Jesus Cannot Be Confined in a Church Container

A sermon based on Mark 9:2-9
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 15, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The mountain part of our reading reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes story:

Holmes and Watson were camping in the highlands of Scotland. The vista both day and night was vast and stunning. Asleep on a moor they both awoke very early and were about to get up in the predawn darkness when the great detective laid back, put his hands behind his head, starred into the night sky and said ”Watson, look up and tell me what you see…”
“Why, I can see millions of stars,” Watson replied. “And what does that tell you?” Holmes inquired. “Many things, my dear Holmes. Astronomically, it tells me that there are billions of galaxies in the cosmos. Theologically, it tells me that God is truly awesome and that we are a tiny part of the great spirit of creation. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a good chance of clear weather today. But I doubt that any of these opinions match the powers of your deduction,” continued Watson, “What, pray, does it tell you?” Holmes replied, ”Elementary My dear Watson, it’s quite certain someone’s stolen our tent!” 1

I actually like Watson’s observations best on that highland moor. On mountains we tend to have spiritual experiences that are impossible to confine in a tent. My theory about why mountains and skies – and even bodies of water– are spiritual places is because in those places we experience greater vistas of creation. Our day-to-day world tends to make us feel a part of a confined world and sometimes disconnected, but looking out from mountains tops and up to the sky and out across bodies of water makes us feel apart of the vastness and connected to it. Paradoxically the larger the vista the smaller we feel and the more we feel a part of creation. It all reminds us that we are made of stardust and very much related to, and connected with, the cosmos.

The reading today is the first and oldest of the existing stories of the transfiguration and it has a bit of mountaintop humor to it. In our story Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John. Mountains are a location in the Bible where God’s presence is often more tangibly experienced. And in this story, sure enough, up on a mountain God shows up. Very tangible Divine audio and visual experiences– what theologians call theophanies– are reported. Jesus is transfigured, transformed, so much so his clothes become dazzling white.

Two top prophets, men of God from the Bible, Moses and Elijah, show up and start talking to Jesus. Moses and Elijah both have mountaintop stories of their own. Moses encountered God on a mountain coming down with the ten commandments and his face aglow. Elijah on a mountain experienced earthquakes and fire, but heard God’s voice up there as still and small.

In our story today ghostly figures appear, Jesus is transfigured glowing white. Peter, James and John representing the human side of the experience are terrified. I would have been too. So this very somber tense scene is set . . . And the tension is broken when Peter comically blurts out in what I imagine is false bravado “Rabbi it’s uh, good to be here.” And then trying to act calmly, like they are all up on the mountain for a camping trip, he casually says to Jesus “Let us put up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah.” As if the glowing bright white Jesus and his long dead pals need to get some shut eye, or can even be held in a human-made container.

That’s kinda funny stuff. Mark meant it to be. So it is okay for us to smile at it. Even God’s reaction can be heard as a bit of humor. While Peter wants to pitch tents so Jesus and the ghostly visitors can have a nap or be put in a box, God’s response to such nonsense is to enshroud them all in a dark cloud and then boom out these instructions “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”

That’s really not unlike an Abbot and Costello spoofy horror flick scene. Spooky stuff gets the knees shaking and Peter – bumbling like he’s calm– suggesting tents be pitched, God rolls in the misty fog that overshadows them and while they cannot see a thing out of the spooky mist issues the command: “ THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”
Then all of a sudden they are alone with Jesus, God’s Son and Beloved, the One they –WE– are to listen to.

So what are Peter, James and John –and us– to do? You’d expect that we’d listen to Jesus. That’s the message followers are supposed to take away from this scene. It is the message from no less than God! And that listen-to-Jesus directive from God is not really a surprise. Jesus says way back in chapter four of Mark, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.”

This is not a directive to corn framers, but it is still funny. You probably thought I was going to say it “was EERY” didn’t you? I was, but decided that would have been too CORNY. Jesus has COB-bled together a comedic assertion. Why else do we have ears to hear, except to listen? . . .

Throughout Mark Jesus keeps telling folks to listen. But they don’t. So what happens? No less than God comes down and makes it stunningly clear: “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED, LISTEN TO HIM.”

I am pretty sure that churches all over the nation claim that they listen to Jesus and a bunch of them assert the proof you are listening is when you believe this or believe that certain thing. Jesus and Bible stories and God get put into human-like containers, like Peter tried to do in the story. My new February 4th’s Christian Century (2015) magazine put it like this

Peter tries to create containers for the experience, placing holy men each in their own tabernacle, organized, separated, preserved.

Churches still try to do this.

Indeed it seems to me ironic that Peter, the one upon whom Matthew tells us the church is founded, is the one who advocates boxing Jesus in. But Jesus and God cannot be boxed in and contained in human confines, and we can hear what happens when we try. God will fog up what we think is clear and eventually God booms out the bottom line, one simple command: “LISTEN TO JESUS! “

In the UCC we try not to put God in small human sized containers. We don’t have a list of you have to believe “this and thats” at this church. You can be of another religion or no religion at all. You can even be an agnostic or an atheist and as a rule, we will not call your faith or lack of it wrong for you, nor judge anyone as condemned by God.

