Richard R. Crocker
United Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. On Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. This last Sunday in Epiphany is often also called Transfiguration Sunday, since the gospel text on this day is always one of the stories of the transfiguration. Today we have read the Lukan version of the story. Though the stories differ in detail, the essence is that Jesus takes two or three disciples with him up on a mountaintop to pray. They fall asleep but awaken to see him talking to two mysterious figures, whom they later conclude are Moses and Elijah. Jesus is transfigured, in that he, like the other two figures is radiant – literally beaming with light. The disciples, by this experience, begin to learn and later conclude who Jesus in fact is – that he is the fulfillment of the law represented by Moses and of prophecy, represented by Elijah.
We read this passage on the last Sunday of epiphany because, as you know, Epiphany is all about seeing the light. We say that we have an epiphany when we make a discovery or have a revelation or an insight. Something is revealed to us on those occasions. We see the light. In the Christian tradition Epiphany is associated with the promise in Isaiah that God has appointed Israel as a light to the Gentiles – a prophecy symbolized by the appearance of the star and the journey of the wise men, who were gentiles, to worship the baby Jesus and proclaim him king. The meaning of Epiphany is that Jesus is the light of the world, the one who has appeared to dispel our darkness – and not just ours, but the whole world’s darkness. In Epiphany Christians have celebrated the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is light for everyone – not just for some, not just for a select few, not just for a tribe, but for everyone. In Epiphany, we proclaim our belief that the word of God, made incarnate in Jesus Christ, is universal. It is good news for everyone.
But, as Shakespeare said, there’s the rub. Is it really good news for everyone?
I want to explore this question by looking a little beyond the text that we read today, if you will permit me (and I think you will have to permit me). We ended the reading with verse 36. Immediately afterward, the disciples come down the mountain, and discover their colleagues trying to heal a little boy who has something like epilepsy; they said he was possessed by demons. The disciples can’t do it, so Jesus does it for them. Then, shortly afterward, John tells Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” That is, he’s not one of us. “But Jesus said to him (John), Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49)
In this text, Jesus seems to upbraid the narrowness of his disciples, who want to hold his truth in a narrow circle. It helps us to understand that whatever truth Jesus represents in the world is truth, not just for a narrow group, but for everyone. It is a text that expands the gospel circle. And there are many other texts in the New Testament that take a similar position. For example, remember Paul’s wonderful statement in I Corinthians: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has come through a human being, for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:28) And in Colossians: “…there is no longer Greek or Jew. Circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free: but Christ is all and in all!” Colossians 3:11) Or, in II Peter (3.9), we are assured that God does not will “that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) There are many other verses that uphold this point of view.
But, as I said, here’s the rub. Let us look at Matthew 12:30. Here, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” He says both things! And those who would see Christian truth as truth only for some, only for those who adhere to a certain interpretation of scripture or who meet a certain standard of behavior or who have a certain kind of training or ascribe to a certain creed look to this saying of Jesus to draw the circle more narrowly.
Is the gospel of Christ a truth for all, good news for all, or only for some? That tension is inherent in the very earliest interpretations of the story of Jesus, and it is told from both sides. Some see the gospel as a radical demand for exclusive belief. Others see it as a radical proclamation of universal forgiveness. Both sides can cite scripture.
This is an important matter. It makes all the difference in how we think of Christianity, of how we proclaim it, and how we practice it. There is no doubt that the narrower interpretation has been the more popular one over the years, but it has never been the only one. Calvinism, which is the theological tradition in which we stand, is known for upholding the narrow interpretation. “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) “Many are called but few are chosen.” (Matthew 20:16) These are the texts that have stirred our forebears and created the disciplined Calvinistic community. But there has always been a strand, even in Calvinism, that sided with the universal vision of Paul. In the last generation, the supreme theologian of Calvinism, the mightily prolific Karl Barth, seemed to settle the conundrum of Calvinism by proclaiming that scripture teaches that, in Christ, God has elected the whole human race for salvation. That is the good news. God wills the salvation of the entire human race, and God will not be deterred by our sinfulness from accomplishing that will. This is the way of upholding the Calvinist doctrine of the sovereignty of God, while also proclaiming God’s universal love.
If we have such a universal view, we are troubled by passages like the one in Corinthians that we read. On the face of it, this passage seems to support the narrow view. In that passage, we who are of a more universal persuasion shudder to read Paul’s comments about his Jewish brethren who did not see the same light in Christ that he saw. He said: “Indeed, to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (2 Corinthians 9: 15) These words, and others like them in our scriptures, have fueled animosity toward Jews for centuries. Never mind that when Paul wrote them Christians were a very small minority who felt very threatened by the Jews who did not accept the gospel. Later, of course, the tables turned, and Jews became the threatened minority who, at times, have been persecuted and killed at the hands of Christians.
The irony is not lost on observers. Jonathan Kozol, who, in his wonderful books called Death at an Early Age and Rachel’s Children, has written movingly and effectively about the disgraceful schooling offered to homeless children in our cities, spoke this week at Dartmouth. He said that he is often asked to speak in churches, and he feels, he said, awkward when he stands, as a Jew, and proclaims the teaching of Jesus to Christians. As I said, the irony is not lost on observers.
So what are we to say? Is the gospel of Christ for everyone? Is it a message of universal good news? Or is it good news only for some? I confess that when I hear people saying that the gospel demands that we call the whole world to be Christian, I find myself wishing, silently, that we could just get all the Christians to be Christian. At a conference last week, a Roman catholic speaker made the statement that, within every religion, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all others, there are texts that can be construed narrowly and texts that can be construed more broadly. He made the claim that, if we are to be helpful in a world full pluralism that can become violent and destructive, then we, as people of faith, must uphold the broader interpretations in our own tradition. I think he is right. William Sloane Coffin, commenting on that fact that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, only one of whom received he promise of paradise, said that this fact teaches all of us that we should not despair and we should not presume. In good Calvinist fashion, let us remember that we do not ever achieve the salvation that God gives us. We cannot presume to claim it. But neither should our pride, or our despair, keep us from receiving it.
So let us conclude the season of Epiphany, and enter the season of Lent, as people who have know that life, in its temporal and eternal dimensions, is a gift, and let us discipline ourselves, not to be worthy of the gift, for we cannot be worthy of it, but we can be grateful for it. Amen.