Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.
(St. John i. 47)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Bartholomew. St. Bartholomew is mentioned in the Gospelsof Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only as coupled with Philip in the list of the twelve Apostles. He is not mentioned in the Gospel according to St. Johnas Bartholomew, but is there named Nathaniel – this probably being his second name, where he is also found with Philip. And if our Bartholomewis indeed the same man as Nathaniel, then it is from St. John that we learn most about him.
St. John tells us that Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, was found by Jesus, who said unto him, Follow me. (Ibid, 43) Next we read thatPhilip findeth Nathaniel, and saith unto him, We have found Him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Philip claims that he has found the Messiah, prophesied by the Jewish Moses and the Prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, but that he isthe son of Joseph. If Saint Bartholomew is Nathaniel, we can infer that with Philip he too was from Bethsaida of Galilee.But as a devout Jew, Nathaniel Bartholomew would have known from the Prophet Micah that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. (Micah v. 2) That the Christ should come from Nazareth of Galilee would have struck him as unlikely. Furthermore, because the Galilee of his own day was so notorious for its evil and unrighteous ways, Nathaniel Bartholomew would have doubted that Nazareth should have sired the promised Saviour. Galilee, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, had by this time been thoroughly Hellenized or acclimated to the ways of the Greeks. We know this from the fact that two of these first Apostles bore Greek names: Philip and Andrew. Bartholomew, then, would have had sufficient reason to doubt that Philip had found the Messiah. Thus he is cautious in the face of a seemingly unfulfilled historical prophecy, and is equally guarded against the strangeness of Messiah’s dwelling place. So Nathaniel Bartholomew’s asks Philip,Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? (St. John i. 45, 46)His question seems fair enough. He hesitates in face of his friend’s euphoric optimism. Prior to the calling of Philip, Jesus had asked Andrew and his companion, What seek ye? (St. John i. 38) Their answer was strange. They said, Where are you abiding? (Idem) Jesus said, Come and see. (Ibid, 39) Jesus intends for Philip and Bartholomew to do the same.
Before this, we read of Philip’s response to Nathaniel Bartholomew’s suspicious question. He doesn’t provide his own answer but repeats Jesus’ answer to the other disciples’ question about where He was abiding. So he says to Nathaniel Bartholomew,Come and see. (Ibid, 46) Philip appears to be mesmerized by Jesus’ words, Come and see. The mystical Personality of Jesus was enough to arrest and consume Philip. Perplexities might still remain, but Philip would be content to adjourn them to a later day, which faith must always do! (Studies in the Gospels: R.C. Trench, p. 73)
But Philip’s faith seems sufficiently intriguing to stir the guileless curiosity of Nathaniel Bartholomew. He will pursue and test Philip’s Come and see. Next we read that, Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! (Ibid, 47) Jesus appears to know already that Nathaniel Bartholomew is no fool and will not be won over easily. He pays him the highest compliment in calling Bartholomew a true Israelitewithout guile. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that guile is the execution of craftiness or the attempt to deceive using words. (S.T., lv. 4)Nathaniel Bartholomew is one whose words reflect only his honest thoughts. He is conscientious and earnest in his search for the truth. He knows that he does not know Jesus and thus with determined curiosity he will examine Jesus and His words. Nathaniel saith unto Jesus, Whence knowest thou me? (Ibid, 48) He provokes Jesus to answer his inquisition.How is it that you know me? Prove it. Jesus still intends that he should Come and see, but since Nathaniel Bartholomew is a man who never attempts to deny or conceal the truth of his own ignorance, Jesus will provide him with the facts that the guileless man is after. Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called…when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. (Ibid, 48) We have no knowledge of what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. Most commentators tells us that Nathaniel was more likely than not fighting to overcome some great temptation, struggling earnestly with some pestiferous demon, or longing passionately to be healed by God’s merciful kindness. But suffice it to say, that Nathaniel now understood that Jesus knew full well just what he was doing, that Philip had called him forth from it, and that He had heard even Nathaniel’s skeptical response. (Trench, p. 76)So Nathaniel Bartholomew comes to see that Jesus knew where he wasandwhat was in him. (St. John ii. 25)Nathaniel answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. (Ibid, 49)
