Seeing through the Lens of Jesus (A sermon from Luke 9:28-36)

Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr likes to say that our tendency is to see things, not as they are, but as we are. The point he makes is that many things in our lives prevent us from seeing what really is. Our capacity to see reality is shaped by many factors: our upbringing and the ways we are socialized into adulthood, our education, our social and community networks, our physiology and genetics, our religious faith and the ways we are indoctrinated into that faith. All kinds of influences affect how we see. Thus, the truism: We see as we are, rather than what really is. In his wonderful piece on love in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul makes the point that we all see a “poor reflection as in a mirror.” The NRSV says, we see “dimly.” We are all limited and biased in what and how we see. That’s part of the human condition. However, I believe, that we will see truth and reality more clearly if we see through the lens of Jesus.

Everything in our scriptural text today is focused on Jesus. When Peter intrudes onto the scene and speaks, Luke tells us that he didn’t know what he was saying. Jesus takes center stage. The passage we read responsively from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians speaks of the transformative potential of seeing through the lens of Jesus. Paul says that the more we are able to see the glory of the Lord reflected in the image of Christ, the more we will be transformed into that same image as we progress from one degree of glory to another. I would like to suggest today three areas where we have a great need to see more clearly. I would also suggest that if we could see through the lens of Jesus we could not only see more clearly, we could be transformed through our seeing.

First, we need to see our scriptures through the lens of Jesus. In our text, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Moses represents the law, while Elijah represents the prophets. But it is Jesus who is alone affirmed by the Divine Voice who says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” In this way the story is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of the best of the law and prophets. Listen to him, the Divine Voice says. The life and teachings of Jesus provide the lens through which we can read and interpret the Bible constructively and redemptively in ways that transform us into the glorious image of Christ.

If you consider any major issue that confronts the church today and that Christians debate such as issues relating to sexual orientation, issues of gender equality and authority in the church, how Christians should relate to government, the role of the military, divorce, the nature of Jesus or salvation, or any other issue relevant to our Christian faith we all appeal to scripture and draw from scripture. As you well know the Bible can be employed as an instrument of change or as a way of affirming the status quo. It can be used for good or evil. It can be preached as a means of liberation or it can be preached in ways that oppress and condemn others. My contention is that if we read and apply our scriptures through the lens of Jesus we are more likely to read and apply them in healthy, inclusive, life-affirming, and transformative ways. There is no guarantee of course, because we all tend to be blind to our biases. However, we are more likely to use the Bible in transformative ways if we see it and read it through the lens of Jesus.

Some years ago, when I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenup, Kentucky, I, along with three other pastors, tried to change the policy regarding women in our local Baptist Association. As the policy stood, women could not speak publicly to any issue up for vote at the annual meeting. (I know that sounds crazy, but this is Northeastern Kentucky in the 1980’s, which is still crazy but that’s the way it was).  In pressing for change, I addressed the body and talked about how Jesus broke with tradition and how he developed an egalitarian approach to ministry by calling women disciples. I talked about the social vision of the new creation Paul expounds in his letter to the Galatians, how in Christ all social, sexual, and racial barriers are abolished. I pointed to scriptures where women serve as coworkers and partners with Paul in preaching and teaching the gospel.

Do you know what happened? Those who opposed the change quoted scripture too. Oh yes. They came armed with scripture too. They quoted 1 Cor 14:34 that says that women should be silent and subordinate in the church and if they have anything to say they should ask their husbands at home. Someone asked, “What if they don’t have husbands.” They said, “They need to get husbands.” Then they quoted 1 Timothy 2 that says that women should be submissive and not teach in the presence of men, because Adam was created first and the woman was the one who was deceived by the serpent. It’s in the Bible they said. And they’re right. It’s in the Bible.

