A Sermon on Transfiguration Sunday

Francesco Zuccarelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 A sermon given on February 11, 2018 by Charles Tyrone…

The season of Epiphany is the time set aside to marvel at the incarnation, to witness the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah — the Christ, the Anointed One — and to see the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. As we have traveled the journey of Epiphany, we’ve seen those who seek Jesus, and those who meet Jesus, try to name him and thus, in the naming, try to understand him, contain him, and fit him to a human scale. The Three Kings ask Herod, “where is he, this King of the Jews?” Nathaniel tells Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” In the prelude to today’s Gospel lesson, Mark shows Jesus aware of the confusion and stir he causes. In Mark 8, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell him, “John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus presses them to decide for themselves, “But, who do you say that I am?” Peter, the key figure in Mark’s Gospel, other than Jesus says, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus orders their silence and then adds to their confusion with yet another name, telling them of the suffering and death that the Son of Man, the Son of Adam, must endure. Peter rebukes Jesus for saying these things and earns Jesus’s rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!”

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Mark’s Gospel lesson bursts at the seams with the miraculous and fills Jesus’s closest Apostles with astonishment, fear, and confusion. Peter, James, and John, already bewildered by Jesus, are taken alone to the mountaintop, see a miraculous transformation, and hear the very voice of God, naming and proclaiming Jesus as the beloved Son of God.

Today’s lesson is John Mark’s account of the transfiguration story. The transfiguration, along with the incarnation, baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are the early church’s proclamations of Jesus as Divine. Mark’s Gospel is very early, written in Rome in the late 60’s or early 70’s CE. It stands alongside Q, written in the 50’s CE, which are sayings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke use Mark and Q, but mostly draw from Mark in their Gospels. Scholars once thought of Mark as a collection of Peter’s sermons. Mark was with Peter in Rome and was his scribe. When you read Mark, there is this sense that you are reading a firsthand account of Jesus’s travels, miracles, and teachings. In the very first line, Mark states his Gospel’s project is to proclaim, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.”

In Mark’s Transfiguration story, there is a theophany, and this is the second theophany in Mark. The first is in his baptism account as Jesus rises from the Jordan and the Spirit descends like a dove. In this Trinitarian moment, God, proclaims for Jesus alone to hear, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This proclaiming and naming of Jesus, Son of God, is repeated in the second theophany of the Mount of Transfiguration.

Six days after Jesus’s rebuke to Peter, he takes Peter, James, and John, those closest to him, to a mountaintop. In the service bulletin is Francisco Zuccarelli’s painting, Landscape with the Transfiguration of Christ, which is an artistic testament of faith. In it, Jesus is caught up in the clouds, glowing, luminous, and looking toward the heavenly Father in a pose of adoration. On his right and left are Moses and Elijah. Moses is distinguished from Elijah by holding the commandments. Elijah holds a scroll, containing his prophesies. Jesus literally is caught up between heaven and earth, between the law and the prophets. His ascendant position makes it clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Further, Elijah, in appearing with Jesus, makes it clear Jesus is not Elijah, or John the Baptist, the new Elijah, settling those misapprehensions for early Christians. The painting and the Gospel also allude to Jesus’s coming death and resurrection. Moses dies on Mount Nebo, ministered to by angels, and his body is buried and hidden by God. Elijah, who becomes a harbinger of the Messiah and end times, does not die, but rather, is taken into heaven in a chariot of fire.

James, John, and Peter fall terrified on the ground.  James’s pose of adoration as he looks toward Jesus reflects Jesus’s pose. John, youthful, beautiful, and beloved, clutches his breast. Peter falls prostate, and the keys of the kingdom have fallen to the ground. Peter, out of his terror speaks to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter, not really knowing what to say, seems to want to say, “Jesus, let us stay here with you.” In Peter’s plea is a desire to linger with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, to stay in the miraculous moment, hoping it won’t end. Also, Peter perhaps remembers Jesus saying the Son of Man must suffer and so desires to delay Jesus, hope against hope, from the horrors he will face.

However, in an instant it’s all over. They are covered in a mountaintop cloud and hear a voice say to them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” This is Mark’s second theophany, echoing the baptismal theophany. This is the revelation to Peter, James, and John in which God clearly says that Jesus is the Son of God — more than Messiah, more than Son of Man, more than Rabbi, more than a prophet. They are to listen to him, to obey him. Then, the cloud clears, and they are alone with Jesus.

The moment is over. Jesus takes Peter, James and John down the mountain, and back into the world. There will be other encounters with the Transfigured Jesus. Mary Magdalene will meet him at the empty tomb. Disciples will meet him on the road to Emmaus. He will appear in the Upper Room to those hiding in fear. He will serve breakfast on the beach in Galilee, and he will minister to Thomas’s doubt. These are extraordinary revelations and, in the Gospels, even in less extraordinary circumstances, no one who encounters Jesus, comes away from the encounter unchanged. All are transformed.

Thomas Merton, after sixteen years in the Abbey of Gethsemane, came out of his monastic isolation and stood one afternoon on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. There Merton is transformed:

I was suddenly overwhelmed that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … I have the immense joy of being … a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.[1]

In a little while, we will receive our charge at the dismissal, “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” We can’t stay on the mountaintop. We are sent shining into the world to proclaim the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.

 

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1966), 140-142.