The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
Through a set of accidents I am before you today. It is customary on these state days to import a preacher from the state being featured. When illness prevented the third chosen preacher from coming from the State of Washington, I was asked to take her place. At least this stopgap measure is a happy one, since I came to this cathedral from the bishop’s staff in Seattle, where Bishop Sandy Hampton was a dear colleague of mine, and where I knew nearly everyone participating in this service, including the prelude choir you heard, as partners in ministry and friends. So it is an enormous and moving pleasure for me to be with you again, my dear brothers and sisters, whom I miss and love even more than I miss the mountains and the Sound, joining you to represent the beautiful State of Washington—though of course it is hard for me to thank this Cathedral for its hospitality.
This is the last Sunday after Epiphany, when we return to the theme of light and revelation. Jesus in transfigured glory on the mountain is the climactic “showing forth” of God’s presence among us in this Jewish man. Our pilgrimage arrives this week at Lent, on Ash Wednesday, echoing the template of faithfulness laid out in the Gospels: the glory revealed is not rejoiced in for its own sake, but supports and crowns the life of discipleship and servanthood of those who take up their cross and follow Jesus.
I suspect, though, a good number of you here are even more aware that this week, on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” is being released, marking that day in a very particular way. Perhaps you like I have been surprised by the flood of commentaries. You don’t need my voice as well, but it seems important to make two comments.
First, this film is not the Gospel. Much has been made of the claim that it is “faithful” to the Gospel accounts; but in fact, it is not. Gibson has added conversations and figures that come out of legends and visions and presumably his own inspiration. This is where he most left himself open to accusations of anti-Semitism, in the shaping of the story and the inclusion of perspectives that tilt the stark facts of the Scriptural text.
I must say that the Gospels, read incautiously and uncritically, will easily sound anti-Semitic. Any one of us knows that if an outsider, listening in on a family quarrel, were to assume that the bitter accusations with which we stab each other are objective assessments and “true” of the members of the family, we would feel misrepresented, offended, even slandered. We would be outraged if a stranger dared speak to our loved ones using the same works with which we abuse them in anger. We twenty-first century Gentile Christians are those outsiders. Reading the Gospels today, or even in the early years of the Church, we have lost the context of the attacks. It is the outraged voice of a lover who is disappointed that the beloved has not lived up to an ideal vision. Matthew and John, where the most bitter invective is voiced, are the most Jewish of the four Gospels, and their voices are shrill and sharp with grief over what might have been and is not. Their words are not absolute denunciations and rejections, though they sound so to us.
We Gentile Christians, as Paul says, have been “grafted” onto Israel, and we must, in that awareness, understand that these family papers now in our hands are those of an ancient quarrel within this family. In Jesus, we have once again a radical reformer facing the corrupt and self-protecting Temple elite, a prophet calling the people to faithfulness, and a speaker of God’s comfort. This is the pattern of the books of the Jewish prophets, the champions of faithfulness, venerated by the Jews. Jesus’ words and actions are a consistent extension of this primary voice in Hebrew Scripture—the wooer on behalf of a love-besotted God, who only wants us to come home and who warns us, in language that is too harsh for our comfort, of the risks we are running when we turn away. The stinging words attributed to Jesus are a chapter in this epic of grieving reconciliation.
Two things are worth noting, though. First, the fact that the warnings were kept as sacred texts is proof that the rejection of the prophet by the people was not total, but that the voice was heard and heeded. Precisely the same is true of Jesus: had there been utter rejection, his words would not even have been collected. Clearly many Jews received and treasured his proclamation and believed in him. Second and more important, prophets warn in the context of God’s Covenant; their power comes from God’s pledge of faithfulness, from God’s promise that God has chosen the Jews and will not abandon them. The true betrayal of Judaism by Christianity has been the pronouncement that God’s Covenant with the Jews is null and void, superseded by God’s Covenant with the Church—a spiteful blasphemous claim devoid of the Spirit of Hebrew prophecy, which clings to God’s constancy. Without the promises God made to the Jews in Abraham and Moses and David, the Christian Covenant collapses, its foundation lost. If those promises do not hold, it is Christianity that becomes null and void, a fantastic riff on a melody plagiarized from strangers. Only if the pledge made to the Jewish people holds can it be fulfilled in Jesus and only then can we, Gentile latecomers, sit at the same table with the children of Abraham.
We do not spend enough time with Paul. Listen to what he says, writing to the Roman Christians about the Jewish people: “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever.”
The second thing to say about Gibson’s film is that his desire to tell this story is testimony to the power of Jesus, whom I also follow. Gibson is right to tell the story. We should be so moved. I cannot hear him say “His wounds healed my wounds,” without being obligated to say, “Welcome home, brother.” His film may not be the story I would have told, but I recognize healing, and I pray that God’s grace will continue to be active in his life. And I want—no, I need—as a fellow Christian, to hear him tell me about Jesus. Who does he say this man is that we are both moved by? This is what we Christians do: we tell each other and we tell others about Jesus.
Now, I am not going to say, with certain Fundamentalists, that this is “the greatest evangelistic tool in the last two-thousand years.” I would have thought the proclamation of the apostles, the witness of the martyrs, the faithfulness of the Church, and the work of the Holy Spirit were that—but this is not the first thing they have gotten wrong. I will say that in every age we must tell the story again, and that perhaps Christians most of all need to listen to these new accounts carefully and eagerly. Gibson is doing what we all ought to learn to do by studying how God inspired the Gospel writers.
Look, for example, at the wondrous Transfiguration story Luke tells, borrowing the architectural plans of the Gospel of Mark and building the Temple that he considers the most worthy praise of the Incarnate One. Luke adds several things to what he received from Mark.
First, only in Luke is Jesus praying as he is transfigured. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus apparently draws the three disciples up the mountain purely for this display of his glory. But in Luke, as will happen in the Garden of Gethsemane, he has taken them with him as he goes apart to pray; and as will happen in Gethsemane, they cannot stay awake. More than in the other Gospels, Luke shows Jesus at prayer at crucial moments in his ministry.
Now prayer is a human practice; God has no need to pray. In Mark, we might sense that what occurs in the Transfiguration is the drawing aside of a curtain, so Jesus’ dazzling divinity blazes up and blinds the disciples. But Luke says, “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed,” which seems to point to a different phenomenon, not an outbreak of divinity. In fact, Luke’s version comes closer to our life. Many of us probably have an inkling of how prayer can transform what we find ourselves undergoing. We have known persons who rise from prayer changed. We may even have glimpsed a radiance and luminous quality in the face of the person who has been in contact with the divine. Jesus is transfigured as a human being at prayer, showing the glory promised to all humanity.
Another change Luke makes is related to this one. Only in Luke is Jesus called epistata—and not only in the Transfiguration story, when Peter says, “Master, it is good for us to be here.” Luke is the only evangelist to call Jesus by this title, and he uses it several times. When I tell you that the word can be translated both “teacher” and “master,” you will begin to get a sense of its meaning. A Buddhist abbot might be called epistata, the person whose gift to others is mastery. They are not masters because they control or own other people, but masters because they are reliable guides, expert practitioners, transmitters of insight and understanding. For Luke, Jesus at prayer apart with these three men is the master of a spiritual discipline in a private session with his pupils. Remember, only in this Gospel do Jesus’ disciples, having watched Jesus at prayer, come to him and say, “Teach us to pray;” what follows then is the Lord’s Prayer. What seems to matter to Luke is this: the human practice of prayer is what Jesus reveals on the mountain.
Third, only in Luke are we told what Jesus and Moses and Elijah are talking about. They are discussing Jesus’ death, which will take place in Jerusalem. In other words, discernment is the wrestling heart of Jesus’ prayer, engagement with the Law and the Prophets to understand his own vocation and goal. Luke uses the word “Exodus” for “death,” a word that of course has echoes of divine intervention on our behalf for our liberation. What is to happen in Jesus is no less than what happened with Moses.
Luke seems to have been one of the God-fearers before his conversion to the Way of the Christians. These God-fearers were Gentiles who affirmed monotheism and the ethical principles of the Torah, used the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple for their prayers, but did not convert to Judaism. Luke’s Gospel presents itself suffused with this deep respect. The Temple and Jerusalem become the symbols of God’s continuously reaffirmed covenant, of the place where humanity and divinity meet. In fact, only in this Gospel does Jesus say that it is impossible for a prophet to die away from Jerusalem, a statement whose emotional resonance is unfathomable, not only recognizing the repeated resistance put up by the establishment to every prophet, but also acknowledging its glory as the place where the prophet’s testimony receives its final and culminating expression.
So Luke, in this account, has taken the story of the Transfiguration and shaped it to make certain points that differ from the story he received. For Luke, Jesus, more than a cosmic Son of God, is our human example and spiritual master. Jesus prays and unleashes the glory that shines in him, so we can see what we can become at prayer. Luke also shows Jesus as the culmination of prophecy, both as a prophet himself and as the fulfillment of what is promised. This is what faces him towards Jerusalem and enables him to embody the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, Luke shows us how to do what Mel Gibson attempted: to retell the story of Jesus as Good News proclaimed. All of us must make that attempt. All of us need to tell the story of Jesus, and we must tell it as the account of Good News in our life.
Only one thing remains to be said. You might believe that I am saying that any version of Jesus’ life is as good as any other. I would say that an honest probing account of who Jesus is in any life is one I can learn from, but not every description is Good News. Not all proclaim new creation and reconciliation. I might flippantly say that not every story fits the profile. As one lives with Jesus, one comes to recognize his tone of voice, his turn of gesture, his habits, his temperament.
Once again, Paul is our guide—Paul, who said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” You heard Paul today: “I could use any tongue, human or angelic, but without love, you would hear only clatter. My insight could be penetrating and my persuasiveness irresistible, but without love, I would get nowhere. I could exhaust myself in good works and burn myself up with the demonstration of my virtue, but without love, I would accomplish nothing. Patience, kindness, and truthfulness, not envy nor spite nor willfulness—that is what love is, and it never tires of being that.” This portrait, of course, is the portrait of Jesus. This is the Jesus we look to recognize in every account. These are the criteria we apply to every version of Jesus’ life. This is story we can tell as Good News. But what is more important, as Luke knew, and hopefully as all of us, even Mel Gibson, are learning, a life lived this way is a life lived as Good News. May God strengthen us in that life of discipleship and prayer, until we are raised into that life, where neither faith nor hope will be needed any longer, but where mutual love will flourish in the eternal life of the glorious Trinity, whom we praise this day, God who is all over all, and whom we hope to bless forever.