Sermon: Listen and Follow

March 3, 2019
Transfiguration Sunday

2 Corinthians 3:12-17; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

Listen and Follow

What Happened at the General Conference of 2019
Lots of members of the New England Conference of UMC have been grieving since last week’s result of the 2019 General Conference. More than 53 percent of the multinational denomination’s top lawmaking body turned down the “One Church Plan” and supported the “Traditional Plan” that reinforces the church’s bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating same-sex marriage. This decision is consistent with our denomination’s historic stance on human sexuality, outlined in the Book of Discipline since 1972. It seems likely that we have been stuck in our old doctrine and don’t know how to get out of there.

“Children of God, shake the world, inspire the world, and move the world by the power of the Holy Spirit…” This is a benediction that I heard just a few years ago at our New England Annual Conference. With this powerful benediction, the preacher reminded us that God is the prime author of the world history and we are God’s partners or workers. However, with this biased decision from the GC, how can we say we are working with God to lead, change, move, and transform the world? I think it would be more appropriate to say that our UMC along with other conservative Christian denominations is nothing but a stumbling block to God’s salvation ministry. Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter when he tried to hold Jesus and block his salvation journey? “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt. 16:23)

Putting God in a Little Box
What is the course of history God has been working on? What did Jesus come to the world for? What mission did Jesus entrust to his disciples? Speaking of it just in one word, it is “reconciliation,” reconciliation between God and human beings and reconciliation between human races: “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

Jesus was aware that reconciliation couldn’t occur in our human world if people remain obsessed with their traditional customs, which would make them see the world only in black and white and judge and curse others based on their own standards. So wherever Jesus went and whomever he met, he strived hard to liberate people as he broke down all the human boundaries and barriers. The Apostle Paul says, “[Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

But look at what the representatives from all the UMC conferences did at the General Conference last week? They put up fencing around our belief; they built a wall of division and hostility in terms of doctrines that say who is the clean and unclean. Just like the Pharisees, they delude themselves into thinking they are righteous and others are sinners. They are trying to lead us in the opposite way from what Jesus did.

“Why do we Christians discriminate in the name of God?” I struggled with this question during the last week, and I left my own thoughts on it at my Facebook account as follows: “How dangerous it is to take the Bible only literally. No matter how conservative or progressive we are, we should admit that God is much bigger than our brain or even the Bible. We must not put God in our little box, which is profanity to God… How dangerous it is to judge others by quoting a few verses from the Bible. We should recognize that God’s words are given to make us realize God’s unlimited love and to help us preach God’s love for all human beings, just like Jesus was sent to save the world but not to condemn the world (Jn 3:17). The best definition of God is the mysterious! It’s Spirit; it’s like wind… We don’t know where it comes from and goes. No one can imprison God in our own standards, not even in the Bible.”

Jesus’ Transfiguration on the Mountaintop
“I can possess God in my belief; I can hold God in my religious experience.” This is what the disciples thought when they saw Jesus’ mysterious transfiguration on the mountaintop. In front of their eyes, Jesus’ countenance and even his robe became dazzling white (v. 29), and they saw Moses and Elijah, the symbolic pillars of Judaism, talking with their Master Jesus (v. 30). Being filled with wonder and awe. Peter tried to capture that fantastic moment, saying “Master, it is good for us to be here, let us make three booths for you and for Moses and Elijah” (v. 33). His suggestion sounded very faithful and loyal to Jesus, but actually deep in his mind is there arrogant and foolish illusion? That is, he thought he could possess Jesus and his glory in his own little box.

But this is not how God wanted the disciples to respond to the transfigured Christ. Before Jesus replied to Peter, there was the voice of God booming through the clouds, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” (v. 35). Then in the following story, Jesus promptly headed from the mountain to the village and encountered the crowds as usual.

If I were Jesus, I would stay on the mountaintop and hold my glory and beauty there forever, which was what Peter tried to do. But unlike his expectation and our expectation, Jesus totally gave up his halo and immediately came back down to the village. Why or what’s wrong with him? He didn’t like the idea of monopolizing God’s glory on the mountaintop or preserving it like an antique in a museum. He knew that God’s glory, God’s will, or God’s grace must not be confined only to a limited group but must be spread to everyone and everywhere in the world. That’s why he came down to the villages. That is why the risen Christ sent his disciples to all around the world.

What kind of folks did Jesus confront in the village? They were all kinds of people: rich or poor, royal or common, Jewish or Pagans… Some of them were banished from their villages because they were unclean or demon-possessed; they were accused of being sinners by the Jewish laws. Yet Jesus didn’t talk about who is right and wrong; he didn’t judge or curse anyone about why they were possessed by demons; he didn’t keep his holy body from people but he touched their bodies, dined with them, and hung around with them. That is why the Pharisees call him “a friend of sinners.” He didn’t set any boundaries from anyone he met but only encouraged them to trust in him for healing and renewing their lives. He even proclaimed that “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mk. 10:31).

Joining in Jesu’s Reconciliation Ministry
In today’s Gospel, Peter, James, and John climbed the mountaintop with Jesus Christ where they happened to experience a holy moment that had changed their lives forever. Likewise, we Christians today can also have this kind of holy mountaintop experience on our faith’s journey. It can come from our worship service, from our bible study, from our prayer meeting, from our choir practice, from our GSM concert, from our participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion, from our own meditation on the Bible… The sacred experiences that are recounted in the Bible are still needed today, and they still occur today.

But that doesn’t mean that we are the only children whom God chooses to love and save throughout the world. This Transfiguration episode teaches us that if we really experience something holy or divine from our relationship with Christ, we should follow in his footsteps towards our villages where we meet all kinds of people. We serve these people with the unlimited love Jesus has shown to us. In doing so, we can avoid the arrogant and foolish illusion that we are special, we are holier than any others, or that we can possess and hold God only in our little box. In doing so, we can work with God to lead, change, move, and transform the world. In doing so, we can carry Jesus’ reconciliation ministry to the world. Amen.