The Cross & Ukraine
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #257 St. Martin’s #15 2/27/22
From our gospel lesson this morning: “[Moses and Elijah] appeared in glory and were speaking [with Jesus] of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Last Sunday pastors and priests all over Ukraine climbed into their respective pulpits and looked out at their wearied congregations. No doubt many of them then looked down at their prepared notes and wondered if what they had scribbled down was what needed to be said, or if their words (or any words in general) could ease the tension felt by those in the sanctuary.
Both pastors and congregations were having to grapple with the fact that something very dark was afoot, and yet, amid the fear and unease, they made their way to church nonetheless.
Earlier this week Christianity Today published an article on what exactly those pastors in Ukraine ended up preaching about. One pastor in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, quickly scrapped his sermon on marriage and instead focused on turning to God in prayer “for wisdom, courage, [for] the national army—and even the enemies of Ukraine.”
He told his congregation, “I do not know in what mood you came here, but I know for sure that if you open your heart to the Lord, you will come out renewed, strengthened in Jesus Christ, and ready for anything that is challenging our life.”
At another church last Sunday in the heart of the capital over a thousand people gathered to “pray for the unity, peace, and blessing of Ukraine.”
Churches are now converting their “basements into refugee centers, as they stock up on supplies.” And church members who are doctors and nurses have told their local congregations that they are ready to care for the injured in their parish and the wider community.
A lot has changed in a week. I looked up the city of Irpin just yesterday, and Ukrainian forces have destroyed a few bridges there to slow the Russian tanks, while cars and busses continue to move out of the capital, as residents head west while there’s still time.
With all of this happening I’ve wondered how many pastors have been able to climb back into their pulpit again today, and if there is anyone in the pews, what do they say to them?
For those churches in Ukraine that use the lectionary, as we do in the Episcopal Church, we are confronted with the odd story of the transfiguration. Though on first glance it may seem like a bit of a reach to think a Ukrainian pastor could find anything that connects in this passage with their current situation, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced this text has a lot to teach us, most especially with the state of world affairs.
In fact, Jesus’ transfiguration is the pivotal moment in his ministry because it is when he turns his attention to Jerusalem and what must be accomplished there. In the verses right before this passage Jesus foretells of his death and calls on the disciples to take up their cross and follow him.
The transfiguration seems like an odd event to follow such a stark lesson about the cost of discipleship, but in reality, it is the culmination of Jesus’ lesson on the matter; and it even prefigures for the disciples everything that will later happen in Jerusalem.
I doubt that Jesus needed this moment on the mountain. He wasn’t doing it for himself, but for Peter, James, and John. The dazzling white, the cloud, and the voice were not only heard by Jesus (which was the case at his baptism), but now the disciples see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears who Jesus really is.
These constantly bumbling and babbling disciples have walked up a mountain and seen Jesus raised up in glory, flanked by none other than Moses and Elijah—the great representatives of the Law and Prophets. There is no doubt if Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah anymore because the heavenly voice has said with certainty: “This is my son, the Chosen One.”
As amazing as all of this is, it is an experience that is supposed to prepare Peter and the others for an event that won’t seem so crystal clear in the moment—and it’ll be the next time they are on a mountain.
Through his actions on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is saying to them, “You are going to need this. You need to see me in this kind of glory because the next time I’m raised up on a mountain [as in Jerusalem] it’ll look a lot different. Next time Peter, you won’t see Moses and Elijah next to me but two criminals dying on either side of me. There will be no dazzling light, no voice from heaven…instead there will be darkness and silence, deafening silence. And you, Peter, will think all is lost. But don’t forget this moment.”
The three poor disciples didn’t know that Jesus in his infinite grace and mercy was giving them this small display of his heavenly glory before what would be a traumatic experience as they witness this same man be brutally crucified.
You and I know that the transfiguration only has meaning because of Jesus’ crucifixion. Though it appeared that on the cross Jesus was defeated—that the movement he started would die when he took his last breath—we know that in his suffering and ultimate self-sacrifice, death was defeated. It was on the cross (rather than the Mt. of Transfiguration) that he was enthroned as Israel’s true king and Lord of all creation.
Though you couldn’t see it with your naked eye, it was on that cross that the principalities and powers of this world were put in their rightful place, and death itself was ultimately doomed.
Christians are not meant to be people who seek after one transcendent experience after another, otherwise the transfiguration would be the climactic moment of our faith. Even Peter had the urge to stay in that glorious moment on the Mount of Transfiguration, but Jesus was adamant that they walk down the mountain and enter the valley. They had to walk the long, inevitable path to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross.
“This is the way.”
Jesus didn’t skirt around his suffering and death, but walked straight towards it. For you and I that means life is lived in the valley, occasionally we may have transcendent moments that help energize and inspire our faith, but the valley is filled with real life concerns: our relationship issues, our stresses at work, the long list of things that need to get done in a given week…but what the past few days has reminded us is that the valley is also filled with “wars and rumors of wars,” as Jesus himself said.
Why these things happen will not be fully understood until we are with the Lord. Why good people suffer, and why the innocent die on the front lines of armed conflicts—we don’t have a full answer, only the Lord does.
But we can point to the One who was lifted up on one mountain in heavenly glory, only to be lifted up on another mountain glorified while nailed to a cross. He walked to Jerusalem and met his ultimate fate so that we wouldn’t have to.
Because of that, Christians are able to be people of peace and hope in some of the most hopeless situations. We know that God has confronted the evil of this world, and though it still has a foothold in our day and time, it is a weakened enemy, one whose days are numbered. It will not have the last word.
As Billy Graham once said, “I have read the last page of the Bible. It is all going to turn out all right.” I believe Desmond Tutu said essentially the same thing, but he went a step further. In the face of the oppressive South African apartheid government he told them that he’s read the Bible and it says that God is going to win, so they might as well join the movement now. Their work against God is futile.
Tutu and others like him, when going toe to toe with the principalities and powers of this world have gone to the Bible to see what kind of God is on their side. They’ve flipped to the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15 that says, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both [Pharaoh’s] horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” This is the God who brought Israel out of bondage and slavery in Egypt.
They read Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [and he] has filled the hungry with good things.” This is the God who has not forgotten the poor and the oppressed.
They turned to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is the God who sees and knows the suffering of his people.
This God is in the raising up business.
And that’s why I think Ukrainian pastors were able to preach the gospel last week in the face of invasion (and I believe they’ve done the same this morning).
They aren’t delusional or disconnected from the stark realities of their country, but because of Jesus and his work on the cross, they are able to be witnesses to the tension between the in-breaking of God’s perfect kingdom and the sinful and broken world we still inhabit—and yet know that the God who brought Israel out of slavery, who called on Mary an unknown teenager to bear the Son of God, and who ultimately ascended the cross in horrific glory, is the same God who is with them now.
Even when alarms bells are ringing in the streets, Christians can confidently say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again.”
As one Ukrainian bishop said this week: We Ukrainians and Russians share in the same baptism, even the water used in our baptism comes from the same river. The Dnieper [Nee-per] River begins in Russia and flows south to Ukraine. Their bond goes as deep as the waters of baptism.
It is important for all of us to remember that all Christians around the world are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And so, though the water may not have come from the same river, even you and I share in the same baptism as our Ukrainian and Russian brothers and sisters.
And we share in the same God who hears the cries of his people, and did something about it once and for all…for us.
Year C. Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Luke 9:28-36. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/february/ukraine-russia-churches-donetsk-luhansk-putin-independence.html
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash