The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
10 February 2013
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:27–13:13
Each year on the Sunday before Lent, what used to be called Quinquagesima, we hear the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. It is worth noting that we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration each year on the sixth of August, in the middle of the Summer, while many of us, if we can manage it, are far from the sweltering heat of a New York Summer. Many of us miss the Transfiguration when it comes around in the middle of our Summer business and perhaps the authors of our Lectionary decided that we ought to hear this important story at a time we were likely to all be around and paying attention.
I think the authors of our Lectionary also saw what the author of today’s collect saw: that Jesus’ Transfiguration, his apparition on the mountain top before his friends somehow changes and yet the same, clad in raiment white and glistening, foreshadowed things to come. We prayed this morning, “O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” We recognise here on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, that we are about to set forth on a journey. It is a journey that will take us from Jesus' temptation in the wilderness to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to that last meal with his friends, to the foot of the Cross and the desolation of Holy Saturday right the way through to his Resurrection on Easter Day. As we make this journey through Jesus’ story, we also strive to make our own journey through these next forty (or so) days. We enter into Jesus’ story, we see ourselves as his friends and followers, as those who witnesses these events, and even as his judges and executioner. In these days we discern what we might take on in Lent and how we might enter more deeply into the life of Christ, more deeply, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, into the Body of Christ.
As we stand on the threshold of our Lenten journey, we are allowed to be additional witnesses to the events on the mountain top. Before we get on with our Lenten business, we go up the mountain and what we see points to that which is to come for Jesus and for us. Standing with Peter and James on the mountain top, we are given hope, and through our experience we derive strength for the journey.
The Transfiguration is an experience that is related in each of the three Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. We reckon that Matthew and Luke had Mark as their source and each adapted the material to his own theological perspective. Nevertheless, Matthew and Luke preserved several key features from Mark’s version that are essential for understanding how the Transfiguration sets the stage for what is to follow. In all the Gospels, Jesus’ trip up to the mountain top is preceded by a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about Jesus’ identity and what is to come. Specifically, Jesus share with his disciples the news that he, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day rise again” (Luke 9:21). Each time Jesus makes this declaration the disciples get very upset. They cannot believe that this will happen to Jesus, that their messiah is the kind of messiah who will be killed. Yet Jesus is just that messiah, the one who will be killed and rise again.
Jesus shows us what is to come and those hearing the story for the first clearly found it shocking. With this revelation fresh in their minds, Jesus takes Peter and James and John, “up on the mountain to pray.”
And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Something happened in Jesus’ prayer on the mountain top, he became more than himself, as his “raiment became dazzling white.” He encountered two of the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses and Elijah, who had themselves experienced the presence of God. With them he spoke of his passion and death. Meanwhile, Jesus’ companions had dozed off and were just waking to see this extraordinary sight. They got very excited and Peter sought a way to prolong this encounter, but just as soon as it began, it was over. Peter and James and John witnessed Jesus in all his glory not just speaking further of his death and resurrection, but giving them a glimpse of the Risen Christ and heard the voice proclaim Jesus as God's son, his chosen, his beloved. Each version of the story preserves this crucial moment, this echo of Jesus' baptism, this proclamation of Jesus’ identity. He is chosen, set apart, marked as the one who will suffer as the prophets suffered before, and will overcome it all in a glorious resurrection.
Before heading up the mountain, in that moment right after that exchange with Jesus, James and John and Peter (especially) must have had a hard time getting their minds around Jesus’ talking about his death and resurrection. Jesus must have known how hard it was for them to comprehend and so he shows them a vision of himself in all his glory, in the fullness of the Resurrection, in the fulness of new life. It was just a peek, but a vision nonetheless to warm the heart, to strengthen the mind, and to give the resolve to keep following to the end.
As I have said before, in our lives we are from time-to-time shown glimpses of the Kingdom of God. We may see it in an encounter with another person or another of God’s creatures. We may see it in the natural world. We may see it in a work of art. There are many ways that we are given a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and these foretastes allow us to know that God’s Kingdom is real, that his love is real, and that we are a part of what God is achieving in the world. The Transfiguration was that key moment for Peter and James and John. It was that moment to see Christ in his fulness and to know who he really is. It was their moment to learn that even though they and he will experience pain and suffering, that even thought the journey will be difficult, the love of God will rise in the faith of death, that Jesus was not kidding when he said that the Son of Main will be raised on the third day.
Over the past couple of weeks this parish has seen its share of death. As we celebrated the lives of two of our friends in just the last two days, and remembered them in the days since their deaths, we have seen in those lives similar glimpses of Resurrection life. We have seen and remembered glimpses of love shining through complex lives in the world. We have had our own little passiontide in these last days, days that are on the threshold of the liturgical seasons of Lent and Passiontide. Today we are presented with the story of the Transfiguration and are given a vision of the Resurrection. We see this vision both having confronted death head on and before we are plunged into the discernment of Lent, before we are plunged into the details of Jesus’ own encounter with pain, suffering, and death. We are given a vision of the Resurrection to give us renewed hope and strength and to sustain us on the journey that is to come. Let our hearts, therefore, be full of the joy of beholding our risen Lord, triumphant over the forces of pain, suffering, and death, triumphant over hatred and indifference, triumphant in love of us and of all creation.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 30 January 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume