Transfiguration … transformation … ministry

Christ Church Cathedral
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
11 February 2018

 

062 Mt Tabor Church of Transfiguration mural, tb n040200

 

[video]

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is unique because it is so different from all the other memories of Jesus that were preserved by the earliest Christians. It has echoes, of course, with traditions about Moses and Elijah, and both those characters appear in this story alongside Jesus.

This is one of the rare stories in the Gospels where the focus is on Jesus himself, rather than some action he takes to assist another person or a saying in which he speaks of God’s kingdom.

It feels rather like a story about Jesus from after Easter, and indeed some scholars have suggested this may be a resurrection story that has been mistakenly retold as if it happened during Jesus’ life.

The earliest version of the story is found in Mark’s Gospel, and that is the one we read this morning. As Matthew and Luke each repeat this story that they borrowed from Mark, they elaborate some of the small details in different ways. Marks tells the story first.

When dealing with this remarkable passage, preachers typically adopt one of the following lines:

Epiphany: The transfiguration is seen as a moment when the eternal divinity of Jesus peeps through his humanity and becomes visible to his closest disciples.

Vocation: Like the Baptism story, with which this episode shares many features, some preachers see this as a moment when Jesus finds the spiritual resources for his journey to the cross. That journey begins—in terms of Mark’s narrative—towards the end of the previous chapter, so this is a way of engaging with the text that respects the logic of the ancient narrative itself.

Discipleship: Others focus on the reaction of the three disciples from Jesus’ inner circle, and especially Peter’s response: ‘Lord, it is good that we are here.’

True Power: When observed on its proper feast day (August 6), many modern preachers are struck by the fact that this date is also the day of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima. The brilliant cloud of the exploding nuclear device seems to evoke the radiance of Jesus’ clothing, offering a choice between two kinds of power.

Each of those can be fruitful ways to engage with the living word of God in this ancient story, but I want to take a slightly different tack this morning. I invite you reflect with me on the significance of this text in the final Sunday of the Epiphany season.

 

A month of epiphanies …

The Epiphany season varies in length, depending on the date of Easter. So this year it ends a bit sooner than some other years.

During the Epiphany season we reflect on those moments of revelation (epiphanies) when we catch a deeper glimpse of the way things are, and perhaps even of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Through this year’s abbreviated Epiphanytide we have been offered several different examples of Epiphany moments from Scripture and our own local context:

  • The Feast of the Epiphany: when the visiting sages from the Orient encountered the manifestation of God’s love for all people and all nations in the person of Jesus. They get a glimpse of the way things are.
  • The Baptism of our Lord: when Jesus hears the divine voice calling him into his identity and his mission: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The child Samuel, hearing God calling in the night: That mysterious sense of personal call, which other more experienced souls around us may fail to discern at first. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God who goes fishing: calling us to do the work that Love has planned for us, and gently persisting until we do so. While Jonah may not agree that the process was all that gentle, he—and the disciples by the lake—catch a glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God of this ancient land: the Great Spirit who has always been present in this ancient southern land, and whose presence we learn to discern more clearly as we listen to our indigenous sisters and brothers. A glimpse of the way things are.
  • The God present among us in this Diocese as we commence the discernment process to choose a new Bishop. Another glimpse of the way things are.

Now—on this final Sunday after Epiphany—we end with the powerful symbolic story of Jesus being transfigured, as his divine glory shows through his humanity and draws his followers deeper into the mystery of God among us.

 

Transfigured people

We hear this ancient story on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the last Sunday before Lent: when we begin our own journey to the Cross.

Like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we are poised to begin the journey to the Cross. Like him we need the spiritual resources to make that journey.

As we reflect on this powerful story, we are reminded that Jesus is the ultimate epiphany, our unique revelation of God among us in human form. In the person of Jesus we see the most complete human expression of God among us.

With that insight we conclude our Epiphany journey but also start our Lenten journey.

Paul was probably unaware of Mark’s story about the transfiguration, but he has had his own encounter with the glorified Jesus when his own life was completely turned around. In the reading from 2 Corinthians 4 this morning Paul uses words that draw on the Moses traditions but also reflect his own experience—and ours—of Jesus as the human face of God:

“… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:4–6 NRSV)

Glory in clay jars

Paul develops the metaphor in a surprising direction and takes us to a different place than Mark.

The epiphany insights that we gather along life’s journey are indeed incredible spiritual treasures, but we contain this treasure in clay jars.

The clay jars are us.

Nothing less than the glory of God is hidden inside us, yet we are like cheap, disposable clay jars that hide the amazing truth of God within us, the greatest epiphany of them all.

That is true of us all, but I want to mention two of those clay jars that happen to be here in the Cathedral this morning.

The first is Fr Ian.

His clay seems to be very refined, because it is never too hard to see the glory of God shining through his life, and especially in that smile that dances across his face.

This is Fr Ian’s final Sunday with us, and I am glad that we were able to arrange things so that he could preside here one last time.

You have been a precious gift to this community of faith, Ian. There is a great treasure of wisdom and love and hope all wrapped up in the clay jar of your humanity. We have come to treasure both your humanity and your wisdom.

We thank you for your ministry here, and we wish you and +Sarah every blessing as you leave us shortly to re-establish your home in Canberra.

The other clay jar I need to mention is me.

Today I celebrate 39 years since my ordination as a Priest, and as I reflect on those years in Holy Orders I am conscious of the clay jar that is my life. The clay seems to me to be not as fine as the clay in Ian’s jar, but in my better moments the inner spiritual wisdom is the same.

It is a profound and holy privilege to be set aside for the work of a priest in the community of God’s people. Neither Ian nor I would ever claim to have nailed it, but we are both conscious that we carry within our own lives the secret of the glorified Christ, Emmanuel, the God who comes among us.

What is true of Ian and I is true of you all.

We all carry in our own selves the mystery of God, an immense spiritual treasure hidden in clay jars.

That surely is the great epiphany of these past few weeks, and the ultimate source of our hope as we begin the journey to the Cross next Sunday.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean and Rector, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem.
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