Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sunday Thoughts, preached on the Sunday Before Lent, 2011: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Twice a year, on a specific feast day in August, and on this, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we proverbially climb a mountain. Because we read and hear the story that has the title of The Transfiguration, where Jesus:

Was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

And twice a year, every year, we find ourselves asking the question: What is this story? What happened, and why do we give it such prominence?

As a comment: Today the Episcopal Church does not celebrate Transfiguration, but merely reads it and allows it to address us. But what does it say to us?

For centuries scholars have debated and even vociferously argued over the story of the Transfiguration. And will continue to do so, especially those in the more literalistic rooms of the Church.

There are those who say that this is a resurrection story, displaced within the gospel narratives to anticipate Easter. Others insist that, no, this is not the case, but rather an event in its own right. And that it happened that way it is told in order to make a deliberate point – that Jesus supersedes the older Law and Prophets, and now stands alone in the glory of God. The truth may lie somewhere between these understandings, and others of their kind.

The story occurs in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and is mentioned in both John’s Gospel and the second Epistle of Peter, so we have to recognize its great importance in the literary canon, the story traditions of the early Christian Church. Not that they would ask the same analytical questions that we ask. Far from it. Such a tale, or tales, would be as natural to them as day following night, for when it came to the Transfiguration of Jesus they would have warmly embraced the story as the religious experience of the Apostles.

What is a religious experience? It’s tempting to define it using the language of Church or theology, but characterizing it that way is not always very helpful. We need to make it more personal. For most of us have, at some point or other in our lives, had moments when we have been aware of the closeness of God, or some form of heightened awareness that has changed the way in which we see the world. One might even say, transfigured the way we see things.

Sometimes these may have taken place in a religious setting – a place of worship. At other times they may have occurred at a moment of increased emotion. Whatever that emotion may have been. Falling in love, descending into grief; excitement, anxiety, fear. Even pain.

Or it could be as a result of an external influence or trigger. The birth of a child, the brilliance of stars in the night sky, the death of a loved one, or being moved to tears by a piece of music. All of these are stimuli that move us, take us outside of ourselves, where we suddenly see or feel things differently.

Peter, James and John stepped out that day upon the mountain top. They saw things differently. Their perception was changed. No longer were they looking at Jesus of Nazareth. Suddenly they were gazing on nothing less than the glory of God.

And it was not just Jesus who was transfigured. They also were transfigured, their lives changed permanently.

Of course they wanted this moment to be permanent. Who would not? Peter proved himself to be perfectly human when he said:

Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three dwellings here.

But it was not to be so. For Jesus told them that it was time to leave the mountain and get on with the business of being disciples again. The business of being ordinary.

Who does not envy those three men? Who does not crave such powerful religious experience? It’s quite an industry in the Church these days, with groups and denominations claiming to offer the best in worship experiences and encounters with God. As if God could be promoted on a playbill!

But we cannot deliberately seek these things. Or generate these things. It is God who will rather find us. And it may not be when we have climbed a mountain but when we are in the deepest of valleys, or on the dull, ordinary, well-worn path that we tread every day.

There, wherever we are, God will find us, and shine upon us. And it is we who will then be transfigured.

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