Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sexual Tension at the Well

John 4:5-42

Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well is a well known gospel story. It has often been depicted in art and in song; one of my favorites is Sam Cooke’s, “Jesus Gave Me Water.” The story is often told as an object lesson in evangelism and sometimes even racial reconciliation. It is a very rich story, and it’s quite long. We had trouble fitting it all into the bulletin! This morning, however, I want to focus on a subtext of the story that might not be immediately apparent. I want to talk about the underlying sexual tension between Jesus and this woman and how he uses it to lead her to God.

Have I got your attention? Some of you might be shifting awkwardly in your pew now. I know, we aren’t supposed to talk about sex in church except maybe to say, “thou shalt not.” Why is that? Sexuality is a pretty huge part of who we are. It is a major preoccupation of our inner lives, and yet we compartmentalize our sexuality from our spirituality. Why is it that even the suggestion of Jesus as a sexual being seems radical to us? He’s God! He isn’t supposed to be involved in that sort of thing! And yet he is also a man, a human being like us, and so—like us he too was very much a sexual being.

Was Jesus married? Despite what you may have heard on the History Channel, there is no compelling reason to think that he was. Could Jesus have been a fully sexual being without being sexually active? I think so. I have a friend who is committed to celibacy, and yet he is perhaps more in tune and connected with his sexuality than anyone else I know.  Being celibate or abstinent does not mean putting that part of your self on a shelf and ignoring it. If you do that, you will only run into trouble! Part of having a healthy sexuality—and indeed a healthy spirituality—is recognizing and owning that part of who we are and allowing God to use it for his purposes.

So let’s look at the text. It is the heat of the day in the Middle East. Jesus has been traveling quite a while and so he takes a load off and rests in the shade by a well while his disciples are running errands. Suddenly a woman shows up. This is a culture where men and women would have been segregated in almost every situation outside of the home, but here Jesus and this woman are, alone together. More than that, Jews don’t talk to Samaritans and rabbis never talk to women in the streets, especially if they are alone together, and yet Jesus addresses her. 

This is a worldly woman, not exactly a sheltered young girl. She has been around. She has known a lot of men. In fact she has a reputation, which is probably why she chose to come to the well alone in the afternoon, when most people would be resting indoors. She is used to getting comments from other women and unwanted attention from men. When Jesus begins to speak to her, we can almost picture her roll her eyes, “Oh boy, here we go, I knew this was coming.” She gets a little saucy with him, “You want a drink huh? Oh I bet. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be talking to me?”

Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” He tells her if she were to drink the water he can give her she would never be thirsty again. I imagine her thinking, “He’s coming on to me. He’s a bit cocky calling himself ‘the gift of God’ and I’m not exactly sure what he is getting at with this ‘living water’ nonsense, but he’s got my attention. I’ll play along.”

Jesus must have realized what she was thinking, because he gets playful right back at her! He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” I imagine she smirked and drew a bit closer when she said, “I have no husband.”

She is completely disarmed and blown back by Jesus’ response, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” This really strikes a nerve with her. Suddenly she realizes that this is no ordinary man that she is speaking to. “I see you are a prophet,” she says. Jesus isn’t just one more man looking to use her, but someone sent from God to speak into her life. He really sees her and his only agenda is to lead her to God. He is the one she has been waiting for all her life. Can he be the messiah?

What do his words mean? This woman had been with many men, all of which used her sexually and left her. They were “husbands” in the sense that whether we intend it or not, our hearts and bodies make a promise to those who we give ourselves to sexually. None of these men honored that promise however. They were not truly husbands.

 What was she looking for in these relationships? Love, companionship, security, happiness, satisfaction…all of the things that anyone looks for in a relationship… All of these relationships, however, had left her empty, unsatisfied, and deeply disappointed. She still had not found what she was looking for even with the man she was currently with. This was the secret story of her life that she hid behind the mask of her alluring sexuality.

Jesus mentions six men, five in her past and one in her present. None of these are the one she was searching for. What about the seventh? These numbers have a significance beyond the literal one. In Hebrew thought, seven is the number of perfection, completion, and rest. Seven is the Sabbath, the day that God rested from his labor. This woman had not found rest in the first five, she did not find it in number six either, but Jesus is the seventh. He is the one that her heart truly longs for, the gift of God, the one who can give her living water that will satisfy her thirst once and for all.

