Title: "Identity: Jesus' and Ours"
Associated Readings: Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24-12-18
Date: 26 February 2017 (Transfiguration Sunday)
Place: Clinton Presbyterian Church (Clinton, NJ)
Theme: Getting to know people fully is at once beautiful and challenging. It's the same way when we get to know who Christ truly is. The Transfiguration is, ultimately, about who Jesus truly is: wholly God and wholly man. What does this identity mean? And what does it mean for our own identity as Christians?
Click "Read More" to read the sermon. A recording of the sermon can be found by clicking here.
I did my undergraduate degree at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
Some of you might have heard of this school, but for those who haven’t, The Citadel is one of this nation’s toughest and most rigorous military academies. In addition to a full academic course load, cadets are fully engrossed in a deeply challenging and intense military lifestyle.
When you first arrive at The Citadel your head is shaved, you are immediately placed in a uniform, and you are – quite literally – only allowed to say three things:
As freshmen we had to wake up very early, probably around 5am, to do physical training. We were yelled at from the moment we woke up until the moment we went to bed. We had 7 minutes to eat our meals and had to eat them while sitting on the front 3 inches of our chairs and staring straight ahead.
Everything always had to be perfect: your shave, your haircut, the creases in your pants, the cleanliness of your rifle, the shine on your brass and shoes, the order of your room – all a chore in itself given the intensity of that South Carolina sun.
We hardly ever were allowed to leave – maybe a few hours on the weekend.
It was an exhausting standard.
But the great thing about it all was this: we all went through it together. All of us were the same. We dressed the same, ate the same, endured the same. It didn’t matter what race, ethnicity, or religion we were. It didn’t matter if we came from the north or south, or from rich or poor families. All of those distinctions faded away and we cooperated, bonded, and became close friends.
As knob year ended, though, we were gradually given more of our freedom and individualism back. Our schedules relaxed a little bit, and we were given more authority to lead.
That transition was both good and bad. It was good in the sense that the extreme hardship had ended and we were freer to be our unique selves. But it was bad because some of those commonalities began to disappear: as our unique identities became more apparent, people began to realize differences and grow apart.
And isn’t that the way that it always seems to go? Identity always feels like something of a double-edged sword: we want to develop relationships where people are free to be themselves, but once they are their selves we feel problems begin to start. Getting to know someone more fully is at once joyous and challenging.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The story of the transfiguration that we read today occurs almost directly in the middle of the Gospel, and we read it almost directly in between Christmas and Easter.
That’s no mistake, because just as the end of my knob year was a turning point so, too, is the Transfiguration a turning point in the Gospel and, in turn, it’s a turning point in our relationship with Jesus.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus: we celebrate, for the most part, His human identity – the fact that God entered our world in human form.
Easter, by contrast, is about the divine nature of Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus was able to conquer sin and death, overcoming the limitations of humanity in a way that confirms his righteousness.
But how do we get from Christmas to Easter? How do we understand the identity of Jesus: is He the Christmas Jesus or the Easter Jesus?
The answer is “both”, and it’s fitting that this becomes realized right here in the middle.
Up until this point, Jesus has mostly been fellowshipping with his disciples and serving others in his uniquely human form.
But it’s this moment of the Transfiguration that really demonstrates who Jesus is and what his identity is. This is the turning point where Jesus reveals that he is, indeed, different from the people of faith: He isn’t simply a faithful person or a miracle worker, he is the object of faith itself. The game changes at this moment.
At the transfiguration, Christ’s identity is revealed:
And so, right here at the center of the Gospels, we have the central feature of Jesus’ identity: he is wholly man and wholly God, the distinct in-breaking of the divine into our world.
When I was talking about my experiences at The Citadel I mentioned that these moments of revelation are both good and bad, easy and difficult, beautiful and challenging. What we come to know about someone cannot then be un-learned.
The same is true here. Jesus’ disciples don’t give one another high-fives and say “I told you he was divine!”. No, they experience fear and worry. They fall on their face. This isn’t an easy thing to learn or experience.
Why? Why do they fear?
They fear because understanding Jesus’ true identity changes their identity too. It’s undeniable now that they are following the Messiah.
It reminds me a little of our Old Testament reading this morning from Exodus. In it, Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai – much in the way that the disciples encountered God at the transfiguration. God appears to Moses “like a devouring fire”. Frightening stuff.
But what’s God doing up there with Moses?
He’s giving him the law. From that moment onwards, God’s identity is that of law-giver, and Moses’s identity is that of teacher, leader, voice, enforcer.
Through revelation, both God’s and Moses’ identity is changed permanently.
Through revelation, both Jesus’ and the disciples’ identity is changed permanently.
Which brings us, now, to the really important bit of this sermon. What is our identity?
What is your identity?
I don’t just mean “what do you call yourself?”
What I mean is “who are you?”
“What are you revealing about yourself to the world?”
What I mean is, when people encounter you what do you show yourself to be?
And more to the point, when people encounter you do you reveal yourself to be a Christian?
You see, the important reality of the transfiguration is that it reveals that Jesus is not simply a great teacher. He is not simply a remarkable human being. He is not simply a person whom we should emulate, like we might do for any number of great historical characters.
No, the transfiguration shows that Jesus is the Christ: Jesus is the incarnation of God. In the transfiguration Jesus shows that He is the one worthy of our praise and worship. He is not simply another created thing: he is creator, redeemer, and savior.
As Christians, it is this Jesus that we follow. But would others know it when they met us?
We live in a world today which – dare I say that for the first time in American history – you cannot assume that the people you interact with have a Christian identity.
Church attendance is dropping. Religious affiliation is on the decline. Even amongst the faithful, the role and importance of faith in everyday life is waning.
Within almost all religious denominations, the numbers of baptisms being performed are in decline – and, as a result, fewer and fewer young people are being raised in the church.
And so my point is this: for many people, you might just be the first encounter that they will have with Christ. You might just be the face of Christianity to a lot of people, whether you know it or not.
And so, what are you showing yourself to be?
Romans 8:11 says: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you.”
Do you hear that?
The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.
The same Spirit that allowed Christ to walk on the water, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to drive out evil – that same Spirit dwells in you.
But would anyone know it? Are you sharing it?
That’s what Jesus did at the Transfiguration: he shared his divine identity with his followers. He didn’t hide it. It wasn’t a secret. It was shared in a powerful and life-changing way.
And what about you? Are you sharing your Christian identity with the world?
Are you sharing who you are in word and deed to everyone that you meet? Or, unlike Christ, are you hiding it, suppressing it, or only giving others little glimpses of it?
If you are like me, your answer is probably
“No. No. I might give people a taste here and there of my Christian identity if I think they will be happy about it, but for the most part I hide it. I make it one part of many in my life. I hide my identity to the outside world. I suppress it in my family life. I even hide it to my own self.”
But I tell you, if that same spirit that rose Jesus dwells in you, it can change you now. The working of the Spirit can make you unashamed of your Christian identity so that you might live it and share it boldly.
And what better time to think about these things? Lent starts this week. It commemorates a time of Christian preparation: through prayer, learning, sacrifice, and hope.
I invite you – especially if your identity is not what you want it to be – to use this period of Lent the way that it should be used: to prepare you for your own Christian vocation. To prepare you to be an even stronger Christian.
Use the resources that this blessed community of Clinton Presbyterian Church has on offer. Devote time and energy to them, and allow yourself to grow into your identity as a Christian – so that those you encounter will be able to see Christ more clearly in you.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.