What Does a Christian Look Like? (a sermon)

This sermon was delivered to Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff, on February 27, 2022, Transfiguration Sunday.

Luke 9:28–36

Today as we end the season of the revelation of who Jesus is (called Epiphany) and prepare to enter the season of repentance and preparation (called Lent), we stand next to Peter, James, and John (the top 25% of all disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration. 

We have heard in Rev. Tina’s preaching the message of Jesus’ sermon to the crowds gathered on the plains at the bottom of the mountain. Now we ascend the great mountain of God to witness the greatest unveiling yet in the Gospel story. 

On the mountain of Transfiguration, this place of prayer where God has spoken clearly to God’s people for generations, we see Jesus displaying the full glory of God.

On this mountain, the glowing face of Jesus recalls the face of Moses, which shone with God’s glory as he talked with God “face-to-face, as one speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11). And the dazzling white clothes of Jesus call to mind both God’s glory on Mt. Sinai and the future resurrected appearance of our savior. 

Here we stand between God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement as King of the Universe. Notice what details Luke finds it important to convey to us. We are told nothing about the appearance of the mountain, for example. Luke tells us instead about what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah look like. Go back and look at the clues in verses 29 and 31.

Jesus’ face changed. His clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory.”

The question I want us to investigate this morning is this: “What do Peter, John, and James look like?” Is their appearance fixed, or will it change? And the question is bigger than just the upper-crust of the apostles. “What does a Christian look like?”

It’s a question you may not have considered before. Christians, you might say, don’t have an appearance (aside from, perhaps, their fondness for identifying bumper stickers on their car). Perhaps you could identify better what a Christian doesn’t look like. We make assumptions every day when we see people who look different than us that they couldn’t possibly be a Christian because of how they’re dressed, for example.

We may also have a better time identifying the faithful of other religious traditions than we would distinguishing the likeness of a Christian.

This, for example is a picture of… (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism).

And this is… (an orthodox Jewish rabbi, the late Rabbi Hager from NYC).

This picture is from… (the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, led by Imam Abdul Aziz Suraqah).

And these are Hindu worshipers in Penn Hills, celebrating the Diwali Festival of Lights.

Of course, such identifications are often based more in prejudice than understanding. Many of the garments of other faiths are the traditions of the religious leadership (like the pulpit robes of the Presbyterian tradition, for example) or worship expression. We would have a harder time identifying a Buddhist on the street, for example. And lest we convince ourselves that all Christians look like we do, this is a picture from Cornerstone Church in Ross Township where Angela and Edisa lift their praises to God, having immigrated to Pittsburgh from the African nation of Burundi.

Okay, so we can’t identify Christians based on clothing or skin tone, that much should be clear. We know that Christians can be of any race, of any age, and from any nation (and the same is true of other religious traditions). 

We could look at hundreds of different pictures of people whose appearance is as different as can be, and they could all be Christians: from believers in Japan to Kenya to Poland to Mexico. The people who follow the glory of God as made visible in God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ are from every tribe and nation of the world.

So, what does a Christian look like?

When we read and study the Gospel writers’ account of the Transfiguration and hear of how Jesus of Nazareth shone with the Glory of God, we often emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus. After all, how many bright, shiny, glowing people do you know? Do you ever look at the face of a friend and feel like you’re staring right into a flashlight? Probably not.

Jesus is, after all, a unique and distinct person of the Trinity. There is only one begotten Son of God. We profess this to be true when we recite together the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God the Father…Jesus Christ God’s only Son…and the Holy Spirit” who unites us together as The Church.

But the Transfiguration is not a wholly unique thing to Jesus. Transfiguration––a holy change of appearance––is not something that only happens to Jesus. Remember who else appears on the mountain with him?

The Transfiguration

“Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking” of his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.

In case it wasn’t clear to you in Sunday school, Moses and Elijah are not God. They were born of a human mother and father in the same way we were. They talked with God as if talking to a friend, but they were not present in the beginning with God. Their life had a start date, and it was way after God created the Heavens and the Earth.

Moses and Elijah were not God, and yet their faces shone with the Glory of God because their experience of God’s presence had changed them. God’s Glory made them more than who they had been. It caused their faces to radiate the brightness of Almighty God.

Like the moon, Moses and Elijah have no source of light within themselves. Yet, their entire being reflects the Glory of God.

This incident on the Mount of Transfiguration shows us, at the least, what the greatest prophets of Israel look like. Moses and Elijah glowed like the moon, reflecting the  brightness of God’s image. They captured the original created intent of humanity: to bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

What about the rest of us? We’re definitely not Jesus, the King of the Universe and Savior of the World. And we’re nowhere close to the rank of God’s greatest prophets–not even Peter, James, and John would be given that “status.”

What, then, does a Christian look like? Your average, everyday child of God?

Luke 9 isn’t the last time in the Gospel writer’s great 2 volume story that we see faces glowing with the glory of God, though the next time it happens we easily miss it.