But for those of us who claim that we are Christian we gotta believe something, right? Other churches and other pastors will tell you all kinds of things you must believe. I am not going to do that. This refusal gets me and other progressive pastors in trouble. One criticism I sometimes hear is that by not forcing beliefs we leave folks without a moral anchor, compass, rudder or sail. It’s not always a moral nautical tool they feel we deprive Jesus Followers of, but more often than not it seems to be.

As a Christian pastor I do have to wrestle with the questions, What is it that makes a Christian? And . . .What sort of moral compass does that provide? The start of the answer can be found in a common dictionary. Christian literally means a follower of Christ. The name, Christian, was originally a derogatory name meant to separate the Jewish sect of Jesus Followers from other Jewish sects. 1 Ironically despite the complaints of others about UCC folks not being real Christians because we do not force a long litany of beliefs, we get special mention in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Listen to how Webster’s defines “Christian:”

“1 a: one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ . . . (2): a member of one of the Churches of Christ separating from the Disciples of Christ . . . (3): a member of the Christian denomination having part in the union of the United Church of Christ . . . 2.”

According to Webster’s number 3 answer, then, if you are a member of a UCC church you are a Christian. So everyone should join a UCC church and we’d be set. End of sermon.

Actually, I still have some pages left to preach. In fact, it is not the UCC part of the Webster’s definition I want to focus on. It is the first part that defines a Christian as “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ” that I want to focus on.

I find it interesting that a secular definition from a dictionary, is the source that not only avoids all the nit-picky ideas of doctrines and beliefs that many Christian sects tell us we have to believe to be a Christian, but it echos today’s scripture reading. At the end of the day isn’t someone who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus, one who does as God directs and listens to Jesus? And let’s listen to what Jesus taught in Mark about; what the moral compass, his teachings; always points to– what Jesus asserts is the law which stands above it all.

This is not new news. We have talked about this particular teaching a number of times over the past few weeks getting ready for Lent when we remember it is from stardust that we are made and to stardust we return; a time of striving to rise from ashes in our life.
Repenting means turning, it can be heard to mean turning back toward the bright light we all come from. If we listen to Jesus the one word answer to what he stands for is: “Love.” Right?

Love, we talk about it all year long. Love describes God, our longing for ourselves, and our primary directive from Jesus. Just as God who is love soaks our lives we are to let love soak our actions and being.

Here’s Mark’s (12:29-34) version of the story of Jesus’ giving the love commandment: a scribe asked Jesus “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answers:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’– this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This is the stuff that gives Christians (or ought to give Christians!) our moral compass, anchor, rudder and sail. Do you have ears? Were you listening? Jesus says is all about Love! The first commandment is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells a non-Christian scribe that because he knows this he is not far from the Reign of God. Jesus tells him and us that there are no greater commandments.

No matter how complicated, convoluted or exclusive any church, preacher or theologian tries to make it, if we listen to Jesus we can glean the most important things we must do.

Above all else Jesus tells us to love God; and love others as we love ourselves.
Jesus clearly tells us that these laws stand above all others, they best anything and everything which is what we have been discussing the last few weeks. If you ever wonder why we seem to talk about Love here every Sunday, well, now you know. Because all of Jesus’ teachings flow from it. Because God is love. Love may not be the topic of some traditional church doctrines, it may not be the moral focal point of others’ Christianity, but it is here.

Looking to today’s story as a modern metaphor, others might believe, like Peter, that building things to house and confine the doctrinal ghosts of dead men is a god idea. That may be fine for others. . . really, but, that’s not what God says in the story. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to HIM.”

If we listen to Jesus as God tells us too, then love soaks our action and being. It bests everything else. It governs all things even all the other laws– actually IT especially governs all other laws. If we listen to what the Gospels tell us about Jesus we hear time and again that Jesus was not afraid to challenge the rules and regulations, the traditions and doctrines of the religious elites, with what? Love.

Listening to Jesus is not about believing this church doctrine or that church doctrine. In nautical terms Jesus’ moral compass has four directions and they are what those who listen are supposed to head toward in one degree or another: Direction one: love God. Direction two: love others. Direction three; love yourself. Direction four: make more important than everything else, love!

With the Transfiguration story and Jesus’ words we can find an answer to the question: Do Christians have to believe anything to be a Christian? And what the story indicates is that followers of Jesus, Christians – not everybody, Christians– need to listen to Jesus.
And when we listen to Jesus he tells us the prime directive that needs to govern our lives is love — love God, others and ourselves.

May we all listen to Jesus and try do our best to make love paramount. If we do that then we are followers of Christ, AKA Christians.

* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2009
1. I modified this joke that I found at
2. Metzger & Coogan, Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 111.
3. Definition taken from the on line version of Webster’s found at