Sexuality is about so much more than just a naked biological urge. This well is deep! It is emotional, psychological, and yes—spiritual.

I once read that our word sex is related to the Latin, secare, which means, “to cut off, sever, disconnect from the whole.” Weird isn’t it? What that means is that our sexuality comes from the awareness of our incompleteness. It is all the ways we seek to reconnect to the whole, to find true intimacy. God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” This longing is not a bad thing; it is the way God made us. We were made for relationship. It is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.

God made us for himself. As the Jewish theologian Martin Buber said, God is the eternal “Thou” behind every truly authentic relationship between persons. When relationships are good and wholesome, they help us to find God in the other person.

Unfortunately this all can go horribly wrong. There is a famous quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton, “Every man who rings the bell of a brothel is really looking for God.”  Instead of letting our sexuality lead us to the deeper fulfillment that comes from having a relationship with God, we make it an idol. We look for satisfaction in the gift rather than the gift-giver, but anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. 

We sometimes think those who are the most sexually promiscuous are the most in tune and knowledgeable about sexuality, but is this the case? In a deeper sense, they are actually pretty naive about sex!

Jesus Christ wants to give us living water, the Holy Spirit, which is the source of all true joy and intimacy with God. Jesus enjoys this perfect connection all the time. Even though he was celibate, he was more in tune with his sexuality than anyone else, and he has a lot to teach us about this part of ourselves. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Does it Mean to be Born Again?

John 3:1-17

Someone recently asked me, “Do Episcopalians believe in getting born again?” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The question can be interpreted in a number of ways. Did she mean, “Do Episcopalians affirm chapter three, verse three, of the Gospel according to Saint John when Jesus tells Nicodemus the Pharisee, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God?’” If so, than yes we most certainly do! In fact it is our Gospel reading for this very day, the Second Sunday in Lent.

But I suspect her intention was somewhat different. She wanted to know if Episcopalians identify with a certain kind of Evangelical Christianity which has often made having a “born-again” experience  a centerpiece of their teaching. They state that a Christian must come to a crisis and experience a moment of conversion in which they make a decision to give their life to Jesus, be saved, and enjoy a personal relationship with him. To that I can only say, “The Episcopal Church is a big tent and we have all kinds!”

Our text for today has become a kind of battleground text for Christian identity. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage and associations. For some, the associations are very positive. I know of many kind and wonderful people who proudly proclaim themselves, “Born Again Christians.” My father was one of them.  For others, this phrase comes with different associations that can be a real obstacle.

“What do you mean I must be born again? I had a cousin who got ‘born again’ and he became a really pushy, sanctimonious jerk!”

“What do you mean I must be born again? Aren’t those born again types all part of the religious right? Isn’t being born again synonymous with anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and homophobia?”

I want to assure you, when Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, he didn’t have any of these things in mind.  In order to get at what Jesus really meant, we will need to peel back these layers of cultural associations and remember that Jesus was a Jew from Galilee in the first century and not an American from New York in the 21st Century!

Let’s take a look at the text. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Why at night? Some have suggested it is because he didn’t want to be seen. He was curious about Jesus, but he didn’t want it to get around. Others have said, if you really want to learn from a rabbi, you go late. That way your conversation isn’t interrupted by the business of the day and you can talk long into the night. Both of those suggestions seem plausible, but I think there is a spiritual meaning behind this.  Saint John is awfully fond of using light and dark as a metaphor. I believe he is telling us that Nicodemus came to Christ in spiritual darkness, but he is about to be enlightened. Jesus is going to illuminate the sacred mysteries for him.

 When Jesus prefaces what he says with, “Very truly” or “verily, verily” you know that what he says next is about to let us in on something very important. That is exactly what he does here. He says, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

That is how our translation, the New Revised Version, renders it. As we have been saying, it is often translated, “born again” as well.  Why the discrepancy? The Greek word here used actually can mean two different things depending on the context. It can either refer to an earlier time or it can refer to a higher position, thus the different translations, “again” and “above.” Its confusing isn’t it? Now you understand how Nicodemus felt!

