The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


In today’s Gospel we encounter a “no” and a “yes.”

The “no” is to Peter’s apparently quite reasonable proposal: “if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Jesus’ glory revealed, Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the “dream team” of Jewish piety: who could ask for more? Why not stay here…permanently? Down below so many needs…and the Pharisees…and the Roman occupation. Here, peace and glory.

Why the divine “no”? What’s at stake here? Perhaps the issue is the temptation to reduce discipleship or faith to the search for religious experiences. It doesn’t get more sublime or spectacular than what Peter, James, and John were witnessing. “This is my Son…listen to him!” Listening to and following Jesus means descending from the mountain, not hanging on to even the best of spiritual experiences, because Jesus is already down below; ahead of us.

Having said that, among us Episcopalians the more common temptation is to write off these moments on the mountain. Jesus knew that Peter, James, and John needed to be there. Jesus knows that perhaps most of us need some moments on the mountain.

But perhaps the “no” is about something else, the temptation to idolize a particular moment in the church’s history or in a parish’s history. “If only we were back in the 1st Century!” “If only it could be like it was under Father X.” And the text encourages us not to get stuck: we may even get the three dwellings built, but by then Jesus will be a considerable way down the mountain.

The glory of God on the mountain and the descent. That’s one of the rhythms of life, a rhythm this text encourages us to appreciate and fall in with. The “no” may help us appreciate that.

The “yes.” To focus the “yes” we need to wonder about what happened on the mountain. Why Moses and Elijah? That was important information for the disciples, for as good Jews they knew who Moses and Elijah were, but were still trying to figure out who Jesus was. Moses: giver of the Law; Elijah: representative of the entire prophetic tradition; Jesus? How does Jesus fit with Moses and Elijah? The Voice: “Listen to Jesus!” That is, when push comes to shove, don’t interpret Jesus in terms of Moses and Elijah; interpret Moses and Elijah, that is, the institutions of law and prophecy, in terms of Jesus.

Now, once we recognize that the text is also about how Jesus relates to institutions, Jesus’ primacy over institutions, the text can really open up. That issue is our issue. How does Jesus relate to our institutions? The human being, Aristotle observed, is a political animal: we’re born into them, live, move, and have our being in them. Nations, the economy, custom: in their own way they’re as real as anything. Many cultures treat them as gods. Our culture says it doesn’t, but I wonder. We say, “The economy’s healthy.” “The economy’s sick.” More ominously: “The economy demands sacrifices.” TV and the internet give us instant access to competing priesthoods of the economy, a.k.a., the economists, with their competing prescriptions for what will make the economy happy.

As gentiles, our issue isn’t how Jesus relates to Moses and Elijah. Heirs of the Graeco-Roman world, it usually is how Jesus relates to Venus, goddess of love; Mars, god of war; Pluto, god of wealth, Athena, goddess of wisdom, etc.

So…picture Jesus together with whichever of these gods or goddesses are relevant to you. They’re talking. Imagine what they might be saying. Now comes the cloud and the Voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

All of these authorities, institutions, etc. depend on and will be transformed by Jesus. This is one of the points of the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah as representative authorities. It is Paul’s point as he speaks of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers [here we might say “systems, institutions, customs”]– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

It doesn’t matter much which gods seem to be most important to us. Without Jesus they’d blink out of existence; in the end they’ll be visibly in submission to Jesus. In the light of this future, a future prefigured in the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah as stand-ins for the many possible authorities, our challenge is our ongoing relationship with them today.

This is some of the hardest work we do as Christians. When we get it right, it’s wonderful (the abolition of slavery in the British Empire comes to mind, the non-violent end to apartheid in South Africa). When we don’t… Today we’re badly divided on any number of issues. What today’s Gospel tells us is that Jesus needs to be in our conversations about these issues from the start. Jesus—not my picture of Jesus. That’s an important distinction. If my engagement with these issues isn’t pushing me to encounter Jesus afresh through Word and Sacrament and through my sisters and brothers, then there’s a problem.

My sisters and brothers. The issues the Transfiguration raises for us are not the sort that lend themselves to individual resolution. They, like so many challenges in the Christian life, demand a corporate response. They demand that we get better at listening to each other, talking with each other. I’m probably not better at hearing Jesus than I am at hearing the brother or sister with whom I disagree.

Deep breath. The Transfiguration: also an invitation to us to use our imaginations. Pluto, Venus, Mars, etc: what are the gods that claim turf in our lives? What will their visible submission to Jesus look like? How do we live that future now?

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