The Last Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Three weeks ago, I was up on the mountain where tradition says that the events in today's Gospel took place. And while Jesus does not seem to think much of Peter's suggestion of building three dwelling places, later pilgrims thought that Peter was on to something, so ironically, there are now three dwelling places, three chapels up there on Mt. Tabor - one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah! And I have to admit that although I find it quite ironic, and was initially mildly bothered that we would have the audacity to build three dwelling places right on the spot where Jesus rebuffs the idea, I was also sort of glad that they did, because they are beautiful and they do help you focus your mind on this important Gospel story.
And it is an important story. The transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the Gospel. From here, Jesus and the disciples are going to Jerusalem. The transfiguration marks the end of the Galilean ministry, where the majority of Jesus' ministry occurs. And the transfiguration is the precipice of their journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus will die and be raised again. On our pilgrimage, it was a pivotal moment as we ended our Galilean explorations and turned our faces toward Jerusalem. And the transfiguration is a pivotal moment for us today as we end the season of Epiphany and stand on the precipice of our Lenten journey, turning our faces toward Good Friday and to Easter. The disciples literally descended the mountain and journeyed to the cross, which we will do liturgically starting Wednesday.
But that is all getting ahead of ourselves. For while, yes, this is the precipice of Lent and Jerusalem. We are here today on the mountain. And although we cannot and should not dwell here long enough to build dwelling places. We need to dwell here long enough to focus our minds on this event. Immediately prior to this Gospel passage are a series of passages in Mark examining the question of Jesus' identity. We have demons naming him as God's Son, but everyone else is a bit confused and they are talking and they are questioning.
And then we have that powerful moment when Jesus and the disciples are up in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks: "Who do people say that I am?" And they respond that some think that he is John the Baptist, others think he is Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. And Jesus says: But who do you say that I am? And Peter responds: You are the Messiah.
From there up north in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and the disciples travel to the mountain where today’s Gospel reading takes place. And up there the Transfiguration continues to explore this question that has been before us in the preceding chapters of the Gospel, and also before us this season of Epiphany: Who is Jesus? Who is this guy who calls people and they follow? They leave everything, some even leave their families. Two of them left their father in the boat. You don't do that. Who is this guy who teaches with authority? In ways that they have never heard before. Who is this guy who heals and removes the demons from their midst? And feeds the people, and nourishes them, in their hunger? Who is he?
On the Mount of Transfiguration, we learn much about Jesus' identity, we learn much in response to this question. There on the mountain, we find Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah: these are the two great leaders of the faith. Of the Jewish faith. Of Jesus' faith. Of our faith. By seeing Jesus talk to Moses and Elijah, the transfiguration is making a very clear statement that part of Jesus' identity is at least on par with these two great leaders. The only one that any were expecting to be on par with Moses and Elijah was the Messiah.
Moses and Elijah, though, were more than two great historic leaders. They were, they are, the embodiment of the law and the prophets, Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets. The law and the prophets are the essence of the faith. What is the greatest commandment? To love God and love neighbor - on these two hang "all the law and the prophets." That expression is a code word for the faith. And in seeing Moses and Elijah with Jesus, we should hear an echo of Jesus' teachings, particularly that phrase we hear in Matthew's Gospel that Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill. Here in the transfiguration, we see the law and the prophets embodied in Moses and Elijah and we see their fulfillment embodied now in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the fulfillment of the essence of the faith, the fulfillment of all hope.
And finally in a beautiful bookend to the season, we hear one more clue in the Gospel today to the question of Jesus' identity when we hear the same answer repeated on this mountain that we heard near the beginning of Epiphany at the Jordan River when Jesus was baptized: "This is my Son, the beloved." As we prepare to leave Galilee and journey to Jerusalem, as we prepare to leave Epiphany and journey through Lent to Easter, here in the Transfiguration, we get the clearest picture yet of Jesus' identity. A picture that will only be clarified more on the cross, in the empty tomb, and in the breaking of bread.
And this question of Jesus' identity that we have been exploring in Epiphany is still before us. Jesus continues asking: Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for you? Who is Jesus for this world that still suffers and is hungry? Are you able to say with Peter that he is the Messiah? Are you able to see in him the fulfillment of the essence of your faith? Are you able to say with the voice from the heavens that he is the Son of God, and that he is beloved to you, too?
For me, having just spent three weeks with my fellow Christians in Jerusalem and Israel and the West Bank, I had my faith renewed in Jesus, the Son of God, beloved by both God and me and Christians throughout the world. For I met him there in the Body of Christ that is continuing to gather in the land of the Holy One. The Body of Christ that still suffers so much pain as the people live under untenable conditions, often pushed by every side of the conflict, suffering physical and emotional violence and injustice, living under great poverty, and yet are so full of hope.
Hope in the Messiah. Hope in the fulfillment of the faith. Hope in the Risen Christ. Hope in the Son of God. Hope in the Beloved. Hope in the one who was transfigured on that mountain, and who transfigures our lives today, too. Hope in the one who brings this hope to all who desire it. Amen.