"To Have or To be?” Today, I want to open my sermon with this book that has a profound influence on my life. In the book, Erich Fromm, who was a renowned psychoanalyst in the 60s and 70s, talks about our way of life—in little snobbish words, the “mode of our existence.” As the title puts it straightforwardly, there are mainly two modes of life—“the mode of having” and “the mode of being.” Yes, we, humans, have our desire to have something for our daily needs and for a better life. We instinctively pursue our “having” mode of life regardless of how much we possess already. But also we, humans, seek different sets of thing—something related to our inner selves. We search for the meaning and purpose of life; we try to understand ourselves better, build up our characters, and care about our spirituality. This shows that we also pursue our “being” mode of life. Then, between having and being, which mode of life do we go after most of time? The book points out that in this materialistic and consumerist society, we tend to focus more on our “having” than “being.” And everybody is not free from the cultural aspiration to have more and have faster. Not surprising. So in this situation, we cannot be genuine and whole human beings without paying attention to who we are and what we should be. To have or to be? This is indeed a question for all of us. And…this question also guides us today to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus goes up to a high mountain with his first disciples who once were fishermen in the Sea of Galilee. All three synoptic Gospels tell us that the first disciples are those who immediately left everything they “had”—nets, boats, and even their families—and followed Jesus, when he called them. At the moment that Jesus called them to “be” his disciples and fish for people, they realized the true purpose of their lives and what they should be. But during their journey of following Jesus, they got to witness incredible miracles and the power of God embodied in Jesus. So it looks like, at one point along the way, they somehow figured out that if they could “have” Jesus around, they would be able to change their reality and turn the unjust world upside down. Even though Jesus taught them to transform their mode of life and “be” the living proof of new life by themselves, they were still under great influence of the having mode of life.
A clear example is Peter. Right before Jesus takes the first disciples to the mountain, he tells them, for the first time, that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo great passion and death, and will be raised. And then, what happens? The Bible says, “Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ Then Jesus said to Peter, “‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (Matthew 16). Peter must be so afraid of losing Jesus. It must have meant to lose everything he got and lose the guarantee of the coming kingdom. He just wanted to “have” Jesus beside him as long as he could.
Now, in today’s Gospel story, Jesus is transfigured before Peter at the mountaintop, and his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white. And suddenly there appear Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus (Matthew 17:3). Witnessing this incredible event, Peter gets overwhelmed by this divine wonder and murmurs, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4). What does he mean here? He wants to “have” the divine glory there with him. He just wants to stay there with the greatest prophets in history. Then, suddenly, a bright cloud overshadows Peter, and from the cloud, a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5) While Peter focuses on having and owning the glory, Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah about his final days in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Indeed, Jesus focuses on who he is and what he should be—the purpose and mission of his life on earth. And God is well pleased with this.
We see ourselves in Peter. By grace through faith, we are called by God and come to understand that we “are” the children of God and we should “be” the disciples of Jesus. However, we somehow develop a big misconception that if we “have” this understanding, if we “have” some knowledge in the Bible and Jesus, if we “have” our church, if we “have” regular worship services, we may automatically “be” the disciples. However, we see the failure of Peter who even walked beside Jesus and witnessed everything that Jesus did. This shows us that to be the true disciples, we should intentionally focus on our inner being and be very attentive to “the being mode of life” prior to the “having mode of life.”
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, God calls Moses to come up to God on Mount Sinai so that God can give him “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment” (Exodus 24:12). At that time, the people of Israel were in the wilderness after having left behind everything in Egypt. Why does God lead people through the wilderness and give the law and the commandment in the middle of the wilderness? God’s intention is clear. God is asking them to “be” God’s people first before they “have” the Promised Land, to transform their mode of “being” before God in the wilderness where there is nothing to “have” for themselves. Like the people of Israel, don’t we also need a wilderness experience to care more about our being and to be the true disciples of Jesus?
Transfiguration Sunday signals that the Season of Lent is only a few days away. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a prelude to complete revelation of Jesus’ glory on Easter. To reach this glory of the resurrection, Jesus sets his path to Jerusalem and the cross right from the Transfiguration. So we can say, the Transfiguration of Jesus is an invitation to Lent, an invitation for us to walk the way of Jesus, the way through the wilderness. To reaffirm who we are and what we should be, to be also transfigured into Christ’s likeness, we better take the invitation and go our way with Jesus.
Today, through the Gospel message, God is calling us. God is calling us to embark on a great journey to renew and re-center our being in God, our Creator. Like the disciples and the people of Israel, when God calls us, we shouldn’t stay at where we are now, but we should go with him redirecting ourselves from what we have. Are we ready to take this invitation and go through the forty days of wilderness experience in this Season of Lent? Are we ready to renew our lives by walking in the way of the cross, denouncing evil and sin, and keeping our daily adherence to Christ? Are we ready to attune our life, our being, to the God-given purpose—loving God and loving our neighbor? To have or to be? To stay or to go? Now is the time we should answer these questions. May the power of God’s transfiguring grace fill us and guide us as we go on our journey to be the true disciples of God. Amen.