Whoever goes up

September 2nd, 2021

Luke 9:28-43a

A number of years ago, Dallas Cowboy personalities Deion Sanders and Jerry Jones made a pizza commercial. In the commercial Jerry asked Deion: “Deion, is it fifteen million or is it twenty million?” Deion replied, “Both!” Should Christians be devoted to God or devoted to people? The answer is both.

Jesus has predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection to his disciples. Jesus has called on them to “take up their cross” (Luke 9:23), warned that those who hear the gospel but fail to trust in it will be condemned, and has promised that some present will see the realm of God. Now Jesus and three special disciples ascend “the mountain.”

We have heard this transfiguration story, as related by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, each year on “Transfiguration Sunday.” Even if we have never been to the mountaintop ourselves, we still like to hear about others having the experience.

What happens after the mountaintop experience? We all know that if you go up to the mountain, you must come down. What happens to Peter, James, and John when they come down? [Read Luke 9:37-43a.]

From a mountaintop moment, disciples go back to the drudgery of the human world of pain, disease, and death. No wonder Peter said it was good that they were on the mountain and should build three dwelling places. When we are in a place of joy, rarely do we want to return to the ordinary world. Yet, Jesus, as the prophets before him, always forces disciples to look at their world—where the rain of God’s grace falls on the just and the unjust (see Matthew 5:45). A prophet is a person “who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” and Jesus’ lesson concerns prophetic discipleship.

The story of the healing of an epileptic child offers at least three lessons on discipleship. First, disciples alternate their lives in Christ between the mountain of joy and their Christ-needy world. Given people’s nature, however, we tend to overindulge one side of the human-divine equation. Two candles always adorn the church’s altar. These candles represent Jesus’ incarnation. One candle symbolizes Jesus’ divinity, and the other candle signifies Jesus’ humanity. Consequently, we understand Jesus’ essential nature as fully human and fully divine. Jesus represents the fusion of God with humankind.

In the earlier part of the twentieth century, American Christianity wrestled with two primary heresies, heresies as old as the Jesus movement. One side of the dispute included people who retreated from the world’s problems. These persons focused on their own spiritual needs while ignoring the world’s troubles. People often used the transfiguration story of the disciples with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to support a theology of retreat. Conversely, others observed “the Social Gospel.” Although deeply dedicated Christians, their focus was to put the world’s affairs in order. Sometimes they neglected their own spiritual lives. Through the story of the Transfiguration and the healing of the boy with a demon, Luke helps believers understand the vitality of both the personal and the communal characters of discipleship. Could this be why Luke links these two very different stories together?

A second lesson of discipleship teaches us that Jesus’ power over evil is what enables disciples to do what needs to be done if we are to share the realm of God with the people of God. A balance between heaven and earth, or the divine and the human, keeps our lives between the poles of joy and service. If we look too much toward heaven, we miss our calling. If we worry too much about how to live out the nuts and bolts of Christian service, we may forget God’s power that sustains every benevolent effort.

I heard an amusing story about former heavyweight boxer James (Quick) Tillis. He was a cowboy from Oklahoma who also boxed in Chicago in the 1980s. He remarked about his first day in Chicago arriving from Tulsa. “I got off the bus with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower. I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’ When I looked down, the suitcases were gone.”

The point is simple. We cannot do God’s work if we are preoccupied with looking only to our needs. Likewise, if we do not often look up for God’s guidance, then we do not have the strength that God gives to spread healing grace.

Luke’s third lesson on discipleship reminds us that the greatest stumbling block for disciples is the tediousness of our hard and often disappointing work. Boredom is a most seductive enemy of the Christian life because many of the most important things we do are routine. We do the same kinds of activities over and over. Bible study is unlike any other kind of studying that we do. It is too deep and too important to ever be mastered. I have never heard anyone say that she or he knows Scripture well enough. We must return to it again and again. The same is true of prayer. Prayer is a relationship with God that can never be complete. It is always growing and evolving. None of us are ever finished praying.

We all know what it is like to give our best effort and hear someone say in appreciation, “Thank you for that wonderful Sunday school lesson. I look forward to next week. I’m sure your next lesson will be just as good.” These compliments have the potential to destroy. Every time we do something well, a similar opportunity rolls around again. We live the Christian life in a habitual, but important, manner again and again. It is easy to simply give up and put our discipleship on “cruise control.”

Whether one is a Sunday school teacher, a Stephen minister, a teacher or student of Disciple Bible Study, a VBS worker, or whatever—whenever we finish one task, there is another waiting for us. The Christian life can make one both a bored and a boring person, if one is not captured by its beauty and grace. We need the fire of the Spirit to continue to bring energy and creativity to those repetitive but important tasks that Christ has called us to do.

Jesus seems to tell us that looking up is vital to our relationship with God, but that by our looking down, we can do God’s will.

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