"Summer Saints IX – On becoming a witness"
Today, being August 6 in the church’s calendar, we remember the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus. The Transfiguration was a unique event in the life of our Lord.
Now, there are a couple of reasons to celebrate the Transfiguration. First, it carries its own theological weight. The two fundamental claims of the Christian faith are both the divinity of Jesus – “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”, as we say in the Creed.
And the second is our Lord’s humanity. As we say in the Creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried”.
Those two affirmations are so fundamental that if we knock out any one of them – there is no Christian faith.
And so, the Transfiguration is as essential as Christmas or Calvary. On the mount of the Transfiguration, Mt Tabor, eyewitness got the chance of a lifetime – they had a vision of Jesus both as Man as God.
But the Transfiguration is more than a theological event. In the words of the author of 2 Peter, “the stakes are so high” that he – Peter – couldn’t but keep reminding the church what He saw with his own eyes.
In the words of the letter, “Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father as the voice of Majestic Glory spoke: ‘This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of all my delight.’ We were there on the holy mountain with him. We heard the voice out of heaven with our very own ears”, (2 Peter 1:16-18, The Message).
What I am trying to say is that if what happened in Mount Tabor was as significant as Peter believed it was, he was not going to keep quiet and he would testify, as an eyewitness of what he saw. This was not hearsay or a clever story or a storied fable.
Now, let me talk about a different kind of eyewitness, the man we celebrate today as part of our Summer Saints series, St. Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph was born at Arimathea — hence his surname — "a city of Judea" (Luke 23:51). He was a wealthy Israelite (Matthew 27:57), "a good and a just man" (Luke 23:50), "who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43).
St. Mark and St. Luke describe him as a member of the Sanhedrin or supreme council of the Jews. He was a disciple of Jesus, probably ever since Christ's first preaching in Judea (John 2:23), but he did not declare himself as such "for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38).
On account of this secret allegiance to Jesus, he did not consent to His condemnation by the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:51) and was most likely absent from the meeting which sentenced Jesus to death (cf. Mark 14:64).
The Crucifixion stirred Joseph's faith and love, and he went on to suggest that he should provide for Christ's burial before the Sabbath began. Unmindful therefore of all personal danger, a danger which was indeed considerable under the circumstances, he boldly requested from Pilate the Body of Jesus, and was successful in his request (Mark 15:43-45).
Once Joseph received the Body, he, together with Nicodemus, whom he found that he had a spine after all, together they wrapped up Christ's Body in fine linen and unsoiled bands. They did it very much in the same way that we used to wrap little babies, and then they laid it in his own tomb.
The tomb was new, carved out of the rock near a garden, and they rolled a great stone to seal the tomb. (Matthew 27:59, 60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:38-42).
So, in a very important way, Joseph was a witness of our Lord’s humanity. He saw Him dead. It was not fake. They washed and spiced our Lord’s body and they wrapped Him in his burial clothing. It was not a “ghost.” Joseph knew that Jesus was really dead.
We could say that he not only saw Jesus dead with his own eyes, but he felt his dead body with his own hands.
Like Mary, who knew that Jesus was very much alive and kicking, Joseph as a witness of his death. Indeed, as the Creed says, “He was dead and buried.”
Now, as you can gather from his life story, Joseph was a man who had to wrestle with God and with his own convictions. He was not like Zacheus or Andrew or Matthew who left everything and started following Jesus, right then and there.
Like many of us, Joseph had his own backs-and-forths. There are legends that our Lord’s death changed him so much that he eventually trekked far beyond Rome, beyond ancient France, and started the first Christian church in today’s England.
However, there are not documents about Joseph’s life, except some of those too good to be true stories. Yes, Joseph may have had a miraculous turn-around. He may have been one of the many who sold their properties and gave the money to charity. He may have gone further than St. Paul. Yes, it was possible.
But if you look at his previous life and if you consider your own life – not your public life, but your own hidden life, the life that lies bare in front of God’s eyes, you may be inclined to think otherwise. Wouldn’t it be more likely that Joseph continued his life in the church carefully navigating the demands of following Christ, and his very own interests? Perhaps there is a reason why he was not mention anymore.
Further, let us consider St. Peter himself. Cantankerous as good-hearted. Forthright as bad-mouthed. Follower of the Lord of Peace and violent. Pentecost’s day star preacher turned into, in the words of St. Paul, someone “utterly reprehensible.”
I don’t think it would be farfetched to say that neither Joseph nor Peter had it all together. And yet both were called to be witnesses to the Lord of Life. What am I trying to say? That both St. Joseph and St. Peter teach us that by God’s grace there is no need to be a saint to become a saint.
All of which moves me to ask, “Why the Transfiguration and the story of St. Joseph of Arimathea is relevant to us?” How will the Transfiguration and the life of Joseph help us as we seek to fulfil the mission of Christ in this world?
Like Peter and Joseph, the apostles, and Christians of all generations, we too are called to be witness to the transforming power of God’s love, grace, and mercy.
Being a witness is not to enter a discussion about if there will be only 144 thousand saved souls or millions without number. It is not to pick up favorite Bible verses and to throw them into the face of the “you know—those people.”
Being a witness is not the demean other Christians, other Christian denominations or even those of a different religion or none.
A witness is required to tell what he or she saw, heard, or felt – firsthand. In other words, it is to share what has been his or her experience of Jesus. Not what one may have heard, or others may have told one about Jesus, but “to be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are”, (1 Peter 3:15, The Message).
There is a kind of funny or sad, or even intriguing story from the early life of the church. In the story, as recounted in Acts 19, while Paul was preaching in Philippi, he attracted a large following. Some local leaders, realizing Paul ministry’s success, decided to copy-cat St Paul’s.
So, they started preaching and they tried to perform some miracles “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.” As the story goes, a possessed man went berserk and beat up one of the fake preachers while shouting, “I know Jesus, and I heard about Paul, but who are you?”
The whole point of the story is that secondhand testimony may be close enough, but it never is good enough. Fundamentally, being a witness is a first person act – I saw; I heard it; I experienced it.
When the Christian faith is transformed into a long list of dos and don’ts, or when the Christian faith is assimilated by the culture and the mores of the day and when the faith stops being the compelling witness of the mighty acts of God, it just turns into no more than a religion that cannot claim more space than other religions – or none.
If the church’s only message is to tell other folks how bad they are doing and how unworthy are of God’s grace, then the church is not only falling short of its calling, but very much like the story of Paul in Philippi it may as well be beat up in the process.
What both Joseph and Peter teach us is that to be a witness does not require perfection – “sainthood” – but just the ability to tell what you’ve seen, heard, or felt about the presence of the Living Savior.
Not much is needed. It could be simple as to be able to tell how sure one is of God’s love – not for the world, not for someone else – but because in one’s heart Jesus made a difference.
It was such outlook which transformed a bunch of dispirited disciples into a powerful movement that transformed the world – and that upset so many. Because religion could be argued unto death. Having had the experience of meeting the living God in your life may be dismissed by others – but no one will be able to deny your own experience.
As St Peter did, all we need is to tell others about the “One who rescue you out of the realm of darkness into the light of His wonderful love.” Like Joseph, Peter, and so many others, we do not need to be saints to become saints. Let us follow in their steps, and in the steps of the Master of our Souls. Amen.