Who are we? How do we identify ourselves? Years ago I was part of an interfaith team hired to train Navy chaplains. One of our sessions was on discrimination. It began with each chaplain thinking about his or her own identity. How did they describe themselves — by rank, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, conservative, liberal? And, how did that self-image affect their relationships with others?
Discussion about identity today matters a great deal. It affects our relationships with one another. It is easy to feel more comfortable with those who are similar to us but not with those who are different from us. For some people identity can be a matter of life and death.
Consider for a moment what is happening to some of the refugees fleeing from the horrific war in Ukraine. It is reported that at train stations and border checkpoints anyone whose color is anything but Caucasian is turned away even if they are true Ukrainian citizens. That their nationality is printed on their passports did not matter.
Today’s gospel text (Lk 9:28b-36) comes right after Jesus informed his followers that he would soon suffer and die. They were on their way to Jerusalem and he said to them the journey would not be easy. Then all of a sudden Jesus was transfigured right in front of his disciples Peter, James and John.
“While praying, Jesus’ face changed in appearance.” In a biblical context to experience such a metamorphosis is to become more radiant, more beautiful in the sight of others. The transfiguration of Jesus is an image of God as light and salvation. (Psalm 27:7-9, 13-14)
His transfiguration was an indication that he would pass through the bonds of death to eternal glory. But even more … it revealed the identity of Jesus as an itinerant prophet and messiah. Hearing this story prompts us to show our true identities as Christians and our willingness to make the world more radiant, more beautiful, more free.
Neither for Jesus, nor his followers, nor for us do acts of transformation happen quickly. Jesus grew in his understanding of his role in society. So does our awareness of our baptismal calling help us become better Christians.
Making changes in our different identities — as a church, a nation, a local community, as individuals —- takes a long time. Sacrificing something, volunteering for a cause, or being open to others’ differences during the Lenten season is a good start that can lead to a larger transfiguration not only of ourselves but society in general.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:17-4:1) reminds us our citizenship is in heaven. I know … some of us cannot wait that long. We want life on earth to be a happy and healthy experience now. Still we are reminded that life is short and if we want to achieve something that will make a difference in people’s lives, and our own, do it now.
We do not achieve a transfigured life by ourselves, however. Jesus relied on the wisdom and prophecies of his ancestors (Elijah, Moses, Miriam, Abraham, Sarah). He also depended on the loyalty of his followers. Jesus’ identity was wrapped up in relationships with other people as well as with God.
In a contemporary context Ukraine needs help from other nations to keep its independence. Our country relies more and more on alliances aware that our nation is no longer the international force it once was. Working together in our communities can improve everyone's lives. The same is true in our church. The clergy and all the people of God depend on one another for their identities and their ministries.
There are no borders in the cosmic realm. We are part of an eternal and universal family who wants to live freely and responsibly. Along the way our identity as citizens of earth and heaven suggests that we are in a serious live-giving relationship with one another and our planet. Yes, that bond can be fractured by selfishness, deceit and power but it can also be repaired with love and honesty.
The season of Lent calls us to see ourselves as we truly are. As Christians abiding by the Word of God we join other faiths and non-believers in striving to treat others as they are … especially the ones who are not like us.