You see, Nicodemus assumed that Jesus meant “born again” and he took him literally, as if Jesus were saying that one had to experience child birth a second time in this world. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus clarifies what he means, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”

Jesus is not talking about another birth like our first one. He is talking about a spiritual birth from above or in other words, from heaven. Jesus has come to give us a new kind of life, eternal life. We sometimes mistakenly think of eternal life as being about quantity—about our life just going on forever and ever—but it isn’t just about quantity, it is about quality. It is a life like his, an immortal, heavenly nature, from God, one that is not frustrated and defeated by sin and death, but victorious.

Moreover, we don’t need to die before we start living this kind of life. We can begin today. This isn’t just about a happy afterlife, but a more meaningful and effective life here and now. Jesus came not just to purchase you a ticket to heaven when you die, but to empower you to live a life of beauty and virtue that gives glory to God. This is the way the Christian author Dallas Willard paraphrases verse sixteen,

“God's care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God himself.”

This is the kind of life we need if we want to live in the Kingdom of God. It is the kind of life that is only possible through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

So who is it that receives this kind of life? Does it only belong to a special class of super Christians who have had a born again experience? The key is understanding what Jesus meant by being born of “water.”

We have already seen how the birth Jesus is speaking of is a heavenly one from above through the power of the spirit, but why does he mention water? Some commentators have said that “born of water” refers to our physical birth. Unborn babies float in a sack of amniotic fluid for nine months and just before their mother gives birth, her water breaks.  Some have suggested that Jesus is saying that we need both this natural birth, through water, and a second birth through the spirit.

This seems plausible enough, but the early Church Fathers—the generation of Christians closest in time to Jesus—are unanimous in interpreting this saying of Jesus as referring to Baptism.

Baptism is called, “the sacrament of regeneration” or “the sacrament of rebirth.” In it we are washed with water and the spirit and made a new creature. Saint Paul writes that through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and raised to newness of life. Our Baptismal rite in the Book of Common Prayer affirms this stating,

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we areburied with Christ in his death. By it we share in hisresurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

What this means is that being “born again” isn’t meant to distinguish us as a special class of super Christians, but rather every baptized Christian can be said to be “born again through water and the spirit.” God promises us this gift of eternal life through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. He empowers us to be his disciples and he promises to always be with us.

This raises another question, “Does this mean that only those who are baptized can be saved? Isn’t it true that some people show evidence of living the kind of life Jesus is talking about without being a Christian or being baptized, without knowing Jesus like we do?”

Jesus is very clear about the importance and necessity of baptism. He wants everyone to know him as Lord, love him, and receive baptism. We cannot be complacent about that, but on the other hand, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” We can’t put limits on God’s mercy.

I actually really like what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”

It continues, 

"’Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

The wrong conclusion to draw from this would be, “God will handle it, I don’t need to step out and share my faith, the church doesn’t need to do evangelism, or Baptize…” That would be silly because if we love someone we want to share the truth with them. We want to bless them and there is no greater blessing then baptism. Christ commanded his church to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them. He has given us a job to do. He wants us to be a part of his project of restoration and redemption.

All of us, like Nicodemus, come to Christ in darkness. Christian or non-Christian, we are all in the same boat.  Just as patiently, Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us to the light.  It is his joy to give us birth from above. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Christ the Second Adam

Like most people my age I use a computer or other electronic devices on a pretty constant basis. I can’t really say that I know a whole lot about their maintenance, but there are a few basic things that you learn just through familiarity. For instance, I know that if my device is having problems or acting buggy, the first thing to do is to turn it off and restart it, or “reboot” it.  It is something of a technology panacea. Whenever you call technical support they will usually start there and it’s because it usually works! According to my tech support friends, more than half of the problems their clients experience can be fixed with a simple reboot.  

The term has entered into popular culture. You have probably heard of a remake of a TV series or movie franchise described as a ‘reboot.’ Sometimes a new start is the key to revival. It is a way of refreshing or breathing new life into something that has gone stale.

Counselors will similarly help couples ‘reboot’ their marriage or relationship by reigniting the flame that has gone out, reminding them why they fell in love in the first place. Sometimes in order to solve a problem we need to retrace our steps and go back to the place we were before the problem began.

