Today is the Sunday before Lent and the theme of our service is the Transfiguration. It is a well-known story: Jesus takes the three disciples who form his inner core, as it were, and leads them up a high mountain. While up there, he is transfigured, changed, before them. Two people: Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, who represent the Law and the Prophets, appear to them. A voice comes from a bright cloud that has come over them announcing that Jesus is ‘my Son, the beloved.’
Understandably, the three disciples are both confused and afraid and, in their fear, they fall to the ground. When Jesus speaks to them, they look up and there is no-one else with them. On the way down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no-one what has happened until after he has been raised from the dead.
In our second reading, St Peter writes: ‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ and then goes on to describe the experience related in the Gospels.
One of the key questions raised in all the four Gospels, and one our Lord asks his disciples directly, is: ‘Who do you think I am?’ That is, who do they think that Jesus is. In some ways, it is a fairly obvious question. He is ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Many of those Jesus ministered to would either have known him, or known his parents, when he was growing up.
This, after all, was the problem when he preached at his home town of Nazareth, they just couldn’t accept that this carpenter’s son was anything other than that. They seem to have enjoyed his newly found celebrity status, what they couldn’t accept was Jesus’ implied claim to be more than this. Jesus was claiming a significance that went far beyond mere fame.
The disciples had joined Jesus and followed him because they did believe in him and in his mission. All the indications are that they believed him to be the promised Messiah, the one who would liberate and lead Israel to freedom. He was obviously, a ‘charismatic figure’. Here I am not primarily referring to the miracles he was believed to be able to perform, but to his character.
Jesus was one of those people who made an impression: everywhere he went, he created a stir. It didn’t mean that everyone liked him or agreed with him - that is plainly not the case - but whatever they thought about him, they couldn’t ignore him. The Pharisees, for example, found themselves constantly drawn to him despite his, at times, quite damning criticism of them. The crowds too turned out in huge numbers to see and listen to him, even though it was far from clear that they understood a word he was saying.
Interestingly, Jesus seems to have had a particular affinity with women, and some of the most famous stories in the Gospels centre on his relationships with women. Luke even tells us that it was rich women who financed his ministry.
His disciples were devoted to him. We tend to focus on how they abandoned him at the end, but we need to remember that for three years they were prepared to sacrifice everything for him and were clearly aware of the threat to their own lives that this posed. It was only because at the end he seemed to let them down that they abandoned him. Intriguingly though, the women didn’t!
So the question now comes directly to us: ‘who do we think Jesus is?’ And it is not nearly so easy to answer as at first it might seem.
I am at present reading a book called, ‘Rediscovering Jesus’. The authors suggest that most of our images of Jesus are composite ones drawn from a variety of sources. We pick the passages we like from the four Gospels, throw in some verses from the letters of Paul, and then combine them with popular ideas about Jesus in the present. The book is a challenge to rediscover Jesus as he is not as we have made him or would like him to be.
For example, if you were to try to find out about me, you might speak with Winnie, with my family in the UK, with friends who knew me growing up, with students I teach, or people I work with. Each would tell a different story and each, I hope, would be reasonably accurate. They would give an account of who I am from several different perspectives. But if you then decided to select a story from Winnie, from my UK family, etc., you might well end up with a picture of someone who was rather different to the person I actually am.
What we often do with Jesus is exactly this. And it is even worse because when it comes to Jesus we often select the stories and create the image based on a pre-determined outline of what we want the image to be either an outline of our own or of the culture we live in or both.
We come, then, to the Gospels with our outline and create a ‘pick and mix’ image of Jesus to fit it.
The image of Jesus currently being presented in our churches is very much, I believe, like this: a modern cultural creation. It is one that completely fits the mood of our times, but you only get it by a very selective use of the Gospels.
We have created an image of Jesus that is very of the moment: someone that we would like to meet and have dinner with; someone who represents middle-class, liberal values; someone we wouldn’t even mind going on holiday with; someone that we are completely comfortable with.
And this should immediately alert us to the possibility that there is something intrinsically wrong with it. For whatever else Jesus was, he wasn’t someone you could be comfortable with. He was profoundly challenging and upsetting. Frankly, he must at times have been deeply annoying. Y ou would say something to him that you thought was positive and helpful and he would immediately correct you. Or, as he did with Peter, tell you that that was the Devil speaking. You would invite him for dinner and he would turn up with a prostitute. You would honour him as your Lord and he would insist on washing your feet. You would offer to follow him and he would tell you to give away all that you had first.
The image of Jesus that we have in many of our churches today is a reaction to the Jesus of the Church’s doctrine and worship in the past. After his death and resurrection, the Church had to wrestle with the fact that they believed Jesus to be God incarnate, that is, God become human. But what did that mean for their understanding of God? For example, did it mean that there were two Gods or, if you included the Holy Spirit, three? And what did it mean for their understanding of the person of Jesus himself? For example, was he really human or did he only appear to be?
The answer that the Church came up with is summed up in the Creed we say at every Eucharist. There is only one God, who exists in three persons all equal in divinity. And Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine.
Understandably, however, in her teaching and worship the focus tended to be on his divine nature and status.
In the second half of the last century in particular, there was a reaction generally against dogma and tradition and, specifically, against the Church’s traditional image of Jesus. The demand was for a more human Jesus, a Jesus who was one of us, someone who was down to earth and accessible.
After several experiments, we have now settled on the image of Jesus which is generally presented and preached in many of our churches. Not the divine Jesus of the Church’s icons, but a very approachable and likeable Jesus: the inclusive, welcoming, and non-judgemental Jesus who is always there for us and accepts us - just as we are. We may now have a Jesus we are comfortable with and who ticks all our boxes, but quite why anyone would have wanted to crucify him is a bit of a mystery.
The reading this morning is a challenge to us to rethink our image of Jesus. This is something we will be attempting to do as we approach Easter. Ultimately, the test for whether we are on the right lines or not will be whether he is someone who it is uncomfortable to be with; someone that otherwise good, religious people would want to get rid of. The image we have of Jesus has to be one that belongs nailed to a Cross.
The voice from heaven said of Jesus: ‘Listen to him!’ For Peter, James and John the transfiguration was not just about Jesus being transformed before them, it was challenge to them to allow their own ideas about Jesus to be transformed: to see Jesus for who he really is.
This Lent, may our image of Jesus too be transformed and changed as we rediscover Jesus for ourselves.