Last Sunday after Epiphany — 7 February 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am
Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43a
Suddenly [the disciples] saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to [Jesus]. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (that’s this coming Wednesday; it always manages to sneak up on us, doesn’t it? Especially in a year when Easter is early!) – every year on this Sunday the Gospel reading is the account of what we call the Transfiguration of Christ. All three synoptic Gospels include this narrative, and we rotate through them year by year; this year it’s from St. Luke. (We also celebrate the Transfiguration every year on August 6, but that’s six months away!)
One of the questions that occurred to me not long ago – and I’m not sure why it took me so long for this question to occur to me; after all, I’ve been reading and hearing this Gospel account for sixty-some years! – but then, that’s one reason why we should never say, regarding the Scriptures, “Oh, I’ve read that one already, I don’t have to read it again!” Oh yes! It’s only after the second or third or sixtieth or five hundredth reading that the good questions start to occur to you! -- anyway, one of the questions that occurred to me was, “How did Peter and John and James know it was Moses and Elijah that were talking with Jesus?” It isn’t like they grew up with copies of Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible, with full-color illustrations, like I did. (Did any of you grow up with Hurlbut’s?) Moses and Elijah didn’t have Facebook pages. I’m sure they weren’t wearing name tags. The disciples had never seen Raphael’s great painting of the Transfiguration. How did they recognize Moses and Elijah? I guess we just don’t know! But there must have been something about them that made it obvious who they were. They were, after all, the great heroic figures of Jewish history and identity – Moses the liberator from slavery, and God’s lawgiver, and Elijah the prophet, who stood up for faithfulness to God against the infidelity and wickedness of Israelite kings. Both of whom, in Jewish tradition and legend, had been taken by God into heaven. And here are these great figures – historical and heavenly figures – talking with Our Jesus! Blows the mind, it does! And so Peter, never at a loss for words even when he’s at a loss for thought, shouts out, “Let’s build tabernacles – shrines!”
One of the advantages of our worship tradition in the Episcopal Church, and in many other mainline liturgical churches, is that every Sunday there is substantial reading from the Scriptures, and in a very comprehensive way. I’m not saying this is something we should be proud of, because we aren’t the ones who set this up, but we can be grateful for it. The Book of Common Prayer is richer in Scriptural quotation and allusion than any other tradition, I think. I’ve found it kind of interesting in my very limited experience attending worship in evangelical churches that although they may talk a lot about the Bible and frequently quote snippets of it, they don’t seem very often to read it aloud in church! Oh well.
The downside of our tradition, of course, is that although we read a lot of Scripture, we do it mostly in discrete chunks. But the Scriptural books are not for the most part written in chunks. The Gospels are not just a random collection of Jesus stories – they are carefully crafted and sequenced narratives. This is particularly obvious with John, but it’s also very much true with Mark, and with Matthew and Luke. And so when we hear a narrative like today’s, about the Transfiguration of Jesus, we tend to have forgotten what happened a few verses earlier, and sometimes what happens shortly thereafter.
Shortly before the episode in today’s Gospel, Jesus has been alone with his disciples, and he asks them (you know this story), “Who do people say I am?” And the disciples repeat some of the pious speculation that’s floating around, and then Peter says, “You are the Messiah!” (And to borrow a phrase from today’s Gospel, “not knowing what he said”!) And Jesus responds by telling them that he must be rejected and suffer and be put to death – not anything at all like everyone assumed about the Messiah – and then be raised from the dead. And that they too must take up their crosses and follow him. You may also recall that in St. Matthew’s Gospel Peter reacts to this by crying out, “God forbid it! This must never happen to you!” [Matt 16:22] And Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! That’s the line the devil tried on me in the wilderness!”
So that’s the context of today’s Gospel about the Transfiguration. This vision is God’s testimony that, yes, indeed, what Jesus said is exactly what must happen to him. The appearance of Jesus in glory – the Greek word doxa here has the sense of the late Hebrew word shekinah, which designates the dwelling of the Lord God, present in an overshadowing cloud – and thus is a clear sign that this Our Jesus is not just some itinerant preacher but is indeed Immanuel, God-With-Us. And the attendance upon Jesus by Moses and Elijah testify to the continuity of Jesus with the whole covenant history of Israel.
But it’s more than just continuity with the Israelite past. The disciples hear a voice from the cloud (who would that be?!): “This is my Son! This is my beloved and chosen one! Listen to him!” And then Jesus is found alone: the cloud is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone; now it’s just Jesus. So listen to him!
And what has Jesus just said? “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.…If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
So much for being the Messianic King who would drive out the Romans and restore the Kingdom to Israel. So much for being the kind of Christ that we were imagining and expecting.
We read about this vision on the Sunday before we begin the observance of Lent. And Lent is a season of spiritual preparation to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death, that we will contemplate in Holy Week. And his resurrection on the third day, indeed; but first the Cross. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is not about power, despite the fact that the Church over much of her history has tried to make it so, and still does yet today. Or if power, then only the power of love. This Jesus, seen in glory on the mountain, raised high upon the Cross, “is my Son, my Chosen. listen to him!”