Repentance, which is the special focus of the season of Lent, is precisely this kind of turning back. We have wandered far from the Lord, and as a result, a lot has gone wrong. We need to return to him and begin again.

The readings for this first Sunday in Lent, follow a similar pattern. Our Old Testament reading, for instance, takes us all the way back to the beginning, to the place where things began to go wrong. Our first parents believed the lies of the serpent and were seduced into disobeying the commandment of God. Instead of trusting in God they chose to take matters into their own hands and to seek a life apart from God.
Eve could perhaps be forgiven for believing the serpent, but Adam knew better, unlike his wife, he had heard the commandment directly from God and yet he deliberately disobeyed. And so our reading from Romans says, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

This is the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, or the belief that human nature—created good by God—got twisted and set off course at its very foundation. What was God’s solution to this dilemma? Reboot! God relaunched or restarted human nature in Jesus Christ.

The New Testament refers to Jesus as a “second Adam” or the “New Man.” In our reading today, Saint Paul compares the disobedience of the first Adam to the obedience of the second Adam. He sets up Jesus as a kind of anti-type to Adam,
 “Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The Church fathers referred to this as the doctrine of recapitulation, but we can think of it as a reboot.  This is the way Saint Athanasius described it,

"You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself."

Now let’s compare our Old Testament reading to the Gospel for today. Do you see the parallel? In the first lesson, Adam and Eve are tempted in the garden by the crafty serpent. In the second, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan.

In the first reading, the serpent twists God’s commandment. He asks, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?  He makes God’s commandment seem unfair and unreasonable, but of course, God permitted Adam and Eve to eat of any tree they pleased, it was only one that was forbidden.  In the second reading, Satan also misuses God’s commandments, Holy Scripture, in an attempt to mislead Jesus.
Jesus like our original parents, is tempted to disobey God, to take matters into his own hands and live a life apart from his Father. Satan appeals first to Jesus’ physical hunger, the desires of the flesh. Next he tries to tempt Jesus with riches, the lust of the eyes. Finally he tries to provoke him to some demonstration of his power and divinity. Here Jesus is tempted with the pride of life. Each time, however, he does what Adam and Eve failed to do, to refute Satan, and to hold fast to the truth and goodness of God’s commandments.

Jesus shared our humanity, the weakness and frailty of our mortal nature, he knew all the temptation that we know, and yet he was without sin. When Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden, they fell, bringing the power of sin and death into the world. When Christ was tempted in the wilderness he emerged victorious. If the first Adam brought weakness and futility to our human nature, Christ the new Adam brings strength and life. 
“For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

As children of Adam, we all have inherited a fallen human nature weakened and corrupted by sin, but we also have been the objects of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We have this duel identity as fallen and yet redeemed, as corrupted and yet sanctified, as simultaneously sinners and saints.

On Ash Wednesday we were reminded of our frailty and mortality, our proneness to sin, and the inevitability of our death, but that is not the end of the story. Saint Paul says,

“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so also are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so also shall we bear the likeness of the heavenly man.”

As Christians we have been imprinted from above with the restored image of God in Christ, through the grace of baptism, but we still struggle with the old man. In Lent we do battle with our fallen nature, we mortify the old man through self-denial and fasting, but that’s only the negative side. In order to be truly effective our Lenten discipline can’t just be about not doing certain things, it needs to be about positively doing other things.

In fasting and self-denial we starve the old man that comes from Adam, but we need also to be cultivating and nourishing our immortal heavenly nature that comes through Christ. We do that through prayer, worship, receiving the sacraments, meditation, study of God’s word, acts of mercy, justice, art, and music. We feed our heavenly nature with beauty and truth, and in doing so we look more like Jesus every day.

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How to Become a True Son

Before he laid the foundations of the world God chose you. Before you existed he conceived of you and loved you. He molded you out of the dust of the earth, knit you together in your mother’s womb, and breathed into you the breath of life.

He remembers the frailty of our nature, our vulnerability to being blown here and there by the winds of temptation, and yet he gives us grace to rise above our earthly nature and live as his children. In all our failings, when we slide back into the mire, he calls us to return to him and press forward towards our higher calling.

