’ve ‘written them off’ as its translated in the New English Bible. Paul is stating that all his law-keeping is for naught if only because Christ is the fulfillment of the Law in both spirit and letter. NT Wright often states that Jesus is the New Israel, the perfect Israel, who fulfilled the covenant to the smallest jot and tittle (which are the smallest marks in Hebrew), and has brought the vocation of Israel into his body, the Church.
Paul then goes on and calls all his earned righteousness literal feces for the sake of knowing Jesus. Paul is saying all his effort and trying are counted as the lowest of the low for the sake of being put into Christ, of the saving knowledge of Jesus.
As we enter Lent, it’s going to be tempting to put what you are doing and your ‘fasting’ or ‘abstience’ on a pedestal within your own mind. I’ve been there… “Look God at what I’m doing…” However, Paul is telling us to count it as nothing, worthless, if we aren’t doing it in humility and in union with the Suffering Servant we see in Jesus.
Continuing in verse 8-9, Anything we do, any righteousness we have, our sanctification, is only accomplished as a gift from God that we accept and not other effort on our part. God makes the first move for us. We just have to accept and strive for the goal.
Now continuing on, what is the goal that Paul puts forth?
In verse 10 and 11, Paul writes: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul is stating here—I am here to conform my life to Christ and Him Crucified, to take up my cross daily, not through my own effort but through a continual surrending to Him so that I can go to Heaven when I die, but so that I may attain the resurrection of the dead in the life of the world to come.
Paul is making an eschatological point here—what we do and our surrender now affects our final judgement, but not through our own effort alone, but through our surrendering to Christ daily.
Like V. 12 states, none of us have achieved this righteousness or perfection yet this side of the Parousia.
And then in v. 13, Paul calls us not to despair.
He is still running the race. He is still battling. He is still faced daily with choices on whether to be for or against Christ. He is leaving his old man behind. He is not dragging the past with him to be attacked with again.
In Lent, we will come face to face with our past in many ways. To be honest, when you start to make changes in your life and turn yourself more fully over to Christ, the Evil One will try to take what Christ has already forgiven and throw it back in your face.
Paul says, leave it behind and keep straining, struggling forward towards our end goal—resurrection.
Yes, Lent is about dying. It’s about joining Jesus in his humiliation on the journey to the cross. But it’s also about hope. Our hope lies within the resurrection. And that’s the beauty of Transfiguration Sunday. We are given a glimpse that within that suffering servant, within that man who is bleeding on the cross, who is mocked and humiliated, that it is God in flesh. Glory resides even in the midst of suffering, sometimes you have to climb the mountain, or a hill with a cross, to catch a glimpse.
So as we enter Lent and enter our own journey to the cross, may we remember that God is there in the midst of it, shining brightly to the world, that what looks like defeat is really victory.
That transfiguration, and resurrection, will outshine and defeat death once and for all.
May God transform our hurt, pains, sorrows, and struggles into a shining beacon of His glory and His resurrection power.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.