The kind of virtue that we find in Nathaniel Bartholomew is uncommon indeed. When Jesus compliments him for being without guile, we happen upon a rare instance of Jesus’ recognition of a virtue that most men lack. Yet, this virtue that we find in Nathaniel is so essential to the Christian pilgrim in so many ways. First, we find in him that earnest disposition that seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Second, because he is moved by candid self-honesty in relation to God, he is emptied of any pretension, deceit, cunning, hypocrisy, and fraud. Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful. (Ps. i. 1) Because his sins so need God’s forgiveness, this man without guile does not frequent the haunts of sinners. He is conscious enough of his own weaknesses not to tempt or provoke God to wrath. Third, this man without guile seeks to delight in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law will he exercise himself day and night. (Ibid, 2) The man without guile does not deceive himself nor does he deceive his neighbor, for the chief care and concern in life is to fear the Lord, obey His Law, and do His will. A guileless nature is…the kindly soil in which all excellent graces will flourish, but does not do away with the necessity of the divine seed, out of which alone they can spring. (Trench, p. 74)
Today we learn some basic lessons about Christian spiritual life from the Apostle Nathaniel Bartholomew. Guile or craftiness is a tricky and deceptive vice indeed, full of all hypocrisy and fraud. Through it men deceive others and lure them into the webs of their own devices, desires, and designs. It is a form of control that through falsehood and wrong attempts to manipulate the truth to serve selfish ends. We might find it expressed most notoriously in the life of Judas Iscariot. There we see that because Jesus did not end up fulfilling his earthly expectations, Judas would betray his Master. But it is found subtly also when any one of us attempts to manipulate others to serve our own selfish passions. Through it we threaten or intimidate our fellows when we claim a majority support for our minority opinion. Through guile or craftiness welie and falsify, conceal and hide, and then dismantle and destroy the integrity of other men. Guile even cleverly confesses its sins, draws others into its pretended sorrow, and enlists sympathy for persistent self-pity and unrestrained self-indulgent wallowing. Guile pretends to love another person whilst all the while indulging its own purely selfish narcissism. Guile pretends to love God but loves only its own sorry self.A lying tongue hateth those that areafflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin. (Prov. xxvi. 28)
In Nathaniel Bartholomew, Jesus finds no traces of this crafty deceit and shameless guile. If Nathaniel Bartholomew has a fault, it might be that he desires too much knowledge where faith alone is needed. At the close of their first meeting Jesus says to his new friend: Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? Thou shalt see greater things than these….Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (Ibid, 50, 51) In other words, Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (St. John xx. 29) This vision is reserved for those who without guile move beyond human knowledge to faith that gives birth to salvation. In answer to, Rabbi where dwellest Thou? (Ibid, 38) Jesus says, Come and see. (Ibid, 39)
With what we know of St. Nathaniel Bartholomew, we can surmise and conclude that whereJesus was therehe was also. In the end, where he was always, was in that spiritual place that could declare with St. Paul, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. ii. 20) He and the Apostles who learned to live without guilewerescattered about the world shining as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, keeping themselves unspotted from the world, where Jesus was conquering men’s hearts with His love and affection. So, in the end, they lived by Christ’s vision of them because they were better pleased to do their duty than to hear about it, not seeking glory from men but the honor that comes from God alone, counting themselves worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. (Ibid, 161)They were determined to dwell in that place where Christ was –wherea man never deceives himself or others. They were foreverwherethe penetrating light of Christ’s knowledge shows a man where he isand then gives him the vision of who he can become.
Can any good thing come out of Nazareth, Nathaniel asks?Jesus says, Come and see. If we do, with Nathaniel we shall believe the Word of God made flesh, hear Him, receive Him, and be so transformed by Him that we shall carry that Good thing that has come out of Nazareth from our hearts out and into the world.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than
we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve…
(Collect Trinity XII)
The Collect for the Twelfth Sunday afterTrinity expresses a truth that although commonly spoken is rarely remembered.And the truth is that it is in God’s nature to listen and respond to man’s needs always, and that our natures are more often than not lazy and slothful in the supplication of those needs. God hears in order to give, and what He gives is more than either we desire or deserve. The weakness of desire is entirely on our side.In desiring Him more, we shall begin to receive the pure gift of His mercy, and so receiveHis superabundant desire for us.
