Early in the year 2000, the city of Portland, Oregon, passed a ruling that closed the meals ministry at Sunnyside Methodist Church and set a limit on their worship and Bible study attendance. It turns out that the residents around Sunnyside Church felt threatened by the transient population the meals ministry was bringing into the neighborhood. Never mind that the neighborhood of Sunnyside Church also had ten bars and 14 retail stores that sold liquor which might contribute to the problem, or that the meals ministry of Sunnyside was not a traditional soup kitchen. It was designed to bring church members, neighborhood folk and friends to a gathering for fellowship, prayer and singing. Indeed, the intent of the meals ministry was to invite a conversation about the larger issues of hunger, poverty and the structures of city life that keep urban neighborhoods like Sunnyside in deteriorating cycles. And never mind that Sunnyside provided its own security guard to discourage any unacceptable behavior. Derek Davis, who studies the relationship between church and state, says that it was the first time that any civil official, to his knowledge, has tried to restrict the number of people attending Sunday services.
When I heard this story, I found myself wondering whether it might not be a bad thing for a church to find itself in trouble with civil authorities for doing what it discerns to be its ministry. In fact, I found myself envying Sunnyside Church and its ministries a bit, wondering if every church should follow a similar path. If so, I suspect people would show up to see what’s going on. Indeed, the Transfiguration story speaks to the relationship between church and conflict.
Matthew tells us that Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain and was transfigured before them, appearing in the auspicious company of Moses and Elijah — great liberators in the Old Testament story who summon memories of the law and the prophets. Jesus’ clothes are described as dazzling white — a symbolic reference that anticipates the glory of the resurrection. In Matthew’s story, this scene follows on the heels of a watershed moment where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the first time (16:21). Thus, with this glance backward and forward, Matthew links Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with the story of God’s activity in days gone by, manifest in the gift of the law and the ministries of Israel’s prophets.
Given the juxtaposition of the Transfiguration story with Jesus’ first passion prediction, the way of Jesus is clearly beginning to take the shape of a cross. In fact, in the immediately preceding verses Jesus attempted to spell this out for his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). And to add an exclamation point to these announcements, the very voice of God breaks into the narrative on the Mount of Transfiguration, speaking from a cloud: “This is my Son … listen to him!” In context, listening to Jesus means reckoning with cross-bearing not only as the way of Jesus but also as the way of discipleship — all of which entails potential conflict with the status quo.
It is important to clarify what cross-bearing means. It is not a reference to accepting suffering in our lives (as some interpretations presume), but rather naming the crosses bearing down upon our lives and upon those around us — that is, realities that oppress and disfigure our lives and that of the whole creation, defying God’s intentions for us. It means naming and resisting those savage forces. Jesus’ teaching on taking up the cross is agitational — calling us to name and resist the many crosses in our landscapes that defy God’s will for us all. In our current landscape, those crosses surely include racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and abuses of power, to name but a few. When Jesus calls us to take up crosses, he is calling us to face the tension and agitation of naming and resisting them, fully aware that consequences may come our way as a result.
In sum, in the Transfiguration story, we discern that the way of God in Jesus is the way of the cross. The story functions as an epiphany — a revelation of the non-violent God in a very violent world. The story also anticipates the transformation of disciples into the image of God in Christ as we listen to Jesus. That transformation is not instantaneous. For us, as for the first disciples, it takes place over time as we lean into God’s future, by agitating, resisting and naming the crosses we discern in our world that disfigure human lives and the life of the whole creation. This will surely bring us into conflict with the status quo, as we witness to God’s power to bring life out of death.
Questions for discussion:
- Have you ever experienced conflict because a ministry of your church has upset folk in the church or in your neighborhood? How did you deal with it?
- What would you identify as crosses bearing down upon your life and upon the lives of those around you — that is, realities that oppress and disfigure your lives and that of the whole creation, defying God’s intentions for us?
- How might you lean into God’s future by agitating and resisting the crosses you discern in your community and world?
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