Turn over to the other half of Luke’s story of redemption to Acts 6:15. Here we read about a Christian named Stephen. 

Stephen wasn’t important enough to have appeared in the story before now. He wasn’t one of the twelve. He’s not mentioned specifically as being in the crowds around Jesus, but he may have heard Jesus teach before his crucifixion. We are left to assume that Stephen was one of the multitudes of people that became Christians soon after the Holy Spirit fell upon the church.

We are told that Stephen was an eager volunteer in the early church. He didn’t wait to be asked to do something––when there was a need, he let the leaders know that he was available.

In Acts 6:5, Stephen is chosen to be the first deacon, the cohort of servant-leaders who would make ensure that the Gentile widows would not be neglected in the daily distribution of food. They ran the first Church food pantry and meals on wheels program.

Luke tells us that Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” so we might assume that there was something special and unique about Stephen. Perhaps Stephen would become a great leader and hold, not just a position of service, but one of authority as well.

But Stephen really has nothing that we ourselves lack. Stephen has faith and the Holy Spirit, both of which are gifts given from God to every single Christian. Stephen represents each and every one of us, when we make ourselves open to God’s Spirit.

Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, Martyrdom of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, 1594

If you’ve turned to Acts 6:15 you will already know where this is going. Stephen is arrested by the religious establishment for declaring Jesus-the-Crucified-One to be worthy of worship. As the religious lawyers called their witnesses against Stephen, Luke tells us “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Lowly Stephen, chief among servants, has a face “like the face of an angel.” What does that mean? It means Stephen’s face reflected the brightness of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It means the whole religious council saw Stephen before them in the same was as Peter, James, and John had seen Moses and Elijah.

This is what a Christian looks like. A Christian looks like St. Stephen, first martyr of the faith whose face shone with the Glory of God.

I don’t know about you, but my face isn’t always reflecting God’s Glory. It’s often reflecting something closer to fatigue, frustration, pride, or even anger.

What, then, makes the face of a Christian shine with the Glory of God?

The answer is in what we see in Stephen’s heart. As he is being interrogated and put on trial for a capital crime, Stephen gives a plain and honest account of his faith in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all the way to the revelation of Jesus.

And as Stephen breathed his last, his final recorded words are this: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Sound familiar? These are also some of the last words of Jesus––“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is why a Christian shines bright like a full Moon on a clear night: forgiveness.

I have one final image to show you. This is the February 1997 booking photo of Kelly Gissendaner at the Gwinnett County Georgia Sheriff’s Office.

Kelly had a rocky family history, to say the least. She was born to a poor family, abused by countless men in her adolescence, and bore a child at 18 after being assaulted 9 months earlier. Her first marriage lasted six months. Two years later, she was married again, to Douglas Gissendaner.

The marriage was off and on. They were divorced in 1993, but remarried two years later. Imagine, what was their support system like? Who was there for Kelly and for Douglas?

Kelly entered into an affair with Gregory Owen, with whom she conspired to have him kill her husband, Douglas. In her depraved mind, it was the only way out, so that she could have what she wanted.

At 30, Douglas Gissendaner’s life was over. Kelly would be sentenced to death and placed on death row for 17 years before her execution in 2015.

What does a Christian look like? That image may be how Kelly Gissendaner is remembered by the world and I don’t imagine any would venture to say that is the face of a Christian.

But for the Grace of God…

While incarcerated in Metro State Prison, and then Arrendale State Prison, Kelly professed faith in Jesus Christ. She had gone to church before. Her and Doug had gone at the beginning of their second marriage. But this was different.

Kelly didn’t know how long she had to live, but she knew there was time to change.

In 2010, Kelly enrolled in a theology certificate program run by the Divinity School at Emory University. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose Christian faith led him to prison in a failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. She read the writing of Archbishop Rowan Williams, who wrote on what it meant to be a Christian. She even developed a friendship with the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who was a soldier in the German Army in World War II. Moltmann had surrendered to the British army and was confined as a prisoner of war, where he was given a pocket New Testament by an American chaplain.

Like St. Stephen, Kelly Gissendaner appeared before the council. Her clemency application to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles was supported by many of her guards in prison, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and Congressman Bob Barr.

Her sentence was carried out on September 20, 2015. Her last recorded words were this, “Tell the Gissendaner family, I am so sorry. That amazing man lost his life because of me; and if I could take it back, if this would change it, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s not. And I just hope they find peace, and I hope they find some happiness. God bless you.”

Forgiveness changed Kelly Gissendaner’s life. Her testimony has changed countless others. 

As Anne Lamott has written, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”

Because of the transforming––and even transfiguring–– forgiveness of Jesus Christ, our Christian sister Kelly Gissendaner has a life with Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, her story is not ultimately determined by the mark of sin, but by the brightness of the image of God.

Forgiveness is giving up the pain of the past for the sure and confident hope of future glory.

This is what the Transfiguration means––for sister Kelly Gissendaner, for you, for me. That is what a Christian looks like.

I offer this to you in the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.