Exodus 34:29-35 +++ Psalm 99 +++ 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 +++ Luke 9:28-43a
Last week in our Episcopal 101 class, we discussed the liturgical year, or how we Episcopalians mark time. It requires a recognition that our time in the Church is measured differently than how we might measure time in every other aspect of our lives. For instance, most of us did something to celebrate the dawn of the new year on January 1, but I don’t recall any party invitations on December 1 to stay up until midnight to greet December 2, the First Sunday of Advent. In the church, that is ournew year, how we count time, paying attention to where God has moved and is moving and will move in and through our world.
So, whether you knew it or not, we launched a new year, proceeding through Advent, hearing the stories of the prophets and John the Baptist and Mary as we prepared for the birth of the baby Jesus as well as the return of Christ as ruler and judge. The short Christmas season is about one thing and one thing only – the inbreaking of God into human time and space in the body of a child. And then, these last seven weeks of Epiphany have been all about what that all meant. Who is this Jesus? The One whom God anoints as beloved at baptism. The One who turns water into wine. The One who proclaims the year of God’s favor. Jesus has called disciples, has worked miracles, has placed himself squarely on the side of the poor and oppressed of Palestine. Those closest to him have seen and marveled at who he is. Even Peter has declared his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one (Luke 9:20).
Undoubtedly their lives have been transformed. But today, Jesus is inviting them – and us – to something more in the next part of the story.
Just prior to where Luke’s text begins today, Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection, and he has told his disciples to expect the same kind of troubles in following him. And then, then, he takes those closest to him – Peter and John and James – and he goes up a mountain to pray. He does this a lot. He prays and invites his followers to pray with him. But while they are praying, an extraordinary thing happens. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses are standing there talking with Jesus. These were two of the great prophets of Israel, and when it says that they were “speaking of his departure” (Luke 9:31), I can’t help wondering what they are saying. You see, neither of these great prophets saw the reward of their work. Neither really completed what they set out to do. And everywhere they turned, they were met with opposition, not from outsiders but from their own people.
Moses put up with the grumbling of the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. They wanted to go back to Egypt where they knew where the next meal was coming from. They wanted to worship the golden calf. They grumbled and moaned, and for all of this and more, Moses was the one denied entry into the Promised Land. And Elijah? Ahab and Jezebel were not outsiders. They were his own people, persecuting him. They followed false gods and encouraged others to do the same. The people were poor and starving, and Elijah tried to call the powerful to account. And yet he was swept up into the whirlwind and his mantle fell on Elisha before Elijah’s work was through.
Maybe they are telling Jesus the same will be true for him. People will turn against him when the going gets tough. He won’t do all the things he might hope to do. And when these prophets disappear, Peter and John and James hardly recognize their friend. And they hear a voice calling from heaven, just as this voice called at his baptism. But this time, thistime the voice doesn’t call Jesus beloved and it isn’t even speaking to him. It’s speaking to the three friends. It calls him chosen. God calls Jesus chosen and tells his disciples to listen to him.
You would think this would have been enough to completely change the three friends. But the truth is, they were not much different than those who stayed behind who could not deal with the demon-possessed boy. They were unable to cure him and they get a good rebuke from Jesus for this failure. So much for having a mountaintop experience as it comes crashing to the ground!
But all of them, all twelve, continually miss the significance of who Jesus is, even the three who witnessed the miraculous transfiguration. They couldn’t seem to make the leap from the friend who does amazing things to the One who is chosen of God.
But then, we can’t either.
Maybe we can’t see what we don’t expect to see.
But I truly believe that we aren’t just supposed to be transformed by our encounters with Jesus. We are to be transfigured, to undergo a metamorphosis, dying to who we were and living for Christ. That is a pretty tall order.
This week, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in a special session to vote on proposals for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons including equality in marriage and in ordination. Not only did the more progressive proposals not pass, the most conservative of the traditionalist plans passed. The hurt and pain experienced by my friends in the Methodist Church, especially those who do not fit the heterosexual binary norm, is gut-wrenching. But lest we get too smug about where we are as a church, our Archbishop of Canterbury has disinvited same-sex spouses of bishops to the Lambeth Conference to be held in Canterbury in 2020. That exclusion applies to two Americans and one Canadian. It is shocking that, in a climate in which the world looks at the church with doubt and even derision, we are having arguments about whom to excluderather than opening our arms and taking God’s love out into the streets.
It isn’t just usas individuals who need to be transfigured. Our whole church needs a transfiguration. And an encounter with the living God so profound that there is no turning back. The Church as an institution is changing. Maybe God is working the New Creation through a church that must die and rise to new life, a metamorphosis, a transfiguration. And I wonder how many of us will be like the Israelites in the wilderness, longing to go back to what we know, bad though it was; or like Peter who wants to just build real estate up there on the mountain top.
Where we are called to be is down there with the desperate father and the afflicted son. With our differently-oriented siblings in the Methodist Church and in our own church. With all who suffer because they don’t fit the right mold.
A popular image going around the internet these days shows Jesus saying that “the difference between me and you is that you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.”
What is the story scripture tells us? To follow. To heal. To forgive. To love. As our season of Epiphany draws to a close, I pray that we will all be transfigured by God’s love to go out and tell that to all the world. Because the world is in desperate need of people like us, transfigured by the power of God’s love.