The deaf and dumb man described in today's Gospel is an image of that spiritual condition that neither desires nor deserves what God longs to give. The man can neither hear nor speak. Prior to the portion of the Gospel that we have read this morning, we meet a Syrophoenician woman who had no problem speaking up and begging Jesus to heal her daughter, who had an unclean spirit (St. Mark vii. 25). She may not have felt that she deserved anything, but that didn’t stop her from desiring morsels or fragments of that healing power that she knew could cure her demonized child. She was not a Jew but a Gentile pagan suppliant who provoked Jesus to remind her that [God’s] children should first be filled; for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs. (Ibid, 27) Jesus provoked her because He longed to elicit from her an articulation of her inmost desire. She said, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. (Ibid, 28) Jesus said that because the Syrophoenician woman’s faith desired the morsels and fragments of holiness that alone could expel the devil from her tormented daughter. Thus, a Paganess’ faith obtained her desire for what she knew and confessed she did not deserve. Her desire led her to seek out, find, and know God in a way that was hidden from her Jewish neighbors. Desire is love, and love led the Syrophenician woman to the light, which is the knowledge of God. God intends that our desire should lead us to seek out and find goodness and truth.
This morning, we encounter a Jewish man who cannot so much as express his desire, let alone meditate upon what he might or might not have deserved. His friends must express a desire that the deaf and dumb cannot communicate. We read: And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.(Ibid, 32) Jesus is back in the land of the religious Pharisees, the land of His own Chosen People, and in the environment of his own pious kin folk. What is remarkable is thathere we find a man who is deaf and dumb. What ensues is not a conversation at all. Jesus had spoken to the Syrophoenician woman because she spoke to him. But here we find only silence because the man is deaf and mute. Jesus’ response is also silent. He will pray to His Father to obtain the Divine Power. So, we read: And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Ibid, 33, 34)Pseudo-Chrysostom tells us that, Because of the sin of Adam, human nature had suffered much and had been wounded in its senses and in its members. But Christ coming into the world revealed to us, in Himself, the perfection of human nature; and for this reason he opened the ears with His fingers, and gave speech by the moisture of his tongue. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, iv. 2) Judaism seems now to be symbolized by an inability to hear and to speak. The Jews knows of man’s refusal to hear and obey God’s Commandment in the Garden of Eden. Through His human nature, Jesus will identify himself with the fallen condition that ensued. Having cured the man of his physical handicaps in a primitive way, He can now call the man back into the pursuit of his spiritual good. The body’s relation to sound has been introduced to this man for the very first time. Now the man can be led to the healing of his soul. And so [Jesus]looks up to Heaven to teach us that is from there that the dumb must seek speech, the deaf hearing, and all who suffer healing. He [sighed or] groaned, not because he needed to seek with groaning anything from the Father…but that he might give us an example of groaning, when we must call upon the assistance of the heavenly mercy, in our own or our neighbours miseries (Ibid, 2) as the Venerable Bede teaches us. Jesus sighs or groans and identifies with the deaf and mutant man. He sighs and groans with passion for the power that transcends word.Jesus sighs or groansbecause He desires the Father’s healing more than we can imagine and He longs to give to us so [much] more than we either desire or deserve. (Collect) And so we read next that, And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.(St. Mark vii. 35) Jesus speaks to His Father, His Father responds, and the healing flows through Jesus into the man.
