Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last Sunday Before Epiphany - Year C

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, February 14, 2010

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.

We are the Body of Christ. We see the face of Christ on each other.

Sometimes when an idea, no matter how amazing, becomes familiar, it loses its power to amaze us, to hold us in awe.

We are the Body of Christ. We see the face of Christ on each other.

We use those words all the time, I know I certainly use those words all the time. And yet when we look at each other we see … well … each other. And that combined with the ease with which we toss these words around makes them seem not only less than amazing but less than real … more of a metaphor.

And that’s why this morning’s Gospel reading is so incredible. This morning’s Gospel reading invites us to hear those words with ancient ears. Ears that hear how awesome and life-changing and even terrifying they are. And for that we must hear this story not with our own ears that have heard it so many times before, but with the ears of Peter and James and John, who were raised on very different stories.

“The Lord said, ‘you cannot see my face … for no one shall see me and live.”

Those were the words that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness. Moses, who had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and endured their incessant whining and complaining. Moses, who was ready to keep dragging those people forward to the promised land in spite of everything. Moses, who had done everything God had asked no matter how bizarre. I mean really, what was up with that God keeping hardening Pharoah’s heart stuff and making Moses job that much harder.

If there was ever someone that God could have thrown a bone to it was Moses. And Moses just has one request, “Show me your glory, I pray.” Moses says to God. But God says, nope. “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live. But go stand in this cleft of a rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by, and then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

The glory of God, the face of God, was never to be seen. Because no one could look on it and live. God appeared in a burning bush, a great cloud. To Elijah, God appeared in the “sound of sheer silence.”

God has the people build a temple to be God’s dwelling place on earth. But even that doesn’t let the people look on God. For God is too big for the temple. Isaiah tells us that God is so huge that the temple is filled to overflowing just by the hem of God’s robe. But the temple is what God has given them. And so once a year, one person, the high priest, is allowed to go into the innermost part of that temple, the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God resides, to make sacrifice on behalf of the people. And even then, the high priest does not see God face to face, but merely enters into the divine presence the same way Moses did when he entered into the cloud.

When we tell each other to “see the face of God, the face of Christ on each other” even if we really ponder those words in our hearts, that probably at best gives us a strong feeling of love and connection and frankly more often than not seems like just a nice sentiment.

But if you were to say those words to Peter, James and John. “See the face of God on each other.” That’s like saying stare directly into the sun. In fact, it’s not. It’s not like anything. There are no words to describe the combination of ecstatic joy and terrifying obliteration that phrase invites them into.

And so what we miss in hearing this morning’s Gospel, precisely because we have used these words and heard this story over and over and over again … is how earth-shatteringly improbable … how break-open-creation, this changes everything this story is.

Peter, who a week before had confessed Jesus as the Christ of God, goes with James, John and Jesus up the mountain. And this incredible thing happens. Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes change and become brilliant white. And all of a sudden Moses and Elijah are there with him. And listen how Luke describes it:

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.

Moses, who had been as faithful as anyone to God, asked to see God’s glory and God said, no … but I’ll show you my backside. For generations upon generations only one person had been allowed once a year not to look upon the face of God but to even enter into the divine presence.

“No one shall look on the face of God and live” says the scriptures. No one … until now. Something about the person of Jesus made God’s glory accessible to humanity. Jesus was a face of God we could actually see and live.

What happens on that mountain is a unique event in the history of the world. It is a watershed moment in the relationship of God to humanity. Peter, James and John their whole lives had heard the scripture from Isaiah read in the synagogue, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” And to them it had probably seemed just as removed from them as our scriptures so often seem to us.

But not then. The glory of the Lord was revealed. And they saw it. And they lived.

And then they didn’t know what to do.

And so they fell back on the only thing they knew. The presence of God needs a house, it needs to be contained, controlled, hidden away. God lives in the Temple, so Peter reasons we have to build temples here. But then God comes to them in the old, familiar way, in the cloud, and says, “No… not this time.” God is no longer an object like the ark of the covenant to be locked away and enshrined and cowered at from a distance. God is a person. God is someone to be in relationship with. To eat and drink with. To laugh and cry with. To follow and question. To dance and spar with. To live with and to die with.

And so they went down the mountain with Jesus. And they told no one – how could they. People would have thought they were nuts. They probably didn’t even believe it themselves. A God whose face you could gaze on. A God you could touch. A God who could touch you.

We are the Body of Christ. We see the face of Christ on each other.

We use those words all the time, I know I certainly use those words all the time. And we should use them because they are deeply and profoundly true. But we must be careful that in using them so much that we lose the incredible reality behind them.

When we say we are the Body of Christ. When we say that we see the face of Christ on each other. When we gather at this table and when I say “Be what you see, receive who you are,” we are not talking about some watered-down sentiment, a “Godishness” that is to God what Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is to truth.

When we say we are the Body of Christ. When we say that we see the face of Christ on each other, we are saying that there is a power and a love that resides in each and all of us that is blinding and awesome and devastating and ecstatic. What we are saying is that when we gather together as Christ’s body in this place, and whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name we are setting loose powers that are cosmic in dimension. Powers that our ancestors trembled before and that we should tremble before too.

What we are saying is that when we quote Paul telling the Philippians that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. When we talk of us being in Christ a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never ends we are not just talking about comfortable words that help us through a tough stretch but a power working in us that truly can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

We can look in wonder at where we were a year ago as Christ Church Cathedral and where we are now. We have traveled a long way and already things are happening here that we could scarcely imagine just 12 months ago. But believe me when I tell you that all that has happened is just the beginning of what can happen when we truly open ourselves up to the power of Christ in ourselves and the face of each other. When knowing that we are staring into a thousand suns we still embrace the invitation to be the Body of Christ … to see the face of Christ on each other.


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