The Greatest of These
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 23, 2020, Transfiguration Sunday. “Life Together” series.
Texts: 1 Corinthians 13, Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus had a habit of climbing mountains. And it makes sense that this is so since, as I learned on my first trip to the Holy Land last month, Nazareth—the place we are told Jesus was raised—is a hill town overlooking the Jezreel valley, a broad, beautiful, and agriculturally rich valley in the Lower Galilee. The valley is ringed with hills and mountains and, adjacent to Nazareth, is Mount Tabor, generally believed to be the mountain where “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Mt. 17:1-2)
I don’t think Jesus climbed Mount Tabor with the goal to show off how shiny he could be. His practice was to climb mountains to draw near to God in prayer—he was just doing what he always did. And he was at the point in his journey that he knew full well what he was facing as he traveled toward Jerusalem. So he climbed the mountain to pray. The implication is that while Jesus was praying Peter, James, and John were granted this vision—what we call the “transfiguration.” In this moment, it wasn’t that something about Jesus was changed, but rather that something was revealed. For a bright, shining moment, these close friends of Jesus didn’t see as in a mirror, dimly, didn’t perceive in part, but were shown fully what was always true—that the light of God’s perfect love filled and spilled out of Jesus. The love described in 1 Corinthians—patient, kind, not envious, boastful, or arrogant, or rude, not controlling or resentful, not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but in the truth; the love that holds the fullness of persons and realities, believes and hopes in others, and endures hardship for others’ sake; this perfect love fueled and formed Jesus throughout his life and it is this love that radiates from him. The disciples—at least for this moment—perceived this truth clearly. They also perceived Jesus’ close relationship with both the law (personified in Moses) and the work of prophecy (Elijah). And then we get a replay of God’s affirmation of Jesus at his Baptism: “This is Jesus Beloved.” And the added word from the overshadowing Presence (I imagine the voice of the Mother) saying: “Listen to your brother!” // Jesus does have much to teach us if we’ll pay attention.
Last week, I had one of our folks raise a tension point in the teachings we’ve been considering these past weeks asking, “When can we have a Bible Study on how to be a Christian and be a lawyer?” It’s not a question lost on me. We’ve focused much recently on the call to break down the “us versus them” dynamics so prevalent today. But the truth is that so much of our work is adversarial—in a variety of vocations, the goal is to win—elections, debates, market shares, contracts, court cases, and on it goes. I believe we are in a real struggle for both the soul of our nation and the soul of our church in these days—and that’s adversarial. And let’s be clear, Jesus was crucified because he threatened the powerful and the status quo and refused to stop advocating for justice for the “little people,” the marginalized, the suffering. Jesus knew that compassion and justice required some confrontation. But here’s the thing about Jesus, everything he did was fueled by love—a love that didn’t see others in part, but knew their stories, their contexts, their struggles. This was true for the poor and the rich, the powerful and the downtrodden, the kind and the unkind. In relationship with all he encountered, Jesus was driven by love.
Jesus was the fulfillment of the law—those things that guide and guard our relationships in community and of the prophetic work that reforms and renews us in community when we get things twisted and start doing harm. He fulfilled these things by having love at the center—as the motivation and the goal. This is part of the wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13. You can have amazing gifts and great power, but without love those things will be diminished at best and destructive at worst. You can be a brilliant lawyer but if you are driven only by a desire to win or to destroy your opponent then you may accomplish some good end for another but what is happening to your own heart and soul? You can be a powerful prophetic advocate for justice, but if you are driven by hatred of those whom you oppose or by self-righteousness, you may inspire some in a moment but will ultimately only add fuel to an already raging fire of hurt and distrust.
The alternative is to “listen to Jesus” and keep love front and center as your motivation and your goal. This doesn’t mean that you will never be angry or confrontational in the face of injustice or bad behavior. It means that your anger will measure your love for victims of injustice and for God’s vision of a world where all have what they need. For love to be front and center doesn’t mean that you don’t seek to prevail in your contest—whatever that may be. It means that you choose carefully about where you use your gifts in the first place and then remember that those on “the other side” are fellow humans with families, histories, and hearts who are trying to find their way. When we keep love at the center as our motivation and goal, we will have a better chance of keeping envy and hatred far enough from us so that we don’t turn into the very thing we hate.
It’s not hyperbole to affirm with Paul that the greatest of the spiritual virtues is love. Because it is only love that has the power to transfigure—to live and grow in us so that we shine and serve like Jesus. And—as members of the Beloved Clan— it is the love of God for us that gives us the freedom and courage to make love more than something we talk about—to put love into action even when it’s difficult. It is the love of God for us that sets us free to care, to give, to challenge the status quo, to keep on keeping on even in the face of certain danger. This freedom and courage is what we see in Jesus who, upon seeing the fear of his friends reaches out to touch them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Mt. 17.7) He says this knowing full well that he is headed into Jerusalem to face his own death. Don’t be afraid.
Jesus did spend lots of time on mountains…he seemed to know that being willing to climb a mountain would bring some blessing. And as we turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem we know, as he does, that there is at least one more mountain to climb: in our tradition that hill is known as Calvary. Jesus never put himself forward as the greatest, he just embodies the greatest of all God’s gifts, the gift of love. And, because of that, Jesus goes all the way, one step at a time, up the highest mountain, into the deepest darkness, so that the light of God might shine even more brightly—for us, in us, and through us. Forever. Because Love never ends. And that is a blessing, indeed.