And everything that the Bible says is God’s word, right? No. No. A thousand times No! Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying one is a bad person if he or she believes that the whole Bible is literally the word of God. I was taught this in the church where I grew up and believed it. I believed this in the early years of my ministry and I wasn’t a bad person. I have family and friends who believe this today and they are not bad people. There are many caring, good, and decent people who believe the Bible is literally the word of God. I am not saying you are a bad person if you believe that, but I don’t know of any belief that has been used more to legitimize the status quo and justify so many bad and oppressive religious, political, and social customs, traditions, and practices. When I was able to take my blinders off (I still see dimly, I don’t see perfectly), I realized that believing the whole Bible is literally the word of God defies common sense.

For example, in one place in the Bible it says that God told Moses, and in another place God told Joshua to wipe out an entire group of people, men, women, and yes even the children. According to the Bible God tells Moses and Joshua to commit genocide. Do you believe the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies would order genocide? When I debate this biblical inerrantists hate it when I bring this up, but it’s in the Bible isn’t it? I ask them, “Would you ever order the complete destruction of a people, all men, women, and children?” And they say, No. So, I say, why do you think God would? You are more loving than the God you believe in. I know in my heart God would never commend or commit genocide. If God actually told Moses or Joshua to do that God would not be good. God would be evil. God is not evil, sisters and brothers. God is good. As we used to sing in one church I was in: God is good all the time.

So what was going on in those biblical texts where God orders genocide? I will tell you what was going on. The biblical writer was using God to justify his own evil. He was projecting onto God the hate and prejudice in his own heart. He was doing what many Christian leaders do today when they use scripture to justify their hatred and mistreatment of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, immigrants, or any person or group who they dislike. Isn’t it ironic that we would use scripture to dismiss and reject people, when it’s very clear that Jesus said we are love them.

We find in our Bible scriptural texts that are truly inspired by God’s Spirit and are inspirational, highly enlightened, and powerfully transformative. And yet we also find biblical texts that are uninspired, petty, punitive, vindictive, stifling, and only concerned with the status quo. Some texts take us three steps forward, while other texts take us two steps back. Now, sisters and brothers, we can’t go wrong if we let Jesus be our guide. If we could see all our scriptures – if we would read, interpret, discern, and apply these scriptures – through the character of Jesus – that is, through the grace, compassion, forgiveness, love, kindness, goodness, humility, integrity, generosity, and gratitude of Jesus, and if we could all our scriptures through the passion of Jesus – that is, through his commitment to speak truth to power and his commitment to restorative justice, to do what is good and right and just and loving – if we would see and read these scriptures through the character and passion of Jesus, then it would be fairly obvious to us which scriptures are relevant and which ones are not, which scriptures are inspired and which ones are not, which scriptures bring healing and liberation, and which ones do not. We need to see our scriptures, and for that matter all our religious customs and traditions through the lens of Jesus.

Second, we need to see our sufferings through the lens of Jesus. It’s important to note that this epiphany on the mountain takes place in a context where Jesus has just told his disciples that in Jerusalem he is going to undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed by the religious and political establishment of his day. Luke also tells us that Jesus’ death is the subject of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountain. One of the interesting differences between Luke’s version of the story and Mark and Matthew’s version of the story, is that in Luke’s version the discussion about Jesus’ death in Jerusalem takes place on the mountain, while he is enveloped in glory, rather than on the descent down the mountain as in Mark and Matthew. Luke’s version makes a stronger connection between Jesus’ experience of transfiguration and his suffering and death. Perhaps Luke is suggesting that there is a kind of glory in suffering, or even , better that there can be no glory without suffering. The pattern for all spiritual transformation is death and resurrection, suffering then glory.   

I am not implying that God is responsible for our suffering. But God most certainly uses suffering and incorporates suffering into our healing and redemption. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on Robben Island performing the totally senseless task of breaking big rocks into little rocks. The unrelenting brightness of the light which reflected off the white stone damaged his eyes making it difficult for him to even bear the flash of a camera. He and his colleagues were arrested because they stood up for rights that in other countries were claimed to be inalienable. When he was sent to prison, he had been leading the armed wing of the African National congress. Some look at the twenty-seven years he spent in prison and say, “What a waste.” But according to Bishop Tutu, who knew Mandela well, when Mandela first went to jail he believed in violence. He was angry, belligerent and quick-tempered, but he mellowed in prison. He began to discover spiritual qualities and attributes that he did not know he had. He became resilient and tolerant and patient. He learned to appreciate the weaknesses and failures that are part and parcel to all of us. He became, through his suffering, more compassionate, forgiving, gentle and understanding.

