Transfiguration 2011

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man. Amen.

It might shock you to know that there are at least two artistic representations of Jesus as a woman. One is a painting of the crucifixion by (I think) the Australian artist Sydney Nolan, the other is a sculpture which hangs in a Church in Toronto, Canada. The latter is particularly confronting because it is three dimensional, life sized and naked and because the last place that you would expect such a controversial image is in a Church. To many such an image would be offensive and even irreligious, but to at least one woman it was an image which helped her to see Christ in her own suffering and so to begin the process of healing the wounds which resulted from the sexual abuse which she had experienced as a child.

It is not unusual for images of Christ to reflect the culture which gives them birth. For many people it is important to see Jesus as one of them to understand the human Jesus who shares their human experience. Images of Jesus change according to time and place. The blonde effeminate paintings of the nineteenth century gave way to images that were much more real and which allowed people of non-Caucasian backgrounds to connect with the person of Jesus. I’m sure that you have all seen painting of a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Maori Jesus and so on.

According to the needs of the culture, or the experience of the artist, Jesus has been depicted as benign or powerful, strong or vulnerable, stoic or in great pain, triumphant or defeated. There are images of the crucifixion which present Jesus as a bishop hanging resignedly on the cross and others which dramatically portray the screaming agony of one who is experiencing excruciating torture.

The huge variety of images enable artists to describe their own experience of Jesus, but they also provide an opportunity for a wide variety of people to identify with the person of Jesus and recognise that Jesus not only identifies with them, but shares with them the highs and lows, the suffering and the exaltation of human existence. It took a depiction of Jesus as a woman to allow the victim of sexual abuse to finally accept that Jesus was “with the violated girl caught in helpless suffering”. So too, the graphic images of the screaming, agonized man speak to the experiences of those who have suffered cruelty and torture at the hands of their oppressors.

The incarnation – God’s presence with us in the world – becomes vividly real when we see Jesus depicted in a way which speaks to our own experience. Intellectually we might know that Jesus understands what it is to feel pain and grief. We can accept that Jesus knew what it was to have his friends betray and abandon him, but when we see a Jesus who looks like us, who is depicted in our own context and culture his pain and disappointment become alive for us and we can know for certain that we are not alone and that Jesus stands beside us in our sorrows as well as our joys.

On the other hand, a Jesus with whom we can identify is a Jesus who is powerless to help us. A Jesus who is only vulnerable cannot fight the evils that beset us. There are other images of Jesus – images which set Jesus apart from human experience, which depict Jesus in command of the situation and which give Jesus authority and power and dominion. I think of the images of Jesus as King enthroned in glory, Jesus, Jesus ascending into heaven, the extraordinary statue of Jesus that towers over Rio de Janeiro, images of Jesus in command of the situation – turning water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread.

The images of the transfiguration belong in this latter category. On the mountain top Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah – the prophets of old – his face shines like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white. It is clear to any observer that this is a heavenly figure – one whom we can worship, not one with whom we can immediately identify. On the mountain Jesus is revealed as he truly is – the Son of God, a reality which is affirmed by the voice from heaven which sends the disciples to their knees in fear. But here is the paradox. Almost immediately, Jesus is as the disciples have always known him, and it is the very human Jesus – the Son of Man who urges the disciples to get to their feet and tells them not to be afraid.

Son of God, Son of Man. As Son of God Jesus knows no boundary between heaven and earth, as Son of Man, Jesus reassures, comforts and advises Peter, James and John.

Week after week in the Nicene Creed we affirm that we believe in Jesus Christ fully human and divine. It is important to retain the tension. If we make Jesus entirely in our image, we deprive him of his power to save. If on the other hand, we know Jesus only as a remote and heavenly figure we make a mockery of the Incarnation and empty Jesus’ presence in the world of its meaning. The transfiguration reveals Jesus identity as God and reminds us of the awe in which we should hold him. At the same time, the Jesus who calms the disciples, is the Jesus to whom we can look for consolation.

That Jesus became one of us, reminds us that God knows and understands human experience, but that doesn’t make Jesus any less God. That God took on human form does not make Jesus any less God. The account of the transfiguration holds the tension of Jesus as both human and divine- both utterly like and utterly unlike us.

If we are able to hold the tension and to make peace with the paradox, we will know both the Jesus/God whom we can worship and the God/Jesus with whom we can identify. To do anything less robs our faith of its richness and deprives us of the depth of relationship which God through and in Jesus offers to the world.


One Response to “Transfiguration”

  1. Margaret Dyball Says:

    Marian, a truly inspiring and moving sermon.. thank you. Margaret


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