Last Sunday after the Epiphany – February 26, 2017 — St Mark’s Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: our Creator, Our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading is the powerfully dramatic story of the Transfiguration, this powerful and spooky story about how in the midst of the ordinary world of first-century Palestine, Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, and James, and John, four friends taking a hike in the mountains, and we are told that when they reach the top of the mountain, the world changes.
We learn that, Jesus is transfigured before them, and his face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.
In the midst of all this visual spectacle, new figures appear, Moses and Elijah appear, and they are talking with Jesus. Peter tries to join the conversation, suggesting that he build more permanent residences for everyone.
But God interrupts Peter, speaking from even more brightness, from a bright cloud, and God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When the disciples hear this, they fall to the ground, overcome by fear. But Jesus comes and touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they look up, they see no one except Jesus himself, alone. So things are back to normal, in a way, back into the world where the story begins, in first century Palestine, and with four friends taking a hike in the mountains.
But of course everything has changed. This event that started when four friends took a walk in the mountains turns out to be one of the central stories in all the New Testament, one of the most frequently retold stories in all the New Testament.
It occurs in all three of what we call the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and it surely lies behind John’s Gospel with its emphasis on Jesus’ being the light shining in the darkness, the light that truly illumines the world.
The early Church remembered this story – in today’s Epistle reading, we are told that Peter himself remembered this story and passed it along to his followers, remembers when “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Peter’s advice is that his followers would “do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,” to treat this story as a source of inspiration and understanding, until such time as the night ends, and the “day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
We in the Church today remember this story not once, but twice in the Calendar of our Church – we remember it this day, on the Last Sunday of the Epiphany each year. In addition, we give the story of Jesus’ transfiguration its own day on the Calendar, every August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration, when we give a whole day to remembering, and retelling, and meditating on the meaning of this story, and on the power of this story to be transformative.
So we keep coming back to this story, back to it in part because of what it tells us about Jesus, and about his followers. But there is more to the story, because in the words of Christians through the centuries, this story is worth our attention because of the way it seems to be “a lamp shining in a dark place,” a story that works as a source of inspiration and understanding, until such time as the night ends, and the “day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
So this story comes to be about a way into a process through which for us, a new day dawns, and the morning star rises in our heart. So it becomes clear that the power of this story lies as much in what it says about us as it does about Jesus.
For what seems to be particularly important about the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is captured in the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic about the power of this story about Jesus to transform us.
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.”
So this story about Jesus’ transfiguration turns out to be a story about our possible transfiguration as followers of Jesus, as members of his earthly body, here in this place, in this assembly, on this day.
“With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”
But what does it mean to be transfigured? What is there in this story about the changes in Jesus that connects to me? This story seems to be all about Jesus, and about Jesus in ways that separate Jesus from me.
I’m not sure what you see when you see me. But I personally do not expect that when you see me you notice my face “shining like the sun,” and my clothes becoming “dazzling white.” Nor do I hold conversations with men like Moses and Elijah, people who have been dead for literally thousands of years.
So lots of understandings of the Transfiguration over the centuries emphasize the distance between us and the transfigured Jesus. The divine is remote from us, distant from us, pure and clean and full of power and light, and we are dirty and nasty and dark and weak and sinful.
But so much of the language of the New Testament is about overcoming that distance, about helping us come to see ourselves not as distant from God but as people who live in the presence of God, people with whom God chooses to associate.
Indeed, in the second century, St Irenaeus, one of my favorite saints, was drawn to understand the Transfiguration, and what he came to was the exact opposite of a sense of God’s separation from us. What he came to was the belief that “the glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
So much of this story is about learning to see Jesus, and with Jesus to see ourselves, as God sees us. This is an image we can take into the season of Lent: AS Greg Jones a priest who for a long time was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco said years ago, the purpose of Lent is to help us see ourselves as God sees us, and from God’s eyes, we go through the world proceeded and followed by angels who proclaim for all to hear, “Behold, a child of God. Behold, a Child of God.”
In the words of Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
You see, all too often, we think that things are as they appear to us, and as we look at ourselves, and around at our fellow human beings, we all too often see our failures, our shortcomings, our limitations. In this view, God is about judgment, and about our falling short, about how the best we can do is like rags before the glory and majesty of God.
But in Irenaeus’ view, the Transfiguration is about not as we appear to ourselves, but as we appear to God. After all, in the seasons of the Church year that run from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany and Lent and Easter, we are reminded over and over that God in Jesus works to overcome everything that separates us from God.
In these seasons, we wait for Christ’s birth, and we are there when the shepherds come, and the Wise men come, and in Lent we are with him when he is in the desert, and when he’s baptized, and when he calls his disciples. In Holy Week we are with him when he gathers his disciples and helps them understand his work, and their place in his work, and we are with him when he is tried, and executed on the Cross.
And on Saturday night of Holy Week, we will gather to light the fire, and to proclaim, in the ancient words of the Exsultet, “How Blessed is this night, when heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
What it comes down to, in a real sense, is to recognize that our God is most fully revealed to us in a person, this person Jesus, and this person Jesus calls us into community with him and with each other, this person Jesus invites us to have lunch with him, here, in this place, and that is precisely why we are here today.
We gather, not simply in remembrance, or simply because we are told to, but because as we gather, we become part of the story. And the story we become part of is a story in which God in Jesus works to overcome everything that separates us from God.
By walking with Jesus in our reenactment of this story, we learn, in our bodies as well as in our minds, that there is nothing about being human that is alien to God, nothing about being human that Jesus has not experienced, and has transfigured.
When we get to Holy Week, we re-experience the ancient truth, that to reconcile us to God, to overcome everything that separates us from God, Jesus “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” Otherwise, the gulf between us and God remains open.
But our Easter joy is grounded in the faith that as followers of Jesus nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus his son, that in Jesus God is with us, God is with us always.
In the Transfiguration story, after Jesus is changed in appearance, and God has spoken, the disciples are afraid, understandably afraid. And Jesus responds by coming over to them, by touching their very human bodies with his very human body, by comforting them, and by helping them get up from the ground to which in their fear they have fallen, and by reassuring them that they have no cause to be afraid.
So as in so many ways, what Jesus does and says lives out for us the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the Good News that we as God’s people and experienced.
AS Irenaeus puts it, “The glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
The journey we are on as God’s people is a journey toward understanding what Irenaeus means, that “The glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.”
The journey we will take this Lent and Easter with Jesus is a journey into the mystery of God’s overcoming all that separates us from God. It is a journey into the mystery of God’s love for us, and the mystery of God’s mighty acts to reconcile us to God.
It is a journey into the kind of assurance and release from fear that enables us to experience God’s love for us, that teaches us that, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not be afraid, for God has been here before, and is with us now.
It is a journey into the mystery of the word made flesh, so that even as we are dust and to dust we shall return, even so, even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, alleluia.