We conclude the season of Epiphany with some dramatic scripture lessons. Brilliant lights and radiant faces, theological drama in Corinth, a voice from the clouds, Moses and Elijah show up for the transfiguration of Jesus. All these lessons express what theologians call a theophany, a term for an incident of the presence of the Almighty. The glory of God is beautiful to behold. Moses’ face shines when he comes down the mountain after conversing with God. Apparently, not everyone can perceive the revelation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul criticizes the spiritual disciples of Moses who want to reject Christ because in their eyes, he is just another heretic. Paul accuses them of putting a veil over the glory of God, because they just cannot see it. Yet the gospel tells us that everything about Jesus shines when he is in deep prayer. Peter is a practical man, so it is not surprising that he is ready to set up the Kingdom right on top of the mountain. We don’t have to look further; this is what the coming of the Messiah is supposed to look like!
How would any of us respond to a theophany? It is so natural for us to expect and evaluate the presence of God according to our human standards. Seriously, what else do we know? How else could we evaluate anything? We are afraid like the Israelites, we are subtly agnostic like the Jews who see Jesus as just the controversial son of Mary and Joseph, we are practical like Peter. We want quantifiable, concrete, obvious, and controllable signs of God among us. Nothing too mystical or inexplicable, thank you, we are Episcopalians, and we prefer a deity who lives up to our needs and expectations, in good order and preferably with good taste.
Week by week, we hear of the mission and the message of Jesus. Love your neighbor as God loves you. Be merciful as God is merciful. Give yourself away in order to find new life. Let go of what we have traditionally done and open our hearts to something new. We have the advantage of scripture, tradition, and historical perspective. What should we do with this ultimate good news? Do we file it away for use at our deathbed? Or do we live by it? Does this inform our choices and guide our decisions? Is the redemptive life of Jesus a real and immediate imperative that governs our lives? Or is it a heart-warming fable, which we dust off and take out to lend a little texture to our tasteful holiday decoration?
On the last Sunday in Epiphany and just before the beginning of Lent, these questions are not mere intellectual or theological abstractions. These are questions that describe and define our faith. Over the last eight weeks, we have had a brief glance at the life and early ministry of Jesus: his baptism, his miracles, his willingness to challenge the religious assumptions of his time and ours by identifying himself with the traditionally marginal and outcast members of society. Today, we receive a vision of his undeniable divinity, which illuminates his ordinary humanity with surprising brightness. This is the Son of God. This is Emmanuel, God with us.
We, too, are transfigured by being with God. Many of us are confident that at the end of time, we will all experience a certain transfiguration, as we enter eternal life and live in the near presence of God. But the Kingdom is not a future possibility: it begins now.
I think that it is quite possible that transfiguration is not about personal transformation. I have come to believe that transfiguration can be a sign that a person has come into a deeper understanding of their true identity. There is a shift when a life-affirming internal reality comes into new focus. If we look deeply into the face of someone who is deeply in love, we will see a difference. This is not about personal luminescence. The challenge is to be more faithful to who we really are. If we are going to move forward in our lives, personally, professionally, or as a spiritual community, we must be firmly grounded in our own identity. We are children of God.
What can we do with this identity? On the mountaintop, the voice says: This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him! (The Greek verb means “hear him”). Peter, James, and John, as Jews, knew what this meant, because their daily prayers opened with the Shema: Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
This is the oldest fixed prayer in the Jewish tradition. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One (derived from Deuteronomy 6:4, 11:13–21; Numbers 15:37–41). The voice announces the identity of Jesus, to whom belong the total obedience and devotion accorded to YHWH, the Almighty. This is the relationship on which they have built their lives. This is the relationship on which we can build our lives also. Hearing Jesus, our understanding of what it is to be of God both deepens and grows more profoundly mysterious.
Our transfiguration is not an easy matter in terms of our earthly relationships. Being children of God is both simple and complex, and our fragile, insecure humanity often invites a spirit of sibling rivalry. Even Christians, with all our good intentions, have managed to find ways to quantify, stratify, and evaluate who is worthy of consideration and inclusion., and who is not. Those of us in the Episcopal tradition may have recognized the turmoil in the Methodist churches this past week, as we walked along a similar path sixteen years ago. Lest we think that we are above the sort of theological combat that threatens to disrupt other churches, I encourage you to remember the ugly spirit of 2003-2004. And may we all remember this with grief, and a resolve to treat one another with more respect and charity.
Our transfiguration, sadly, does not perfect our earthly nature. There is no one, there is not one of us of the age of reason, who dares approach the altar of God without the awareness of our own capacity for sin. We are all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. Our intimate human relationships, when lived in a spirit of honest love and genuine self-giving, are not the locus of sin. In fact, it is quite the opposite: the joy and self-sacrifice of sincere human love open up for us the glimmering reality of divine Love, which is utterly transformative. It is not about whom we love. It is about how we Love. The command of Christ that we love one another is not derivative of our capacity for understanding of God’s other children. The command stands on its own.
We are all children of God, all created in God’s image, all imperfect, seeking eternity together. Jesus goes down from the mountain and turns his face toward Jerusalem, continuing his ministry among the outcast along his journey. In our own way, we turn our faces toward Jerusalem, toward the holy place, as we finish up Epiphany. We are all here looking for some sort of guiding light that we cannot obtain in the rest of the world. What is that for you? is it comfort? hope? strength? connection with God? All of these speak to our true identity. Jesus invites us to travel with him, serving those we encounter on the way.
The question has never been: How shall we change so we can shine? The question always is: How can we live into our amazing God-given identity more faithfully? As we conclude our celebration of the Epiphany, I encourage you not to wait for the blinding lights or the shining garments. That may not happen. Instead, look for the truth of theophany – your own transfiguration – in the quiet and the chaos of your everyday life. Make following, loving, praising and thanking Jesus the purpose of your day. Listen to him… and you will begin to understand how deeply you are loved.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on March 3rd, 2019, for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The lessons for the day, which can be found on LectionaryPage.net, were:
- Exodus 34:29-35
- Psalm 99
- 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
- Luke 9:28-36