LENT #2: The Path to Transfiguration

2nd Sunday of Lent (C) – March 13, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

A New Citizenship

One thing that has always struck me is that every second Sunday of Lent we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It seems strange to celebrate such a glorious event during the season of Lent. But I think the reason is because it gives the key to everything that’s going on. We’re told that Jesus is conversing with Moses and Elijah, and they are speaking of the exodus Jesus is going to accomplish in Jerusalem. We all know the story of the Exodus: Moses takes the people of Israel out of Egypt. But think a little harder: what does the Exodus accomplish? In the Exodus, this tribal people of Israel become a nation, a “holy nation” (c.f., Exodus 19). These people become citizens of a new nation.

And this is precisely what Jesus will be alluding to when he is announcing a new kingdom, the kingdom of God—and this is what Paul is talking about in our second reading today: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Paul’s letter to the Philippians really gives us the key to understanding what is going on, because the whole letter focuses on the question of what it means to be a citizen of heaven.

At the beginning of the letter, Paul has a simple command to the Christians: “Behave as citizens of the gospel.” Later on, and this is our second reading today, Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Our citizenship is in heaven, so behave as citizens of heaven. What is he saying? “Stop caring about this world and just wait until you die and go to heaven”? No! That’s not how citizenship worked then.

Paul is writing to the Christians in Philippi. And Philippi was a Roman colony in northern Greece. And the “citizens” of Philippi were actually Roman citizens, retired Roman soldiers from the civil war. But since Rome was overcrowded, and Caesar didn’t need a bunch of ex-soldiers getting restless and hungry in Rome, he settled them in Philippi. The point is, as “citizens of Rome” living outside of Rome, living in Philippi, these ex-soldiers were expected to “behave as citizens of Rome.”

And so just like Roman citizens living outside of Rome, Paul urges the Christians to live the newness of the gospel, their “heavenly citizenship,” even though they are outside of the place of their citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven, so behave as citizens of the gospel.”

The Promise: Share in Divine Life

So what does that look like? Well, this heavenly citizenship is what Jesus described right before the Transfiguration. Jesus was speaking to the Twelve and said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24). Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus. This is what heavenly citizenship looks like: setting aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance, and instead, following Jesus on a path of daily dependence on and trust in the Father—losing our life, handing our life over to God, daily.

Worldly citizenship—and this is what Paul is contrasting with heavenly citizenship—worldly citizenship looks like taking it easy, avoiding crosses as all costs (you know, the difficult situations, conversations, people), never denying yourself, and following no one—doing whatever you think is right, “living your best life.” Usually we look at this like, “Well, they’re good people. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, it’s fine. It’s fine! They’re fine!” But Paul doesn’t see it that way. He says: “As I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, many [people] conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” (Phil 3:18-19). That’s rough. “Enemies of the cross. Their end is destruction.”

“But,” Paul says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” (Phil 3:20-21). Paul isn’t promising that one day we get to go to heaven when we die, no. Paul is promising that from heaven, the true king will come. And when he does, he will change us. Our bodies will become like his glorious body! His transfigured body! And that’s why this scene in the Gospel is so important.

Abba Joseph

And so this is why Jesus, immediately after explaining what this heavenly citizenship looks like, what it looks like to be a disciple—immediately after this is the Transfiguration, because the Transfiguration shows us what someone who is a citizen of heaven truly is! In the scene of the Transfiguration, the veil is pulled back, it’s an apocalyptic moment: the radiant divine life hidden within Jesus is revealed! And it is this radiant divine life that comes with heavenly citizenship! Just like their are rights and responsibilities and perks to being a citizen in the United States, there are rights and responsibilities and perks to being a citizen of heaven. And the Transfiguration shows us what it’s all about.

This is what it’s all about. All of it. The Fathers of the Church had a quick and pithy way of summing this up: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus. God became man so that man might become God. And that’s what we see in the Transfiguration. This is what it looks like when a human is living this, when the life of heaven is flowing through someone’s veins. A true “citizen of heaven,” a true disciple of Jesus Christ—if we pulled back the veil, even we would look like Jesus in his Transfiguration.

I’ve told you this before, but one of my favorite stories to tell is about these two monks who lived a long time ago in the desert (called the desert fathers). And one day the young monk goes to the old monk and says, “I say my prayers, I fast, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, I purify my thoughts. But I feel like I’m missing it. What else can I do?” [And that’s us. We have all of our external things we do. Especially during Lent.] Then the old monk stands up, and holds this hands like this, and fire starts to pour out of his hands. And he says, “If you will, you can become all flame” (c.f., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers). What is he saying? You can have fire-powers? No. He’s saying you could be transformed! A true transformation could come about in you! If you would hand over everything to the Lord, allow him to work through you, truly live as citizens of the Gospel—instead of just giving up chocolate for Lent.

Cello and Suffering

I’m not exaggerating. For anyone whoever denies themself, takes up their cross daily and follows Jesus—anyone who sets aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance, and instead, follows Jesus on a path of daily dependence on and trust in the Father—loses their life, embraces all of the suffering and struggles that comes with that—if the veil was pulled back, they would radiate. But accepting that path, leaning into that path, and all of the sacrifice and suffering it will entail—that’s hard.

When I was ten years old, my parents decreed that everyone in the family would have to play an instrument. So I chose the cello. I got on YouTube and watched videos of famous cellists, and I was enamored. I wanted to be able to do what they did. I was ready to do anything to do that. And so my parents got me a cello and had me start lessons. But what no one told me, and what no one really could tell me, was what it would cost, what I would have to sacrifice to get there.

Learning to play the cello involved so much sacrifice and suffering. Being forced—sometimes against my will—to practice every day, to go to lessons, to have my teacher tell me what to do and to give me all of these rules I had to follow; a teacher who would constantly critique me and push me. There was so much sacrifice and suffering.

What kept me going through is that I would see my teacher play. She would play things so effortlessly, so beautifully. I wanted to play just like her. I had seen the “glory to be revealed” in her playing. I had seen that sacrifice and suffering—suffering she had to go through too when she first learned to play—I had seen that sacrifice and suffering was the only path to life that I wanted. And through that suffering, through failure and practice and submitting myself to the life that my teacher laid out—through all of that I found the joy and freedom of playing the cello. While I looked no different on the outside, a new life was alive within me.

Heavenly Citizens: The People We Are Called to Be

Heavenly citizenship—setting aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance; following Jesus on a path of daily dependence on and trust in the Father; losing our life—this all sounds like a really dumb idea. Worldly citizenship sounds a lot more comfortable, a lot more fun. But this peak behind the veil, Jesus’ transfiguration shows us the truth, the glory waiting to be revealed—a glory we can have even now! And in a day to come, the fullness: the resurrection itself.

We will one day have a share in the glorified, resurrected body of Jesus! But the path to that—well, Jesus’ hour of glory is the cross. Glory passes through the cross. And it’s a cross we have to pick up daily. It’s not a citizenship you can turn off and on. It’s a daily thing.

I picked up my cello the other day—first time in about six months, don’t tell my teacher—and it was rough. I used to be pretty good; not so much any more. Because I wasn’t living it daily. But when I followed my teacher? When I denied myself daily and practiced? When I picked up the suffering of practicing? A transfiguration happened.

The divine life is something Christ offers to us now. That’s what is contained in this Eucharist—the divine life, the divine coal, the fire. But this Eucharist is also Jesus’ sacrifice and death on the cross. We aren’t just here to hear a nice talk, pray a little. We are here to renew our citizenship, renew the new and eternal covenant, the covenant of Jesus Christ himself. And it is the covenant to deny ourself, take up our cross daily, and follow him.

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