How is it that great suffering can either ennoble us or embitter us? Some, like Nelson Mandela, are transformed through suffering; others become calloused and hard and angry and evil. It all depends on our response to suffering, how we handle it, how we choose to react to it. Paul acknowledges this connection between suffering and glorification in his letter to the Romans when he says that if we suffer with Christ we also will be glorified with Christ. He tells the church to exalt in their sufferings because suffering produces endurance, character, and hope.

I realize that there are forms of suffering that seem to all human reasoning and logic to have no redemptive value. At least in this life we can’t see any redemptive value to them, and it all seems so senseless and tragic. But who knows how God may somehow even use suffering that is horrific and evil in ways that we cannot now see. One of the keys is the ability to see our suffering through the lens of Jesus.

Lastly, we need to see our sins through the lens of Jesus. In the movie The Mission a Jesuit priest is committed to establishing a Christian mission in South America for the Guarani Indians. In the process of carrying out this mission the priest crosses paths with Mendoza, a slave trader who terrorized the Indians, capturing and selling them into slavery. Mendoza kills his brother in a jealous rage and then is plagued by guilt and regret. When the priest meets him he is in despair and he has given up on life. Mendoza says to the priest, “For me there is no redemption.” But the priest is persistent in his claim that there is redemption, there is always hope. But Mendoza says, “There is no penance hard enough for me.” The priest responds, “But do you dare try it?” And Mendoza replies, “Do I dare? Do you dare to see it fail?” But the priest instills a small ray of hope and Mendoza decides to pursue a path to redemption.

Mendoza must face the Indian tribe against which he committed many atrocities. The priest requires as penance Mendoza to carry along 100 pounds of armor on their journey to the Indian village. It is an arduous journey over cliffs and waterfalls, and it is grueling for someone bearing 100 pounds of armor with rope and net. When they finally reach the tribe, the Indians are excited to see the priest. But when they recognize Mendoza, it becomes a moment of truth. One of the Indian leaders unsheathes a knife and holds it to Mendoza’s neck. Mendoza remains calm and prepares to receive his justly deserved punishment. But then, in an unexpected demonstration of grace, the Indian removes the knife from his throat and cuts the pack of armor free that has been strapped to his back. In a deeply moving scene we watch the armor clank down the mountainside. Suddenly Mendoza is overwhelmed at the grace, at the forgiveness and mercy given him, and he begins to sob uncontrollably as he falls to the ground in great remorse and repentance. It marks the beginning of his new life as a new person. He realizes that in spite of all the evil he had done to others, his life has value and God loves him. By the way, that’s how we most often experience God’s love. We experience God’s love and forgiveness through the love and forgiveness of others.

In v. 32 of our text Luke says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. That’s where so many of us are today. We get weighed down in our narrow, punitive, petty understandings of God. We get weighed down in our trials and sufferings. We get weighed down in our failures and sins. Is there hope for us? Yes, a thousand times yes. Luke tells us that while the disciples were weighed down with sleep, they did not give in. They stayed awake, and behold says Luke, “they saw his glory.” If we will stay awake, if we will keep pressing on, if we will keep trusting and hoping and especially loving, because the greatest of these is love, if we will be faithful even though we may feel weighed down with confusion, or suffering, or sin, we too will see the glory of Christ shine through all of it. We will see and share in the glory of Christ.     

Our good God, give us the will and resolve, the faith, hope, and love to keep pressing on even though we may feel weighed down by our misunderstandings, our sufferings, and our sins. Help us to persist. To keep on keeping on. To endure and not give up – so that we might see through new eyes the glory of Christ. O God, help us to see the beauty of who you are. Help us to see how our sufferings can be incorporated into our transformation. And help us to see how magnanimous and unconditional is your forgiveness. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.


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