Faith enough to take the next step with Christ

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2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A: March 20, 2011
Gen 12:1-4; Ps 33; 2 Tim 1:8-10; Matt 17:1-9

In different ways, we hear today about the theme of making a journey: about being called to begin a journey, and about continuing on it. And this relates to our own journey: having been called by Christ and walking with him through life, something we focus upon especially during Lent.

In our first reading, Abraham is about to begin a journey. He knows what he is leaving behind—his country, his relatives, his father’s house—but he doesn’t know where he is going. And of course, this was before the time of modern transportation or means of communication like Skype or messaging or e-mail or even telephones; he might never see any of these ever again; and, indeed, he never did. Why did he go? Why begin such a journey into what, to him, was completely unknown?

The letter to the Hebrews tell us: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. [Heb 11:8]

“By faith.” So what kind of faith did Abraham have? Was it “faith” like we hear about so much in popular media, and probably from people you know: a sort of forced optimism? Did he simply believe that the universe would make everything turn out all right—that is, the way he wanted it to be? No, because this false “faith” isn’t real faith at all, but more of a magical wishing, which rests upon our own power to wish things into being. But we don’t have that power, and we know it. No one takes a serious risk or ventures into the unknown on such a shaky foundation as that.

True faith—the faith of Abraham, the faith we find throughout Sacred Scripture, the faith of Christ’s Church—is faith in someone. We read a little later in Genesis: “Abram put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” [Gen 15:6] Our faith is faith in the Lord, the Triune God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, if we look at the original Greek of the New Testament and translate it really literally, we have a picture of even more movement than that: for the Greek preposition is that we have faith into someone. There is this picture of movement to this person, and even into this person, in whom we have faith.

Our Lord has revealed who he is, and what he can do, and what is now and will be in the future. This is the foundation, the revelation of himself and his will. And so in faith we receive this revelation. We learn, as we heard in the psalm, that the word of the Lord is upright, and all his works are trustworthy. We learn that his eyes are upon those who fear him, that he delivers them and preserves them. We learn this, we receive and accept it; and we respond with belief and trust and action. By faith Abraham obeyed; he went as the Lord directed him.

How did Abraham learn who the Lord is, so that he could believe in him and step out in trust? We don’t know, because what we hear in today’s first reading is where the book of Genesis really begins to tell his story.

But we do know how it was for others, who were invited by the Lord to begin a journey. We know how it was for Jesus’ disciples. For we read in the Gospels about how they first met him, and how he called them. How they followed him, living and traveling with him constantly for a couple years. What they heard him teach; the miracles they saw him do; how he interacted with people. And we see, in the chapter right before today’s Gospel reading, that St. Peter reached his great confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

They had been that far on the journey. But after so many steps already taken, now Jesus directed them to the next step. Was it into the unknown, like Abraham? No, it was something harder. He told them where the road would lead him: to Jerusalem, where he would suffer greatly and be killed—and on the third day be raised. Who wanted to travel that road, to that destination? This was not what they expected of the Messiah. And Peter objected. But Jesus had more to tell them. It wasn’t just him who would suffer. They would too, somewhere down the road. He said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

So what was ahead was death for him, and something like crucifixion for them. He said there was resurrection; but why should they believe him? How could they actually have the faith that it would require to know that what he said was true, and to take that next step?

And so they were given the gift that we hear about in today’s Gospel. How they were given the gift of seeing Jesus transfigured—of the light shining forth from his face and from his clothing. And of seeing Moses and Elijah there with him—those great heroes of faith from their own history, who represented the Law and the Prophets, the gifts of God to his People. Seeing this, they knew, perhaps better than they ever had, that Jesus really was what we might call a “heavenly being.”

But even this may not have been enough. We may speculate on this as we read the story—because what is revealed to them goes even further than this. To the initial parts of the vision, they simply reacted with happiness and joy. But their reaction changed with what happened next. Because what happened next was that that bright cloud came and overshadowed them, and the voice came forth from the cloud. And then they weren’t jumping for joy. Instead, they were flat on their faces and afraid.

Why? Because the revelation had gone further. He was not simply a heavenly being. They knew, from the signs that they were receiving, that they were directly in the presence of God. Now, we know that they had been in the presence of God all that time they had spent with Jesus; but it seems that they hadn’t realized this yet. But now they realized they were in the presence of God. Just as with Moses on Mount Sinai, they too were being overshadowed by the cloud that was the sign of God’s holy presence and glory. Just as on Mount Sinai, they were hearing the voice of God themselves. They what that meant; and that’s why they were on the ground in fear.

And what was it that the voice of God said? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

There is the foundation they needed. How could they believe this man—no matter how good he was, no matter how many miracles he worked—when he was taking them in an unexpected direction, promising something that didn’t seem like it could be true? Well, now they had it from the best source possible. And that was enough for them; and they were ready to take this next step.

Are we ready to take our next step? You might respond: if only the Transfiguration would happen for us, well, sure, then we would! But do you realize we are in an even more privileged position than those disciples were? Consider: For Peter and James and John and all the others, as they followed Jesus:

  • They had not yet been cleansed or received forgiveness and divine adoption through baptism; but we have.
  • They had not yet been sealed with the Holy Spirit in confirmation; but we have.
  • They had never received into themselves Christ’s Body and Blood, at that point; but we have.
  • They could not read the Scriptures of the New Testament, for they were not written yet.
  • They could not benefit from learning the teachings of the Church, or recite together the Nicene Creed: all of that was still in the future.
  • And they could not look over the life and the testimony of thousands of saints, and find out what it is like to follow Jesus, and see in their lives where he leads.

They could not do those things; but we can. We have received more than the Transfiguration. They needed that to make the next step. We have received so much more than they had at that moment.

But have we really received it? One of the great practices of Lent is prayer. All of these things have been given to us; but have we unwrapped them? Each day in Lent, we can take time to unwrap these gifts—

  • to go back to the graces we have received through the sacraments;
  • to listen again to Holy Scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to touch us;
  • to listen again and take in the teachings of the Church;
  • to read again the lives of the saints and ask for their intercession;
  • even, perhaps to speak to the living saints around us—people who are further ahead on the journey and who, we know, know the Lord very well—and ask them to tell us what they have learned about what it is like to walk with him.

All of these things are available. And if we need to learn more about who Jesus is, all we have to do is to make time to listen, to look, to open our hands and receive, each day, especially during this Lenten season.

“This is my beloved Son … listen to him.”

  • Listen to Jesus, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, true God from true God, one in being with the Father.
  • Listen to Jesus, who calls us with Abraham to go forth from what is familiar to us, into the unknown.
  • Listen to Jesus, who calls us with Timothy to be courageous and not intimidated by opposition to the Gospel.
  • Listen to Jesus, who calls us with Peter and James and John to see him as he really is and to be ready to face even the cross, knowing that it is the path to the resurrection.
  • Listen to Jesus, who makes himself present in this Mass, to feed us with his own Body and Blood, and to draw us to unite our selves and our lives to him. So that more and more we can say with St. Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. [Gal 2:20]

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