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The Face Of Jesus

Sermon - 2/26/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Corinthians 4:1-6

The passage for our reflection this morning is Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, the fourth chapter, verses 1-6:

1Therefore, since it is by Godís mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify Godís word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

 3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesusí sake. 6For it is the God who said, ĎLet light shine out of darknessí, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ..

 

An astronomer and a theologian found themselves sitting next to each other in an airplane, and upon learning of each other's profession, the astronomer said to the theologian:  "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  That's my theology".  The theologian replied to the astronomer:  "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. J  That's my astronomy".

True story that could have happened to any of us, and probably has happened to most, but this one happened to William Willimon, the Chaplain at Duke University in North Carolina.  He was at an airport, waiting for a plane, when his neighbor for the moment, upon learning his profession (that he was a minister) said to him:  "Well, I don't go to church, but I do try to do the right thing, and to live a good life.  After all, isn't that what the Christian faith is all about?"  What Dr. Willimon wanted to say, what he wished he had said had circumstances been different, was:  "No, you poor simple secular soul.  That is not what the Christian faith is all about.  The Christian faith is about more.  So much more than our little deeds.  It's about worship.  It's about awe.  It's about ecstasy.  Ultimately, it's not about what we do at all.  It's about what God does".

Or, as Marcus Borg in his book The Heart of Christianity writes:  "Being a Christian is not about meeting requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing.  Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.  Living a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being".  So much more than just what we do.

Well, this is the last Sunday of epiphany, and we begin the Lent season next week when we focus on the journey of Christ to Jerusalem.  Epiphany, though, is about the star of Christ that leads us from the darkness of winter into the new dawn of God's light.  And the season concludes on the liturgical calendars with the transfiguration.  A story that was painted by Raphael, and this is just the upper-half of that painting:

I have a whole other sermon on just the painting itself but I'm not going to get into that today.  But that story, as you know, occurs in the gospels right before Jesus embarks on that journey to Jerusalem.  And in that story, Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountain where they see him in dazzling white while Moses and Elijah are there with him.  And a voice from the heavens says "This is my son, listen to him".  And the disciples cower in fear.  

Now it's not a story that can be rationally, easily told.  You know, if we had a camera, is this what we would see if we were to take a picture?  People have tried to explain it, and there just aren't any good ways of explaining it.  One is that Jesus was standing up on a mountain, the sun was setting and got into the disciples eyes, blinded them, two old shepherds happened by and they mistook them for Moses and Elijah!  I mean, how would they know?  Were those guys wearing name tags?  Or maybe, perhaps, Moses was carrying the two tablets of stone, as Raphael portrayed him here.  These are guys that have been dead for centuries, how would they know who they were?

And then there's that voice that comes out of the heavens, which interestingly enough is almost identical to the statement made at the baptism of Jesus.  In fact, in some manuscripts of the gospels, it is the same as what God says at the baptism.  Only two times that God speaks in the entire New Testament, save maybe for Revelation and the birth of Jesus, and God says the same thing.  You'd think that God would think up something new to say in this second opportunity.  But that's not the case.

The transfiguration is just one of those stories of our faith for which there are no logical explanations.  It's a lot like love.  You can't explain it.  But when you experience it for yourself, ah, then you understand.  This is what it's about.

So hear carefully what I am saying.  The transfiguration is something that we too can experience and only then will we understand it.

Now even though Paul is not discussing the transfiguration per se in this letter to the Corinthians (we don't even know if Paul even knew that story -- he doesn't talk about it in his letters, the gospels had not yet been written during his lifetime), Paul describes the essence of the transfiguration here that comes out of his own experience, when he says:

"For it is the God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ".

What does Paul mean 'the glory of God in the face of Jesus'?  Is it this kind of image (painting shown above), of light shining forth from Christ, or that which we see in the windows around us?  Now, we have to keep in mind that Paul never saw Jesus.  Never saw him.  Even if you take the account in the 9th chapter of Acts of his conversion on the road to Damascus as a literal/factual event, even that story does not say that Paul saw Jesus.  He heard a voice.  He was blinded by a light.  But he did not see Jesus.  So Paul has no idea what the face of Jesus looks like.

My favorite image of Christ is this one, painted by Rembrandt:

 

He used a young Jewish man as his model and hence it has a very Semitic look to it.  But clearly Paul is not talking about a physical presence of Jesus.  So what is he talking about?  And more importantly, why should we care?

So let me back up just a little bit, about 1,200 years to be precise.  There's an odd little story in Exodus about Moses.  Whenever he went to speak with God, when he came down from the mountain his face shone with such brilliance he had to wear a veil over his head to protect the people.  And so Paul draws on that story in the previous chapter, right before this one, in his letter to the Corinthians and he uses that image of the glory of God shining in the face of Moses as a metaphor.  As an image, to describe that presence of God visibly evident in Jesus.  So just as God's overpowering presence was tangibly present in Moses, so too then in Jesus.  The light shining in the darkness that can be seen from miles and miles away.

But here's the kicker.  At the conclusion of chapter 3, just before this selection in chapter 4 that I read, Paul says this:  "All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.  All of us are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another".

