Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.
Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making.
But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.
Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.
Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.
Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14
The Transfiguration of the Lord with all its display of glory and divine beauty forms a watershed in the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because on the top of this mountain, as we look back, we see the fulfilment of many Old Testament scenes, and looking forward towards, we see what the future has in store for Jesus and then for all of us – we see the Cross, the Resurrection, and the final consummation of salvation history. For example, in the appearance of Moses we find an echo of his ascent to Mount Sinai when he received God’s Word chiselled on stone tablets and was allowed to see the back of God; except that here Moses is able to talk directly to the Word-of-God-made-flesh and to see God’s radiant face. In the appearance of Elijah we find an echo of his encounter with God, when the Lord spoke to him about the mission he had to accomplish, not through ‘the earthquake, wind, and fire’ but with a ‘still, small voice of calm’ (Cf. 1Kings 19:12). And in the bright cloud that engulfs the entire scene we see one of Scripture’s favourite images to describe God’s glory.
Looking to the future, the Transfiguration gives us a sure pledge that Jesus will fulfil Daniel’s prophecy about a man on whom is ‘conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship’ (Dan. 7:13), and that, in his radiant splendour, the Lord will appear at the end of time as a bright lightning that lights up the entire sky (Cf. Matt. 24:27). So in essence, the Transfiguration shows us in no uncertain terms the profound reality of Jesus’ divine nature as ‘God from God’ and ‘Light from Light’. But the reason behind this display is not Jesus’ desire to brag or impress, because he never considered ‘equality with God something to be used to his own advantage’ (Philippians 2:6); but it comes out of the Lord’s desire to instruct and strengthen Peter, James, and John in their faith in preparation for the Easter events and for their mission in the world.
The Transfiguration then can be interpreted as a brief pause, as Jesus’ intimate revelation of his true nature to his closest disciples, before he has to ascend another hill and accomplish a dramatically different event. And it is here that the disciples, though terrified by the experience, realise that being in the Lord’s company was everything they had always desired. Peter’s proposition about staying on the mountain seems perfectly reasonable… As Saint Augustine comments,
‘On the mountain... [Peter] had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with holy love for God which inspired in him a holy way of life?’ (Sermon 78, 3)
If we too caught and understood even just a glimpse of Jesus’ beauty and glory, who wouldn’t want to bask in his light? And who would want to leave?
I hope that each of us has his or her own Transfiguration moments and spaces in which they can be instructed and strengthened by Jesus by the simple fact of being with him, and having him as “food for their souls”… When we come together to celebrate the Mass – each Sunday and for a few of us here even most days of the week – we spiritually climb the mountain of the Transfiguration to be with Jesus as he comes to us in the Sacrament, and to listen to his voice in the Scriptures. Here we get a glimpse of what the life of heaven will be like, here the Lord displays his glory, and here he nurtures the life of faith. But following Jesus we must come down the mountain with him, and after celebrating Mass, we must return to our labours so that the beauty we have experienced might be replicated in the world.
Over the past weeks we listened to several parables about the Kingdom of God. And even though the Transfiguration of the Lord is a real event in the life of Jesus, it forms for us a further parable about the Christian life; we must continuously ascend the spiritual mountain to meet God and then, coming back down, bear ‘the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love’ (BXVI, Lent Message 2013, n.3).
Through the parables Jesus explained to us how the Kingdom grows and takes hold in subtle, almost unseen ways, until its beauty is fully manifested for all to see. The Kingdom is like yeast in the dough (Cf. Matt. 13:33); like the rarest of pearls (Cf. Matt. 13:45); like a small seed (Cf. Matt. 13:31). These parables mirror most people’s experience of faith as a slow, and sometimes difficult, process of growth accomplished through prayers, learning, and the practice good habits; a life-long commitment to following Christ until his is fully formed in us, until – as St Paul says – we have grown into the full stature of Jesus (Cf. Eph. 4:13), and until God’s Kingdom is clearly manifested in who we are and by what we do. But as today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord we catch a glimpse of what the final manifestation of the Kingdom will be like; we are given a foretaste of the moment when the Lord Jesus will be fully revealed in the glory and majesty of his divine nature.