Last Sunday of the Epiphany 2018 – 11th February 2018
Six days later. What is it about six days later? Its an odd comment. Let it engage your imaginaation It could simply be a scrupulous attempt at telling the truth. But even so, there is something about it that pulls at me. Seven days is the number of a full week, a perfect number in Judaism: complete. I think Mark is signaling to us that this story about the Transfiguration is not complete all on its own. We are being asked to consider it in light of what happened six days before and what is going to come after.
The story of the Transfiguration is bracketed by references to the crucifixion. Before, six days before, Jesus predicted his passion and death, the famous occasion when he called Peter “Satan” for trying to whitewash the prediction of his death and his call to his followers to “take up the cross and follow” him. The Transfiguration passage ends with Jesus calling for their discretion, silence about what they’d just seen, till after he rose from the dead. The glory of the Transfiguration must be considered with the crucifixion.
The Transfiguration foreshadows Jesus’ glory. Here again, Peter shows his misunderstanding. As one commentator has pointed out each time the disciples call Jesus “Rabbi” in Mark’s Gospel, there is a calamitous misunderstanding or betrayal. Judas hails him as “Rabbi.” Obviously, the Transfiguration is much more in line with the sort of thing Peter had in mind for Jesus than his dark prognostications about dying and taking up the cross.
So, what about us? What do we make of the Transfiguration on this last chance Sunday of Epiphany?
Let’s tease out these connections. The Transfiguration is about showing God’s favor and glory: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” The Crucifixion is about Jesus’ death. What are we listening for? Taken together with the Crucifixion, the appearance of Jesus with Elijah and Moses seems to mean that the fulfillment of the Prophets and Law is found in the crucifixion. Not Elijah coming in a fiery chariot, but the suffering servant of Isaiah. Not in the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone enshrined in every courthouse, but the new commandment of love, self-sacrificing, self-emptying love.
As I look around at the world today, I can identify with Peter’s desire to hold that moment of beauty and glory, a sense of being insulated from the dark swirl of upheaval all around. I find much of what is going on in the world deeply distressing. If I could just stay quiet in an incense shrouded chapel, that would be nice. But I have to go out, to deal with whatever is coming next, just like all of you.
But that doesn’t make the moment of Transfiguration irrelevant or a distraction. It is essential. Because in that moment of glory, the disciples, in this case all of us, are commanded to listen to Jesus and all his talk of cross and crucifixion. Christians engage with the world’s pain from a perspective of love, compassion and hope.
In other words, we must engage the world with imagination. Moving from Transfiguration to Crucifixion how can you not wonder what it is all about? How does the incompleteness we feel (much in the way this story begins with an acknowledgment of incompleteness) lead us to grapple with truth? There’s no way forward but to engage our imagination. In community life, in THIS community we know about the dialectic of glory and pain. My experience of this tension has forced me to grow up, to deal with life on life’s terms as the saying goes. Just think if the world began to engage the challenges we face as human beings, as citizens of our nations, with imagination grounded in the Cross, illumined by grace and beauty? How would that change the way we live?
The revelation we get today equips us to draw spiritual strength for the facing of the days ahead. Not to be overwhelmed and defeated by them, we remember and observe the days of Jesus’ temptation and death because it is the only way to come to terms with the trials of life. Jesus’ suffering gives our suffering meaning. The meaning is that because God’s beloved son suffered these things, God’s love is available to us in the depth of our own suffering. God knows suffering, it is no barrier to the experience of communion with God. Christian life embraces light and dark, heights and depths, sadness and joy.
I remember a friend once asked me what was the abundant life? He was feeling short-changed and a bit left out of a joyful easy life. After thinking about it, I hazarded that perhaps the abundant life is when we can feel all of it, good, bad, happy, sad, fearful, powerful, you name it. When we are alive to all that life has, we are fully alive, in touch with the abundant life. Because Jesus never promised to give us a life without trouble, but life with Jesus gives us many glimpses of glory. Like Peter we might find the pain of life hard to accept. We prefer only the happy feelings. That is the road to addiction, you know: pursuing the high, the blissed out good time. But when we can integrate the dark feelings, the sadness and unhappiness as a part of life we are on a road to depth, compassion, solidarity and freedom because we know nothing can separate us from the love of God. That love is ours to share, sharing it is our way to joy, peace, a useful life. God sends his children as a blessing to the poor, suffering, least, last, lonely ones. Good news for all of us.
We’re none of us complete. We’re always on the road like Jesus and the disciples. There are times of blessing, and times of testing. The lesson is to live life following Jesus. He will lead us carrying our particular cross into rare adventures. Spectacular beauty, heart rending tenderness, terrible sadness. Lent is the time we open ourselves to this spiritual journey in a conscious way. So today we stare ahead at the crucifixion and sing our brave alleluia: praise the Lord.