This my point, why it matters:  if this odd little story about Jesus going up on a mountain to chat with his buddies Moses and Elijah in dazzling white is merely to show how super-human he is, well goody for Jesus.  Do you have any cards up your sleeve, that you could do some card tricks for us?  But you see, the insight of Paul, coming out of his own experience, is that it's not just about Jesus, it's about us.  It's about the way our encounter with the divine changes us.  How the sacred transforms us, from one degree of glory to another.  This is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God that we see in the face of Jesus.  When we stand in that presence, like the two on the edge of Raphael's painting beholding this glory, it changes us.

I want to share with you this morning one of the ways in which that presence has changed me.  What it means for me to follow a crucified Lord, and how that presence has touched my life.  Last week I shared with you photos that Paul Jeffery (photo-journalist, member at First United Methodist Church who travels around the world working for the church), took of the Darfur, of the refugees there in the Sudan.  And I want to just share one picture of his this morning, of a young boy in a refugee camp:


Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT-Caritas

We really don't know anything about him.  He's carrying here a bucket full of water.  I don't know his age, what would you guess -- 13, 14, maybe 15?  We don't know about his family, we don't know who has survived in his family and who has not.  We don't know what terrible things he has witnessed.  We just know he is one of literally millions of people (about 2 million) living in refugee camps, trying to escape the genocide that has been ongoing in Darfur.  Some of you may recall that Paul Jeffery was in Sri-Lanka when the tsunami hit.  He came last year and shared with us some of the pictures he took in the immediate aftermath of that enormous tragedy.  And he tells the story of going to one of those areas amidst all of that devastation in Southeast Asia, and talking to a man sitting amidst the rubble of his tragic life, and the man said to him "Where is your God now?"  

And Paul didn't have an adequate response.  He said it wasn't until later that it occurred to him that God is there underneath the rubble.  God has been washed out to sea.

Chuck Stearns, before I went to Washington D.C., shared with me a story that Judy Siebert (another congregation member) had given to him.  A refugee camp in which God appears as a woman, in Darfur, and God has been wounded.  And she dies of those wounds, but not before she happens to encounter then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who throws out all diplomatic niceties (in some rather strong language I won't repeat here) in a largely futile effort to try and save this woman and other refugees.  And it's a very troubling story.  

As you know, I went to Washington D.C. two weeks ago in my own hopefully not so futile effort as part of a much larger campaign of nearly 150 religious and humanitarian groups to stop the genocide in Darfur.  And I shared with you a story out of my visit to the Holocaust Museum there in D.C. at the end of that trip.  And I want to share with you another experience there.

In the museum there are a number of quotes from Elie Wiesel, perhaps one of the most famous holocaust survivors.  And brought back for me memories of my first encounter with the writings of Wiesel, that happened to be in Auschwitz in the spring of 1980.  I was there, spent a week there with about 60 German youth, dealing with all of that.  Towards the end of that week, our leader read the story that Wiesel tells of his experience in that camp when 4 people were caught trying to escape and the Nazi's wanted to make an example of them.  Hung them from gallows, and had everyone march by to see what happens when you try to escape.  Three of the four were adults, the weight of their bodies broke their necks when they fell, they died quite quickly.  But the fourth was a young boy, and his weight was not sufficient to break his neck.  He hung there struggling, gasping for breath as he slowly strangled to death.  A very agonizing death.  And somewhere in the crowd a voice cried out 'God, O God, where are you?'  And a voice inside of Wiesel responded:  "God is there, hanging from the gallows".

Well when I walked into that museum and immediately recognized the architecture, German train stations and Auschwitz, it was like a bucket of cold water thrown into my face as all of those memories came back for me.  I ended up, mistakenly, at the end of the exhibit where there is an eternal flame.  Around this circular room, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of candles that people could light in memory of a loved one.  And about half of those candles were lit and burning, and there were a couple of children there who had come through the exhibit with their family, and they were lighting a candle or two.  Realizing my mistake that I was at the end of the exhibit I found my way to the beginning to work through the first half where they tell the story of Nazi Germany in the 1930s prior to the beginning of the final solution.

Then I came to this gate, an iron archway with 3 words:  ARBEIT MACHT FREI.  A very familiar gate for me, it's a gate that I walked through every day when I was in Auschwitz.  The slogan says:  Work Makes Free.  And I understood the irony of that slogan because for those prisoners who were not immediately sent to the gas chambers, the only freedom they had any hope of experiencing was by being literally worked to death.

And I spent the next two hours going through the exhibit and reliving the story, much of it familiar, most of in painful, all of it sacred.  And I came to the end, with the eternal flame in a bright, light-filled room that stood in stark contrast to the dark and somber exhibit.  This time I found myself alone.  Standing before the flame and reading the words in large letters taken out of the 4th chapter of Genesis above the flame that says:

"Take care and watch your heart closely.  So as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen, nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.  Make them known to your children, and your children's children"

And as I turned to leave, suddenly I realized, that ALL of the candles were lit.  That while I was going through the museum and witnessing the millions of lives exterminated in the holocaust, those children were going through and lighting every single candle.  

For it is indeed the God who said, let light shine out of darkness, who shines in our hearts.  To share that light, the light of the glory of God.  To know that light is to see the face of Christ:


 


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