Now the miracle concludes with what we read next: And he charged them that they should tell no man….(Ibid, 36, 37) Jesus’ ministry is neither essentially nor predominantly about physical healings. The true healing that Jesus brings to mankind is the healing of desire, of the soul and spirit, or the transformation and conversion of the inward man as the soul begins to seek out more than either we desire or deserve.(Collect) Desire leads to faith, and faith is the knowledge of God. And so the real miracle in this morning’s Gospel that Jesus intends to bring about is the birth of faith in the human soul. This is why he charges both the miraculously cured man and the eye-witnesses to tell no man. Because true healing is inward and invisible, slow and progressive, it calls for neither boasting nor bragging. The true miracle is the inward desire that begins as to long for one kind of healing and yet then becomes faith in one of far greater importance. And so in light of today’s miracle, Jesus intends that the desire He has ignited should quietly, humbly, reverently, and even slowly follow Him into the deeper truth that He will reveal. So Jesus teaches us not to expect in our spiritual lives the kind of instantaneous change that cured the deaf and dumb man. There is much to confess, much to shed, much to forgive and more to forget. We must be healed of our sins through faith in His Grace. Few men have radical and abrupt conversions. Rather, the miracle of conversion is a time-tried and habit forming process that may take as long as a lifetime before it is perfected.
Our Collect for today reveals to us the kind of miracle we are after. In it we pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. (Collect)Within our souls we are conscious of past sins; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them is intolerable. (General Confession: HC Service, BCP 1928) When we are given spiritual ears with which to hear the truth of ourselves, we begin to become conscious of the horror and shame of the past lives we have lived. Our consciences are afraid and seared, as they quiver and tremble before the presence of God. And so we realize, in the presence of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, that we need those good things which we are not worthy to ask. (Collect) We do not deserve to hear, and yet God begins to open our ears. We are ashamed to speak, and yet He slowly but surely unloosens our tongues so that we might articulate and describe our condition. And so we can begin to pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy.We are made worthy through merits and mediation of Jesus Christ (Collect) alone. The new miracle will take time to perfect. So we must, without any fanfare, bragging, or boasting, patiently endure the slow healing of our desire and faith that leads to salvation. With St. Paul, we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body… [For] we hope for [what] we [do not yet]see…[and so] we with patience wait for it. (Romans viii. 23)
So today, my friends, we pray for a miracle. What is the miracle? First, with St. Paul, the consciousness that, We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; [for] our sufficiency [comes] from God. (2 Cor. iii. 4) Second, that our sufficiency is the result of God’s hard work, His enduring labor, His desire enflaming and expanding our desire, His truth broadening and deepening our faith, and His establishing and securing us more and more in His knowledge and love through Jesus Christ our Lord. The journey will be long and He never promised that it would be easy. But if we desire and seek, believe and follow, our ears will be opened and our mouths unstopped as we begin to sing the joyful song of salvation. In closing, let us pray with that great old Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz who expresses with simplicity and honesty that spiritual desire and the faith that we seek.
I want to open my heart and my entire self for thee like this, Lord Jesus. Only thou canst help me to do that. Say thy powerful ‘Ephphatha’ to my soul. Command my heart to open up even in its inmost hiding places to receive thee and thy glory. Command my tongue to be untied so that I may praise thee and speak kind words to others, words that carry warmth, and healing, and blessing with them. Command my complete essence to open up so that I can receive for nothing and give for nothing, richly and lavishly, as thou wouldest want me to do. (To Live with Christ, p.552)
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity-tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation for those who embrace God’s power as He reveals it chiefly in shewing mercy and pity upon those who running the way of His Commandments hope to obtain His gracious promises and to be made partakers of His heavenly treasure. (Collect Trinity XI)No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Every human being can come to see and know either the way that leads to death and destruction or the way that leads to life and reconciliation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual path. His spiritual path is determined by the character and nature of his prayer life. In this morning’s Gospel Parableour Lord illustrates two kinds of prayer life and where each of them leads. Perhaps our careful study of both will move us to embrace the one and eschew the other with more determined earnestness.
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man who went up to praywas a Pharisee, a religious leader of the Jewish Church in his day and an expert in how the Jewish Law brought man closer to God. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican – also a Jew, but one who was despised by his own people as a traitor because he collected taxes for the heathen Roman overlords. So, on the face of it, we should expect to find the Phariseepraying in a way that surrenders to God in habitual humble dependence. From the Publicanwe might anticipate some superficial, haphazard, uncommon, and cursory prayer.