The Psalmist celebrates God’s amazing faithfulness in today’s psalm,

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,   nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.For he himself knows whereof we are made   he remembers that we are but dust.

Although He has shown great love to us, all of us have sinned and proven unfaithful to our God and creator. However, rather than dealing with us according to the just consequences of our rebellion, God has remembered the promises he has made to us and has shown us pity rather than wrath. He loves us as his very own children.

God’s love and his faithfulness to his creation is beautifully illustrated in a story I’m sure most us know well, the story of Pinocchio. In our culture the story is probably best known through the Disney animated feature. If you don’t know the story or if the details are hazy, let me remind you of the basic plot. 

Geppetto is an old toymaker who loves children, but he has never had any of his own. He lovingly crafts a wooden marionette made in the image of a little boy. Geppetto wishes more than anything else that this wooden toy might become a real boy and a son to him. The Blue Fairy hears his wish and graciously decides to grant it by bringing the wooden puppet to life. 

 Although he has been magically brought to life, Pinocchio is not yet the true boy his creator wishes him to be; he is still wood. In order to become a real flesh and blood boy, the Blue fairy tells him that he must prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

You might say that Pinocchio is like us and Geppetto is like our heavenly father. Just as Geppetto made Pinocchio out of wood, God made us out of dust, and just as Geppetto wishes Pinocchio to become a real boy, God wishes us to be more and more conformed to the Image of his true and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

If you know the story, you know what happens next. Despite the protestations of his guide Jiminy Cricket who is the voice of his conscience, Pinocchio is no sooner sent into the world and charged to be faithful to the Blue Fairy’s instructions, than he is led astray by a deceitful Fox and into the clutches of a wicked puppet master named Stromboli.

Doesn’t this seem familiar? Have we too not rebelled against our Father and against the Holy Spirit? Haven’t we fallen into captivity to sin which pulls our strings, and takes control of our lives?

When we watch the film, we find ourselves (like Jiminy Cricket) continually exasperated, frustrated, and disappointed with the wooden boy and his continual rebellion, but if we are honest with ourselves are we not all more like Pinocchio than we care to admit? Are we not too easily lured into taking the easy way? Haven’t we all made an ass of ourselves on Pleasure Island? Like Pinocchio, as well, we have all been shown grace and given a fresh start again and again, but how easily we forget God’s mercies! 

God’s love and faithfulness was such that he did not abandon us when we ran away from Him, rather he came looking for us in Christ. He descended into the very depths of our sinful and fallen nature. He went down to death in our place. 

Geppetto doesn’t give up on Pinocchio either. He goes out looking for him, and in the process is swallowed by a gigantic whale named Monstro. The obvious Biblical parallel here is of course with the story of the Prophet Jonah who was also swallowed by a whale. Jesus speaks of the story of Jonah and the Whale as a sign of his own death and resurrection. He says, 

“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

When Pinocchio reads the note from the Blue Fairy describing what Geppetto has done out of love for him, he races off to rescue him with no thought of himself. It is Geppetto’s love that finally inspires bravery, unselfishness, and truthfulness in Pinocchio. He follows him even into the belly of the great beast and ultimately gives his life to rescue his father. 

If we truly understand the love of God in Christ, we will take up our cross and follow him even into the belly of the whale!

Because God has declared us to be his own children, we must put to death our sinful nature and offer our lives as a living sacrifice to him. In doing so we become like Christ in his own sacrifice. This is what it means to grow into the image of Christ and to receive the life that comes from above. 

Jesus says, “he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake will find it.”

Pinocchio lays down his life out of love, but in doing so he finds greater life. In his act of bravery and sacrifice, Pinocchio at last becomes the real boy that Geppetto always wished that he would someday become. 

God created us from the dust of the earth, but he has heavenly aspirations for us. He made us in the image of his beloved son and it is his desire that we grow more and more like him in every way. Apart from his love, our lives are like the grass of the field, they pass away like a shadow, and to dust we return.  But as the Psalmist says, 

“the merciful goodness of the LORD endures forever on those who fear him, and his righteousness on children's children, on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.” 

