Sunday, February 07, 2016

Transfiguration - His, Theirs, Ours

Last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)
Exodus 34.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3.12—4.2; Luke 9.28-36, [37-43a]
Sunday, February 7, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Every year, on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the Gospel reading is that of the Transfiguration. The lectionary sets the Transfiguration as the climax of the time after the Epiphany, a final glorious manifestation of the mystery of Jesus Christ before the season of Lent. As we delve into this spectacular event, we see that it provides an appropriate transition from Epiphany to Lent.

Eight days before the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is. Several answers are offered by various disciples. Jesus then asks, “But who do you say that I am? To which Peter responds “The Messiah of God” (Lk 9.20). Jesus then reveals his own impending fate, “saying, ‘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 be raised’” (Lk 9.22). This is the first time that Jesus reveals to his disciples what awaits him.

This provides the background against which today’s Gospel story takes place. Jesus goes up a mountain with his inner circle of disciples, the ones he trusts most – Peter, James, and John. By all indications, they just went up the mountain so Jesus could have some quiet time to pray. But while there, something spectacular happens. Jesus was transfigured. All we are told is that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk 9.29).  The exact nature of the event is uncertain. But it was obviously an intense religious experience. We know from other mentions in Scripture that such manifestations of unnatural brilliance are associated with mystical experiences, such as occurs in the encounters between Moses and God that we heard in the Old Testament reading.

And then in the midst of this dazzling display, Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, appear and engage in deep conversation with Jesus. All we are told of their conversation is they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9.31). It is apparent that what has just happened is a peak and pivotal experience for Jesus before his journey to Jerusalem.

Among other things, what occurs in the Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The discussion Jesus has with Moses and Elijah about his departure can only mean one thing – they are discussing his impending death. The death he revealed to his disciples just a week before. And his change in appearance to a dazzling white is symbolic of his resurrection. In light of all this, it is likely that Moses and Elijah are providing encouragement to Jesus for what will come. For what must come. For his journey to Jerusalem, where this will all take place. The revelation in the Transfiguration experience is important, even necessary. But it is one part of a much larger picture that includes what must necessarily happen next – that Jesus return down the mountain, that he continues his mission, which will lead him to Jerusalem.

What happened prior to the events on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter’s confession and Jesus’ revelation about his passion, are carried up the mountain so that there God might confirm what Peter has proclaimed and what Jesus predicted. And lest the disciples miss it, lest we miss it, this confirmation is provided in multiple ways. Jesus’ radiant appearance, showing forth his glory as the Son of God, and at the same time showing the radiant appearance that will be associated with his resurrection. The presence of Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets, indicating that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. In addition, Jesus’ conversation with these two provides independent confirmation of what Jesus revealed to the disciples eight days before. And to top it off, God’s injunction to Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” These aspects of the Transfiguration provide both visual and auditory confirmation of who Jesus is, and what will become of him.

In the midst of these spectacular, mystical events, Peter voices the perpetual human temptation to capture the moment for all time. He wants to build booths so that they can just stay there in this glorious moment, basking in the glory of God that is being revealed through his Son. But God cuts Peter’s transcendental moment short and points to Jesus in the flesh – “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

The disciples witnessing this event are not meant to just stay entranced in that moment of revelation. Just as Jesus is transformed, so too are they meant to be transformed by that moment. To themselves be transfigured in who they are as followers of Jesus. They are meant to listen to Jesus, to the message he is proclaiming and to the mission he is performing. They are not meant to stay on the mountaintop, but are meant to follow Jesus down the mountain, to continue his ministry, their ministry, with renewed purpose, with increased intensity. With Jesus turning his face toward Jerusalem and to his own inevitable end, there is a greater urgency that they follow him. There is work to be done. The work will continue to need to be done after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem. And they are the ones meant to continue that work.

On that mountain, we see Jesus transfigured and changed. In witnessing this, the disciples are transfigured and changed. And in our witness of these events, we, too, are transfigured and changed. In this experience, we see the absolute truth of the one we follow. And in that, we see the truth of ourselves. This is summed up in Paul’s words in the Epistle reading for today.

Paul tells the church in Corinth, and all followers of Jesus “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3.18). We are told in Genesis that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. We see the fulfillment of that in the events of the Transfiguration. In Christ we see the unveiled glory of God and we ourselves are transformed into Christ’s likeness, taking on his mission. We see the likeness of Christ reflected in our own lives, through our words, through our mission and ministry. And we particularly see the likeness of the Transfigured Christ in the lives of our fellow travelers on the journey. Those who support us and guide us in our ministry.

As one commentator notes, “Witnesses to the glory of God in the face of Jesus will be unable to avoid reflecting that glory in the world.” Just as Jesus is unable to avoid the reality of who he is as revealed in the Transfiguration.

Jesus had divine insight into what awaited him. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of knowing specifically what awaits us on our journey. One thing is certain, however. This little parish is called to continue the mission and ministry set forth by the Transfigured Christ. By the Risen Christ. We are called to continue to reflect his glory in the world through our own transfigured lives. Even if that takes us to Jerusalem. Even if that takes us into difficult and challenging situations. Even if faced with diminished numbers, diminished resources.

If we are truly the followers of Jesus, we cannot stay on the safety of the mountain. We must turn our face towards our own Jerusalem, facing the inevitability that we are not the same – we cannot stay the same – and face our own death and resurrection. That is what the coming of Lent is about – our own journey of preparation for what awaits us – death, and ultimately, glorious resurrection.

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