So we read that The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Even before our ears are opened to the content of the Pharisee’s prayer, we are a bit surprised. We learn that he has isolated and cordoned himself off from all others. Putting a distance between himself and all unclean worshipers, (Parables, p. 381) he does not seek an inconspicuous and anonymous place to pour out his sin-sick heart before God. Rather, he intends to be conspicuously positioned to parade his piety before others. Jesus tells us what the Pharisee will broadcast to his audience. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speakingthus with himself,the Pharisee thanks God that he is unlike all other men. He is unique, special, and precious. By way of judgment, he assumes that all other men are notorious sinners or maybe even as wicked as thePublican whom he notices out of the corner of his eye. So, first he conflates sin with sinners. For while he is surely right to thank God for deliverance from vice and into virtue, he is not right to contrast himself withor elevate himself aboveother men. He has started off on the wrong foot altogether by thanking God for a goodness that is comparative. He is better because others are worse. The publican, who is not far from him, is a useful prop in the dramatic presentation of himself to God. He insists that he is so very, very good because other men are so very, very bad! His sin is first found, then, in a self-conscious righteousnessthat is defined wholly in comparison to his neighbors.
Second, to enhance his sinful spiritual superiority, he tells us who he is and what he does: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because what he doesis not as bad as what other men do. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious,as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fastings were done not in penance, but because the world asked for them; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans, and such as they, who had anything to be forgiven. (10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) He thanks God for his well-behaved, decorous, consistent, and respectable life. (Ibid) He is grateful to God for himself and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this [pitiful] Publican. (Ibid, 11)In the end, he has only condescending contempt for one whose humble repentance should have stirred in him the need for the same.
So, over there, we find the Publican, standing, afar off, [who] would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying,God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we come upon a man who, alienated and shunned by his own people for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity, is standing afar off. (Ibid)This self-conscious sinner’s own sin prevents him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer since he believes that this space is reserved for the holy men of God. He must stand at a distance, taking the lowest seat, painfully aware that he is not worthy even of this station. His poverty of spirit renders him fearful of moving closer to the Wall of Prayer before he has obtained remission of his sins. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing how he cannot endure the distance he has traveled away from his Maker. With neither self-pity nor self-excuse, quietly and conscientiously, he prays, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become in relation to God. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so, as St. Theophylact has written, he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy, knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon and seek out only earthly riches. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358) He cannot look up to God, for he is a sinner. He cannot look around at others, for they are far better than he.
Unlike the Pharisee, who has no sins to confess, the Publicanrepents before the all-seeing God. His heart is convicted and he repents him of his sins. God’s sees into his heart and elicits the truth. Unlike the Pharisee he is not his own teacher,as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has finally heard the Lord speaking to him: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He is conscious of God’s omniscience. He knows himself to be spiritually last and least, and that God alone can overcome his spiritual wretchedness with the power of His pity and mercy. (Idem)And so God calls him up and into regeneration. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast to drive out the presence of darkness within that the power of God’s all-liberating light may suffuse his soul.
The Publican in his prayer, veiled and concealed to the Phariseein his pride, illustrates for us that spiritual character that must inform and define our relation to God. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. While there is still time, he returns to the Lord. He knows that the powerthat he needs mostis chiefly declared in [God’s] pity and mercy. He can identify with all men, because created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Newman, Ibid) The Publican’s prayer is everyman’s prayer. From his heart, we find the truth that must always travel from our lips back to God.
Dear friends, today let us look into our hearts and see if in them we find any traces or habits of being self-consciously righteous. Do we rest contented in being freed from certain sins and thus so unlike other notorious livers –extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or publicans?Do we think that we are in possession of enough righteousness because we pay our tithes, attend the Church’s services, do this and do that, give enough of this and certainly almost too much of that? Do we settle for a form of holiness and righteousness which we think sufficient for sure and certain salvation? Have we stopped growing spiritually because we think that whatwe have, is our very own prized-possession that we have earned and are entitled to keep? Father Simon Tugwell reminds us that this all adds up to a complacency that is found when a man is pleased with himself. (Beatitudes: Darton, Longman & Todd, p. 3)My brothers and sisters, today let us admit and confess that God alone is our help and our salvation. He is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) What we should perceive most is that undeserved and unmeritedpity and mercy that longs forever to change us, make us new, sanctify, and perfect us. Perfection for the Christian means the forever striving ahead, and not any conviction of achievement. (Tugwell, p. 5) Let us remember that we are all equally [sinful] and thus equally privileged but unentitled beggars before the door of God’s mercy. (Idem) So, with the Publican today let us have the honesty and courage to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. Amen.
In His outward appearance He was like us; for in His boundless
Love He took it upon Himself to become a creature, yet without
Changing (his Divinity), and He became the Image, Type, and Symbol
Of Himself: He has revealed Himself symbolically out of His inner being;
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creation
To Himself who is invisible and totally hidden.
(P.G. 91, St. Maximus Confessor)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. The word comes to us from the Latin derivative transfigurare and it means to change form, appearance, shape, or nature. The Greek variant is metamorphosisand it means the same. Ovid uses it when he describes the history of cyclical world transformations from the dawn of time to the deification of Julius Caesar. St. Matthew records the transfiguration of Christ before James, John, and Peter in the 17th Chapter of his Gospel. St. Luke, describing the same event, tells us that the appearance of Jesus was altered and his clothes became dazzling white. (St. Luke ix. 28) The point is that before His Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus Christ temporarily underwent a profound metamorphosis in and through which eternity and time intersected in His Sacred Person to reveal a vision of the life that was to come.
In the Church’s history little is made of this great feast. Theologians have remained silent about it and poets have virtually ignored it. It seems to be more popular in the Greek East than in the Latin West. Titian, the 16th-century Venetian painter, painted a version of it for the silver high altar of the Church of San Salvatore or San Salvador in Venice. He depicts the Transfiguration in a whirlwind of motion, power, intensity, and passion. The upper section of the painting depicts the heavenly realm. Christ stands at the center as the centrifugal point of unity and meaning. His left foot moves forward as if out of Heaven with His right foot ahead and grounded on earth. With His left hand, He reaches up to carry down the truth of the Father and with His right hand, He releases it like seed on the earth. All movement emanates from Him. To Christ’s right, Moses precedes him in time and space holding the Ten Commandments. To Christ’s left, Elijah’s face is partly concealed as he awaits news of his role for the ongoing creation. Beneath the three Saints Peter, James, and John are thrown down from the heavenly event and onto the earth that seems too cramped for them and us! Peter attempts to shield himself with his tunic. John has fallen back and nearly crushes us. James attempts to pray for mercy in the midst of the unknown. Christ stands out as the luminous Word made flesh. His immovable stability establishes His mission and what must transpire from Heaven to earth, from the spiritual to the natural, and from God to Man.
Prior to the account of the Transfiguration that we read today, we hear Jesus say, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (St. Matthew xvii 24-26)Christ prophesies His own suffering and death and then goes on to insist that the life of a disciple will involve self-denial and sacrifice, the loss of one thing for the gain of another, and the hope of new life that can be won only after spiritual death. St. Luke’s Gospel punctuates today’s event with a further warning. Jesus says, Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when He comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (St. Luke ix 26)Not only will discipleship cost everything worldly; it will demand confidence, faith, and assurance in Christ’s saving life and power. From here on in the nature of Christ’s life in relation to all others will be a burden too heavy for anyone but Himself to bear. Christ’s presence here in Transfigured Form overturns, overpowers, and overcomes all human respectability. His own Apostles will be shaken, stirred, and pushed off the canvas of Transfiguration that intends to redeem the world through suffering and death.
