St Vladimir, (by Rev. Kinsey)
“Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain… to pray.”
If only, throughout the history of the Christian Church, our ancestors would have remembered the, “to pray” part! instead of taking it metaphorically, as if Jesus went up to the top of the mountain to be transfigured into, procurator of the whole world, like a medieval king. But that is exactly what Constantinople and Rome thought, for centuries, leading to destructive wars and crusades, and brought to our shores, the Doctrine of Discovery and Colonization – and, in the name of Christianity – chattel slavery.
The account of Jesus transfigured on the Mountaintop, on this festival day at the end of this season of Epiphany, is actually told from the perspective of the three closest disciples of Jesus. I don’t think I noticed before how important that is. This is the tale, and experience, the three disciples had. And when Luke points out how Peter, John and James were weighed down with sleep, he’s signaling that in the midst of their praying on the mountain, they had a kind of vision, of Moses and Elijah, with Jesus.
And, you know how when you wake up from a dream, and you try to recall what it was about, how you’re a little foggy, and you may just remember the gist of it? Well, Peter and John and James recalled that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, in glory, a word Luke first uses in the birth story of Jesus, when the glory of the Lord shone around the Shepherds in the fields as Jesus was being born.
And so, amidst this angelic glory, the three disciples recall, that Moses, Elijah and Jesus, were speaking of his departure, his exodus, (the Greek says), in Jerusalem. Like Moses, Jesus will passover from life to death, to life again, in his passion, from Good Friday to Easter.
On the mountaintop, what really happens then, was not his coronation, but it was God revealing the good news about Jesus, that: a) he is God’s chosen son; b) he is in the line of the greatest prophets of Israel, in the prophetic line that warned us to repent, and turn around and go in a new direction, following God’s ways; and c) he’s come to lead all nations toward justice and peace, reaching out to the margins, including even foreigners, in salvation history.
This is the Jesus of the gospels! This is the message of good news, Jesus, the Son of God, brings. It is for all, and for the least of these, first. The mountaintop is not a metaphor for abusing and lording it over others. It’s the act of intimate prayer with God, about the mission and purpose of God for our lives, which leads us to follow, all the way to the cross, in Jerusalem.
And yet, there is always this perpetually cold wind blowing, fueling a movement trying to overshadow this message – which we ignore it at our own peril.
Diana Butler Bass, who authored, A People’s History of Christianity, wrote this past week about the missing ‘religion-story’ in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, between Moscow and Kyiv. “While the secular media tries to guess Vladimir Putin’s motives in Ukraine, one important aspect of the current situation has gone largely ignored: Religion,” she said. “…In effect, the world is witnessing a new version of an old tale — the quest to recreate an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval “Holy Roman Empire” — uniting political, economic, and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.”
I didn’t know much of this history, but the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity shifted over time. Of course, it began in Constantinople, or current day Istanbul, Turkey. And I knew there was a Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. But before that, it first arrived in Kyiv in the 10th century. You can still visit the St. Vladimir Orthodox cathedral there. Dianna Butler Bass calls Kyiv the Jerusalem of Orthodoxy. But by the 13th century, and with the help of the Mongols, the Russian people had overtaken Kyiv and found willing patrons in the Russian Czars, to established Moscow as the new center of Orthodoxy, where it basically remained through the Soviet empire days.
It wasn’t until recently, in 2018, that the Orthodox Church of Kyiv, established a new, more open, freedom loving, fact-based, majority, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, turning away from the traditionalism and false hierarchies of the Soviet Orthodox church, and significantly, was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople!
But this loss, has infuriated Vladimir Putin, who is all for, the hierarchical, chauvinistic Russian Orthodox Church, that will not acknowledge women or LGBTQ leaders, and of course, supports authoritarians like Putin, himself.
It may seem as if this is nothing more than a disagreement on principles, and for us, the interpretation of scripture. But this is where we need to be alert, be as cunning as foxes, that what is happening in Ukraine in the last decade, is not just about politics, but is just as much about religion. There is a coalition that Putin is a part of we don’t normally see. Yet, right under our noses, the Evangelical right in our own country has been more than a willing partner. Not only do their values align up with Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, around the hierarchical order of white men on top – yes, white supremacy – but they have actively been working to unite Evangelicals with Orthodoxy, and conservative Catholics. Their own world-wide triumvirate. Or as Butler-Bass says, “The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom.”
Mike Pompeo, for example, the former Secretary of State, and a stalwart Evangelical, has been very public about his support and praise for the Russian leader.
Today’s Transfiguration account, has been described as the middle of the gospel story, bounded by two other mountaintop experiences. The first was the baptism of Jesus, where the heavens opened up and God’s voice declared Jesus was the beloved son with whom God was well pleased. Here on the Transfiguration mountain, God says, this is my Son, my chosen; listen to him! And at the end of the gospel, when Jesus is crucified on mount Calvary, the divine message is put on the lips of the Centurion, the Roman soldier, who as Jesus dies, praised God, and declared, certainly this man was innocent.
On the next day after the Transfiguration, when Jesus and the three disciples had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met them. Jesus’ work was not done. He could not stay on the mountaintop, but came to continue his ministry of healing and preaching, as prophet and Son of Man. And, from the crowd, a man shouted to Jesus, I beg you to look at my son. A terrible evil spirit keeps taking over, seizing him and convulsing him, it mauls him, and scarcely will leave him alone. Your disciples could not heal him, so I’m asking you.
Jesus – we can imagine him turning to glance at his disciples – says, You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I bear with you!? before he turns to heal the boy.
No matter how good our intentions, how much we’re able to wall off and compartmentalize our lives, the spirits among us, that work against Jesus, never seem to rest or completely go away. Like a bad virus, they circle around and look for a new opening, a weak link, an unprotected vulnerable place, or person, or group of people.
The journey with Jesus, from baptism, through our hopefully bright and sunny middle-aged Transfigurations on the mountaintop, to the unavoidable autumn of our impending Calvary days, is never smooth, and always seeking and longing for much greater clarity. But on our journey, there is no escaping the gift of grace that Christ Jesus offers, which we can find, only on the way, only in the sacrifice of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, only as we walk through the valley, longing for the mountaintop.
We are a world, more lost in the wilderness, than at any other time, in my short span of life. The voice of false authoritarianism is ascendant, no longer whispering, but shouting their lies, which are reaching more and more receptive ears. It is not just politics. It is not just economics. It is also religion.
And before the Holy Spirit can lead us out of this morass, we need to be clear on who the Jesus of the gospels truly is. We need to pray for vision. And we need to come down from the clouds, and lead others there too.
Let us follow the Transfigured Christ, who rules as Son of all humanity, with healing in his wings, and a fierce heart for love in the face of all enemies, even death. Let us live in the glory and gathering, of this Body of Christ!