Exodus 24:12-18 • 2 Peter 1:16-21 • Matthew 17:1-9
There’s a ten dollar word that describes the idea of what a church is about. The word is ecclesiology. It comes from the Greek word ekklessia, which is the word typically used for the church in the New Testament. The word has been coming up for me a lot lately as I’ve been working on a project for a degree program, which I am proud to report to you has been progressing at the breathtaking speed of a snail suffering from asthma, who has unfortunately left his inhaler at home.
Actually, the work continues to be both interesting and helpful to me, and many of you have supported me in it, so I do want to say thank you.
Anyway, the word ecclesiology has been coming up a lot lately in the work. And for some reason I had been having a tough time getting my head around its meaning. That changed this week when I was retelling a story that you have heard me tell before, and I realized it summarizes for me, my ecclesiology—what I understand the church to be at its heart—what it is, what it does, where its authority lies, how God is in it.
And yet, whenever I’ve looked back on that time of my life, I am aware that the experience never raised in me a question of God’s presence, or even God’s faithfulness. It’s not that this isn’t a valid question. Surely some of you have found yourselves in moments of great loss or pain and wondered where God might be, or even whether God is. I’ve carried those questions at other points in my life, just not that one.
And as best as I can understand it, the question never really emerged then because of the breathtaking way that little church of ours took care of us. I could recount many instances of long conversations, acts of love and generosity, kindness upon kindness. But the one that stands out, the one that just this week I realized shapes my ecclesiology, my sense of what the church is and where God is in it, more than any other moment or idea, was that moment we stood in dad’s hospital room listening to his last labored breaths before he died.
It was a terrible day. Painful; uncomfortable; devastating. But that’s not what stands out for me. What I remember most of all is the circle of love that was with us on that day. My mom, my brother, my cousin who was living with us at the time, we were standing together with a group of people who had come to be with us. And I remember the sudden epiphany, the sudden realization that each of us were sharing this moment with the most important people in our lives, those that loved us most, those who had walked with us, who had spent hours and hours with us in the previous months and the years before. The absence of God was not a question for me because I realized that God was more present than I could ever put into words in this moment and in these people and even in this suffering.
That moment was transfigured for me. It was a moment on a mountain when the glory of God was never more apparent. It was a moment that has forever shaped my understanding of the power of the church to proclaim the salvation of God by its compassion and generosity. It was a moment when whatever faith or hope I might have been lacking was so abundantly evident in those around me that, despite the circumstances, I had all that I needed. It was perhaps the eternal moment, the primary moment that determined the future shape of my life, that bound me to a broken and imperfect institution and people we call the church, the very same institution that has failed me and probably you many times before and since then. But in that moment I saw something that simply will not let me go.
I stand before you today, more than 30 years later, because of that moment, and my experience of God in it.
Tremble, O tremble!
The God whose throne is near to us
is ruler of the world.
The Holy One!
Tremble, O tremble!
The justice done by God for us
will shake and mend the world.
O Holy One!
I wonder if there are moments that hold you too. I wonder if there are times or experiences that come to life for you again and again, that bring you back to a hope and a power that were once clear, but have since faded in the mist of time and memory.
Lately, our family has been trying to get out a little more to do some hiking. One afternoon last week, we were trying to find a trailhead on Tiger Mountain. In the searching for it, we came over a little ridge, and all of a sudden Mt. Rainier was there in all its glory. I hadn’t expected it, but suddenly I was transported by its beauty and mass to the many summers I’ve spent camping there. And I began to wonder if the story of the transfiguration might have played a similar role for Peter, James, and John. Perhaps as they found themselves back down the mountain ensconced in the boredom or terror of everyday life, if they didn’t get a glimpse or two of that mountain they had climbed with Jesus, and remember what they had known in this story. I wonder if that wasn’t just enough to keep them while they slogged at a snail’s pace through uncertainty and doubt, following this One who was God’s beloved son. I wonder if those glances didn’t just help them to once again believe it, if just for a little while longer.
And the astonishing claim of Second Peter is that it is imperfect people and even imperfect institutions that bear this Word for us, that are vessels for the revelation of God. It is people like you—men and women moved by the Holy Spirit—with your acts of kindness, with your generosity, with your gentle way, with your willingness to forgive and be forgiven, with your words of hope that have the power to help me and others like me to see God, to remember, to believe, to change.
And I believe it to be true because I’ve seen it in spades this week. I’ve witnessed your responses to people who are hurting. I’ve seen your movement from despair to possibility as you’ve struggled with the suffering of one you love, only to realize you may be just what God has in mind for them. I’ve seen you acting in the lives of others so that it is no less than the hand of God touching them, making them well, mending the world.
Thanks be to God.