So perhaps for this reason, He reveals Himself in an extraordinary and paranormal way to a few select friends. Some commentators have said that if Christ had left the earth in the moments following His Transfiguration, He would have saved Himself a lot of trouble. He would have returned to God as Moses and Elijah had done. For this is what they did at the end of the Transfiguration appearance. They disappeared but He remained. They return to the Father but He has much more work to do. Christ’s Transfiguration heralds and trumpets the deep truth of His unfolding mission. Here we find the beginning of the journey up to Jerusalem. It begins in Heaven. It will descend into suffering and death. It will rise up and return all men to God. Jesus knows that in time and space and before the eyes of all men, He who is the Logos of God, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, He who is made to reveal God’s will, plan, and purpose must derive His sure and certain strength, confidence, and trust from the Father. Only beginning here in Transfiguration do we find that courage and zeal and that wisdom and love that intend to carry out the plans of the Father, come what may. Jesus knows that suffering and death are the fruits of man’s misplaced desire and passion. From the wellspring of the Father’s Omnipotence the Son must suffer and die by the power of God.
Yet, we must behold the Transfigured Christ to prepare for what comes next. With Peter, and James, and John we must be overtaken, overpowered, overrun, and outdone. The powerful presence of the Transfigured Christ must pull us up and throw us out of the normal course of common life. Like Peter, James, and John we must be pushed to the periphery of the canvas of human life in order to make room for what Christ must do. Christ is our center and from that center that rules and governs the universe, we must observe the enactment of our redemption from Heaven to earth through the heart of Christ.
Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. This is not an end but another beginning. Jesus had gone up into the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Ibid, 29-31) Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into exodus. Elijah had guided the people’s descendants out of slavery to sin into hope for deeper deliverance. Both now learned of the fulfillment of God’s promises that would be accomplished in Christ. Moses precedes and Elijah follows. History needs redemption. Law convicts and Prophecy hopes. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word that Moses and Elijah heard. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word made Flesh that Peter, James, and John have known. Peter hears the Father’s blessing. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. (Ibid, 35)
The redemption of human nature begins on the heights of Mount Tabor. From the heights of intimate union with God, Jesus will carry the glory of the Father into suffering death. Jesus must identify with man’s sickness to work in a cure. The glory of the Lord will neither flee nor abandon the horror of man’s illness. Christ’s whole personality is suffused with the celestial majesty; His dress shone with strange glory. (The Church Year, p. 264)This is the heavy garment of glory that Christ will put on in order to combat all manner of evil. He will combat His enemies largely with the silence of glory. He will suffer the effects of sin gladly with the mercy of glory. He will take into Himself the heaviness of corruption that moves men to hate God and His goodness. He will feel perfectly the state of sinners who have not come to see their sin. He will long for all men’s salvation in and through their rejection of it. The glory is what must remain powerfully present, alive, and radiant as He proceeds to fashion salvation. In and through the glory He will raise up a new and glorious body that will become the meeting place of man and God.
After Christ’s Transfiguration, when the three Apostles, in fear and terror prostrated on the ground, lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus. (God’s Human Face: Schonborn, p. 132) Him whom they had beheld in blinding splendor only moments earlier, communing with two heavenly friends, now they see alone. They see Jesus. Jesus’ human countenance, the face of Jesus of Nazareth, holds in itself the complete mystery of God. (Idem)Here is the balanced brilliance of God’s glory. The Transfigured Jesus must now temper and adjust His Person to minister to His friends. He must descend from the mount and lift up his fallen and bruised Apostles. And so we shall see glory in the One who bears their burden in sadness, pain, agony of soul and body, and death. We shall see glory also in unabated love and uninterrupted passion for all men’s salvation.
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creationto Himself who is invisible and totally hidden. (Idem)Now, He is on Mount Tabor. Next, He is healing a paralytic boy. Soon, He will unjustly suffer and die. And through it all there is one constant --the glory of the Lord. This glory is seen only by those who will journey from the visible to the invisible. It can be seen in ecstatic mystical ascent. It can be endured in the crushing blow of being pushed to the outer edges of significance. It can be seen in suffering, pain, and death. The glory can always be perceived. God’s Glory enables us to retain what was learned in joy in use for mourning, and to bring to our hours of happiness a quickened perception of sorrow’s purifying discipline. The outward signs of transfiguration may pass, but its inner power remains with its fortifying grace to help us, when we pass through the waters of affliction and valley of the shadow of death, to regain something more than its glory in the power of endless life. (The Church Year, p. 266) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons