Last Sunday, I began a series of sermons for the season of Lent on discipleship. For the purpose of this series, I told you that I want to consider discipleship as a way of following the Lord in a new and more intense manner. More specifically, we are focusing on the joy of being Christ’s disciples.
Our discipleship, we said last week, began at our Baptism, when we were made sons and daughters of God. Baptism, we know, takes place in the context of the Church, so following Christ is never something that we do on our own, but happens in the context of the family of the Church. This is meant to be a joyful family that radiates the love of God that He has infused into our hearts. Through Baptism, we were given a new destiny – Heaven – and sent out to bring others there with us as well. (We also talked about the Flood as an image of Baptism, and God’s promise that He would never again flood the whole world. It’s good that we got that reminder because some of us might have been worried this past week!) Lastly, we saw that disciples find joy in repenting of their sins. As a practical consequence of this last point, I challenged you to invite others to the Sacrament of Confession this Lent, particularly through “The Light is On for You” this Wednesday (6:30 – 8 p.m.), so that they too can experience the joy of a clear conscience.
Today, the next step in our Lenten series on discipleship invites us to consider the reward that Christ offers to His disciples: Heaven. The events of today’s Gospel take place at a critical juncture in our Lord’s public ministry. At this point in the Gospel, our Lord is pivoting from His preaching and miracle working – the proclamation of the Kingdom that we heard about last Sunday – to His march toward Jerusalem, where He will suffer, die, and rise on the third day.
That is, after all, what He tells Peter, James, and John on the way down from the mountain, to their great confusion. Christ being transfigured before them is a vision of what is to come, to remind them that after His death He is going to rise again, and the Christ who is risen from the dead is the same Christ we will behold in Heaven. He is giving them something to hang on to, something to get them through the dark days of suffering to come.
Just as our Lord was getting His disciples ready for His Passion, so too this season is about preparing ourselves to commemorate that reality. When our Lord shows us this stunning vision of Heaven – “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” – He is encouraging us to begin with the goal in mind.
If we do not begin with the goal in mind, we are likely to be like the Israelites, who spent 40 years wondering in the desert, getting frustrated because they did not have a clear path forward. With Christ, though, everything is different, and He encourages us to begin this season of Lent with the goal of Heaven before our eyes.
The problem, though, is that we frequently do not recognize the goal when it is presented to us, just like the Apostles in the Gospel today. St. Mark writes that, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” Now, if you are like me you want to respond, “Umm, guys, He means rising from the dead!!! What do you think He means?!?!” The problem is that rising from the dead – as the kids say, or were saying a year ago – wasn’t really a thing back then. No one had ever risen from the dead! Well, at least not of his own accord. Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead, but no one had ever raised Himself. They figured that He must have been speaking metaphorically. Nope, He was not.
So now, 2,000 years later, thanks to Christ, rising from the dead is “a thing,” but we have to recapture the absolute novelty of what is going on. We are so used to rattling all this off in the Creed: “He was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day.” Ho hum, you know, no big deal. Wrong! Very big deal!
The Resurrection is a big deal because the Resurrection changes everything. St. Paul wrote that, “ if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” It is the Resurrection that opens up the possibility of Heaven to us.
In this life, we are – at all times – either moving closer to Heaven or farther away from it. At times we can have the misimpression that we are in neutral, moving neither forwards or back. That is an illusion. If we are not getting closer to Heaven, we are getting closer to somewhere else. There is no neutral.
I used to have this old truck with a manual transmission. One day, I had parked the truck briefly in front of the church. When I came back out, the truck was gone. I was panicked and confused. Who would steal an old truck from in front of a church? Then I started looking around and there was the truck. There was a very slight incline to the parking lot, and the parking brake had malfunctioned, meaning there was nothing to stop the truck from rolling into the street.
Fortunately, no one was around, no one was hurt, and the truck was just sitting there in the street – no harm done. But just that slight incline would have been enough to do some pretty serious damage had someone been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same thing happens to us. We are like that old truck without a parking break. There is nothing we can do to freeze ourselves in place. If we are not climbing towards Heaven, we are going to start rolling somewhere else.
That is true not only of you, but of every person you have ever met. Even “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day” – if she makes it to Heaven – “be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship,” just like our Lord transfigured before the Apostles. But if not, she would be, “a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory).
Faced with this great choice, you must cultivate in yourself a desire – no, a yearning – for that goal held out to us today by the Lord, for Heaven. So how can you do that? First, by disabusing yourself of the wrong notions that all of us have about the next life.
Here is one: the contemporary mantra, YOLO, “you only live once.” Wrong! We live twice, and the second time is forever. The preface for funeral Masses reminds us that, for believers, “life is changed, not ended.” The quality of that second life is going to be determined by the way that we live the first one. The next time someone tells you YOLO, or “you only live once,” beg to differ.
Here is another errant notion about Heaven: “You can’t take it with you.” Wrong, you can take it with you, but only the things that really matter. You can take the people you love with you, you can take forgiveness with you, you can take Jesus Himself with you. Once you’re there, nothing else will matter.
Against the wrong ideas of Heaven (YOLO, “you can’t take it with you,” not to mention playing “this is the song that never ends” on a five-stringed harp), here is a right idea of what Heaven will be like: an eternal celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death. The Scriptures tell us about an ancient duel between good and evil, between Christ and Satan. For thousands of years from the Fall until the Cross, Satan held sway over the earth. But then Christ was born, and Satan struck back, entering the heart of King Herod and moving him to slaughter all the infants of Bethlehem. But Jesus escaped with Mary and Joseph to Egypt, and now, at this pivotal point in His public ministry as He prepares to go up to Jerusalem, He is preparing for the final strike of the battle that is about to take place, beyond any epic proportions ever seen.
The Fathers of the Church talk about how the Cross was a trap that Christ set for Satan, encouraging the Devil to overplay his hand, to overextend himself to execute the only person he had no right to kill – God Himself. Up until that point, sin reigned in the world and all men and women were under its power. But Christ changes that. By His death and resurrection everything is different. His victory in this epic, age-old battle between good and evil ensures that we can have life. This is why St. Paul is able to exclaim in today’s epistle: “If God is for us, who can be against us!” That is the essential difference between the Christian worldview and the Eastern idea of ying and yang that sees light and darkness being held in a balance together. The Transfiguration, this preview of Heaven, shows that to be wrong. There is no balance between light and darkness. The side of goodness, the side of Christ, is overwhelmingly victorious, and that victory is promised to us as well.
This promise of victory is our cause for joy today as we begin with the end in mind. We know the end of the story. God has promised us a great reward. That reward, Heaven, is worth any battle we might encounter on earth. It is worth fighting to master the sinful urges and desires we encounter within ourselves each day. Furthermore, winning the battle and gaining the victory-prize of Heaven will be all the sweeter if we can share that victory with the most people possible. Do not be discouraged, because you do not have to win this battle on your own. Christ has already won, and today He invites you to share in His victory.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Church, Goshen
II Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXVIII