Who do you believe? What do you believe? This past year has seen an influx of “fake news” at an unprecedented level. Here are some samples of news masquerading as facts on the internet that I found on Snopes. Story one, because Iceland has a shortage of men, they are paying a stipend of $5,000 a month to men who will immigrate to Iceland and marry an Icelander woman. This is false. The second story is that Sam Adams, the beer maker, has begun production of helium infused beer. This would be interesting and funny, but it is false. The 3rd story showed a picture of a live panda sitting in an airplane chewing on a bamboo shoot in the business class seating of an airline. It was supposedly flying business class from China to the U.S. Again, not true, this picture was publicity photo and the Panda did not really fly to the U.S. The fourth story was about Starbucks. It was said that they refused to serve Marines serving in Iraq because the company did not support the war. This story is also completely untrue.
We as a society have grown somewhat skeptical of what we hear and read and rightly so. As it turns out, people lie—people deceive others on purpose. What does that have to do with us? Well, it turns out that ‘fake news’ is not really a new phenomenon. People in the first century were skeptical of things they heard as well because people lied and exaggerated then too. This is why on Transfiguration Sunday we read in our epistle reading that Peter says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter says, “It is not a myth—it is the truth. We were there and we saw it. We saw Jesus on the Holy Mountain and saw his appearance changed. This story and the others ones we told you are true. We heard the voice of God telling us that Jesus was his Son.”
It is interesting to stop and consider that this is what we have about Jesus isn’t it? We do not have pictures of Jesus from the first century, we do not have any writings from Jesus—as far as we know he did not leave any writings. There are a few references about Jesus from non-Christian contemporary writers but not many. All we really know concerning Jesus is what we have learned from his apostles. All we have are their writings that we have in the New Testament. And if that was all we had, I don’t know if that would be enough. After all, there were a lot of religions in the first century. But the Scriptures were not the only witness that the apostles left; in fact the witness of the Scriptures was not even the most powerful.
Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion has noted that plagues, fires, and natural disasters, were semi-regular occurrences in the cities where the early Christians lived. What distinguished those who called themselves Christians from others in their society was their response when these calamities occurred. Instead of fleeing to the countryside to escape like most of the people, they stayed to care for their own who were sick or unable to leave and not only did they care for their own family and friends, they cared for others even those who were not Christians. These Christians did not have any knowledge of medical science, but the simple act of providing food, water, and shelter to sick people vastly improved survival rates in times of widespread disease. It also sent a powerful message to those pagans who happened to receive a helping hand. The results were that over time there were regular conversions to this community of faith so dedicated to service.
There was more. The ancient Roman world was not kind to women and children. Men, married and unmarried could sleep with other women (especially slaves and prostitutes) and it was not considered anything bad or unusual. And the unwanted offspring of these unions were either aborted but because abortions were highly dangerous or more frequently the mothers would take the newborn baby and leave the infant outside the city for the wild animals to eat. Christians spoke out against all of these practices. First they taught the followers of Jesus to be faithful in marriage, to abstain from sex outside of marriage, and then to care for the most vulnerable members of society the little babies. Christians would rescue these abandoned babies and raised them as their own. These actions were shocking to a world that placed little value on women and babies, especially ones from the lower social-economic classes.
Also the Christians began helping feed the hungry and destitute. By the year 250 they were feeding more than 1,500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome alone every day. Tertullian who lived in North Africa wrote in the late 100’s and said that the Christians in his community would give food to those who were starving. And in poor Christian communities Christians would go without food themselves and give their own food to those who were starving. Julian the Apostate was an emperor who tried to revive the worship of pagan gods in the Roman Empire sometime after Constantine had legalized Christianity. He once wrote that “there is not a single Jewish beggar that the Christians do not care for as well as their own poor.” The Christians acted differently; their values were different than those around them.
Yet perhaps the most important distinguishing mark of the Christians was their insistence that God loved the world He had created and that He desired those who love Him to also love their fellow man. In our post-Christian context, such an idea seems self-evident. It’s almost a cliché. Yet an all-encompassing ethic of love was a radical idea in the first century!
So when Peter tells his readers that they were not following cleverly devised myths there was good reason to believe him. And the reason was not simply they had heard stories about Jesus but the fact that these stories about Jesus had powerfully transfigured people’s lives. The disciples themselves had been radically transfigured. They were afraid for their lives when Jesus was arrested and yet several months later they were totally fearless in the face of death. All but one of these disciples died violent painful deaths rather than retract or retreat from their belief in Jesus. The lives of those who believed in their message were also dramatically transfigured. Christians were willing to die, to be tortured, they were willing to have their possessions and houses taken away all because they were convinced this message about Jesus was true.
What do you believe? Is the story of Jesus is a myth, a series of cleverly devised stories, fake news, or is it true? The apostle Paul says that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. You see, if in fact God came into the world as Jesus; God the Creator of this world of this universe, if he came into this world and died and rose again so we could know him and be reconciled to him, it is the most profound news ever. It is and has been life changing; life transfiguring. It is Transfiguration Sunday. Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured; the world saw the disciples and then those early Christians transfigured. What about us, what about me, what about you? Are we being transfigured because of our belief in Jesus? Amen