LAST SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
Unless you haven’t had a TV on or read a newspaper in the past three weeks, you probably know that today is Super Bowl Sunday. Do you also know that this is the last Sunday of Epiphany? Can you imagine that the two events have anything in common? Well, let’s see.
On the last Sunday of Epiphany the lesson is always about the transfiguration of Jesus. This year we read Luke’s account of the event, which takes place just before Jesus and his motley crew begin their final journey to Jerusalem. What struck me most this time around is that this event is actually for the benefit of the three disciples more than it is about Jesus.
Jesus takes Peter, John, and James with him up a mountain to pray, leaving the others behind. The story is told from the disciples point of view. While Jesus was praying they saw his face change and his clothes became bright white. This is a classic sign of an epiphany experience. We don’t know what Jesus saw or experienced but we hear what the disciples saw- so it is their experience that is at the heart of the story.
Next, two other men appeared IN GLORY. They were seen in a strange bright light. The disciples knew that these men were Moses and Elijah. This kind of knowledge that is outside of rational experience is also indicative of an epiphany experience. After all, how could they possibly know who these two were. Couldn’t one have been Abraham? No, they were Moses, who had spoken to God on the mountain, as we heard in the first reading today, and Elijah, the greatest of the ancient prophets.
Peter, John, and James are having a classic mountain-top experience. And like most ordinary people who have this kind of experience, they don’t get it. At least not right away.
Peter wants to maintain the experience – stay on the mountain, build some shelters, spend some time with these amazing beings. But as we know, the point of an epiphany is not to hold you captive to it, but to teach you something you can incorporate into your ordinary life. Even if you don’t get it at the time it happens, the hope is that as you reflect on it, the new insight it brings will help to shape your understanding and behavior in the time to come.
The disciples are engulfed in a cloud, and a voice says, “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him. When they could see again, Jesus was alone. They returned to the others, but none of them spoke of what had happened. In the other Gospel accounts Jesus told them not to speak of it. Either way, it’s not hard to understand why they stayed silent.
Like any of us, they probably did not want to be ridiculed. Nor would they have wanted to raise the ire of the excluded disciples. It’s also true that too much talk about a spiritual experience, especially done before you’ve had a chance to reflect on it, is very likely to dilute the power of the experience and to even affect one’s memory of it.
For years this story really did not make sense to me, partly because I had not reflected much on my own pale epiphanies, and partly because I couldn’t see the point of it. I have recently come to the conclusion that the point of it is to prepare the leaders of the disciples for what’s coming. Clearly telling them what’s ahead hasn’t worked terribly well. While this experience doesn’t make the future any clearer to them, it emphasizes who Jesus really is and makes clear that they are supposed to listen to him.
So imagine this. The Panthers are going to the Super Bowl for the first time. The coach calls aside the captain, the quarterback, and the defensive middle line backer. He talks to them about the terrible pressure they will all experience when they get to San Francisco. Pressure from the media to give interviews and answer dumb questions; pressure to perform on the field during practice and of course during the game; temptations to party during the long week before the game takes place.
He cautions them about all the bad choices that players could make during the week. He insists that they all must keep their eye on the prize. They can party when the season is over and the media have gone home. Maybe he tells stories from past Super Bowls as “lessons” to be considered.
We can assume that the coach will later tell the whole team the same sort of things. The point of singling out the leaders is to inspire their aid in keeping the troops in line. The coach can’t be everywhere and he doesn’t hear everything. But the leaders can do a great deal to see that the team toes the line.
If this comparison to the transfiguration doesn’t seem a valid one, just consider what might have happened in Jerusalem when the disciples began to see that Jesus was thumbing his nose at the authorities, but doing nothing to get rid of the Romans. What might have happened when Jesus was arrested? They might have scattered and returned home right then, never to know about the resurrection. That’s what the Romans assumed would happen when they crucified Jesus. Cut off the head of the movement and the movement will collapse.
I really think the purpose of the transfiguration was to stiffen the spines and the resolve of the leaders, so that they could do the same for the other disciples when the going got tough. And maybe at that time they talked about what they had seen, to emphasize who and what Jesus was and therefore why they had to carry on.
It could so easily have gone the other way. When the John the Baptist was killed his movement died. And there were many other examples in history. Have you ever wondered how a simple fisherman like Peter could become the leader of a worldwide faith? Or how a dedicated opponent of the Jesus movement like Saul could possibly be converted, much less become the most successful spreader of the Gospel?
We know Paul’s conversion story, but I think the building of the disciples as a winning team may have turned on the experience of the transfiguration. It formed the future leadership to take over when Jesus was no longer with them and it gave them the strength, the resolve, and the courage to continue the telling of the Gospel story and to act in Jesus’s place. And they were able to pass this courage and resolve on to others.
We have inherited the church from them and the many people in between. We must pass it on to those who come after. So, remember that God is with us, that we must listen to Jesus, and we too must have the resolve and courage to pass his story on to others. AMEN