To those of us who put to death the works of the flesh through his spirit working in us, he will give us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sukkot and the Transfiguaration

Our daughter Helen has been attending pre-school this year at the Niskayuna Co-op, which rents space from a local synagogue called Congregation Gates of Heaven. They have a beautiful facility and what seems like quite a lively and active community. Being a religious leader myself, I always enjoy seeing what they have going on there whenever I drop Helen off at school. 

This Fall I was fascinated to see the makeshift structure the synagogue had built outside for the festival of Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths,” “tents,” or “huts,” which commemorates the 40 years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness after their deliverance from Egypt. 

The observance of Sukkot is commanded in the Book of Leviticus which says, “You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths.”  Taking this instruction literally, many Jews observe the festival by building a sukkah, or a little booth or hut. It is common for families to eat or even sleep in these little booths during Sukkot. The Congregation Gates of Heaven had made a beautiful and lovingly crafted sukkah which was decorated with the help of the children of the community. 

Why am I talking about Sukkot? It is because the events of today’s gospel reading—in which three of Jesus’ disciples witness his glorious transfiguration—likely fall on the final days of the festival. This provides the context for Saint Peter’s rather odd declaration,  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His first reaction is the build sukkahs.

When the people of Israel dwelt in tents in the wilderness, the glory of God followed them and lived among them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The festival of Sukkot recalled those days, but it also looked forward to the age to come, the messianic age, or the Kingdom of God, when the prophets promised that God would dwell with his people again. Of these days Isaiah says, “My people will live in a peaceful country, in secure dwellings and quiet resting places.”

 The practice of dwelling in booths or tents at Sukkot reminded God’s people that they were pilgrims in this present age. Their destination is the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. 

What did Saint Peter see that day on the mountaintop? He saw Jesus, the promised messiah, transfigured with the radiance of the glory of God and shining like the sun. He saw Moses and Elijah talking with him. Could you blame him for thinking, this is it! We have arrived! The Kingdom of God is here! Let’s dwell here forever with our Lord in the Presence of God and all the righteous saints! 

Suddenly Peter and the other disciples are overwhelmed by the awesome presence of God. They are filled with terror and fall down as if they were dead. They are not yet prepared to inherit the glory of which they have been given a glimpse in the face of Christ. The time of their sojourning has not yet come to end. There is still a journey they must take. The voice of God spoke to them in the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, he gave them a glimpse of the glory he intends for them, the end result of their Journey. What we see in Christ’s transfiguration on the mount is our own human nature, glorified, shot through with the eternal light, made a partaker of the divine nature.  Our Lord wants to lead us too up the mountain with him, so that like him we can know the depth of union that he enjoys with his father. 
To become a disciple of Jesus, to follow him, to listen to him, is to embark on a journey, and to begin a process that when complete will result in our own glorification, and in the transfiguration of our human nature. God intends that we too should shine like the sun with the radiance of his glory! 

Peter’s mistake was to believe that there was a fast track to glory. He still didn’t understand that Jesus would have to suffer and die. The path to glory would only come by way of the cross. The road to Easter, to the glory and victory of resurrection, must pass first through the discipline and self-denial of Lent and Holy Week. If we want to share in Jesus’ glory we must first take up our cross and follow him. 

The thing about the sukkahs, the tents or booths that people dwell in during Sukkot, is that they are temporary. They are not meant to be a permanent habitation!  As we said, the sukkahs or temporary dwelling places were meant to remind God’s people that this world was not their home, but that one day they would dwell in the presence of God in secure and permanent dwelling places where they will at last find their rest. 

They are a reminder not to cling to this mortal life and its fleeting pleasures too closely, but to keep our eyes fixed on the glory that is to come. 

These fragile bodies that we now inhabit are wasting away and yet Saint Paul writes, “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary, troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands”

The disciples on the mount of Transfiguration suddenly catch a glimpse of Jesus in his glory, of the glory he intends for us as well, but just as suddenly the vision is over and he tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Lent is the time in which we remember the transitory nature of this life. We are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. We have not yet been clothed with our permanent dwelling, the body of our resurrection, but get up and do not be afraid. Take up your cross and follow him.