Sunday, March 6, 2011

Epiphany Last, Yr A: Beyond our Limits

Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains and clouds, devouring fire and dazzling light. So much symbolic language, so much drama in our gospel today! God's self-revelation to humanity is dramatic, whether it's to Moses, the disciples, or us. It’s also a first – an important first. Never before has God revealed God’s self like this – and never since.

In today's gospel, Jesus leads Peter, James and John away from the others. They go up to a high mountain – the traditional location where God is met and heard, as we saw in the reading from Exodus. Suddenly, their friend and rabbi begins to shine with a light so bright they couldn't look directly at his face. Jesus' dazzling white clothes and the brilliant aura emanating from him are traditional symbols for transcendence (the greatness of God, surpassing all things created, including humans).

The gospel writer is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience. In that transcendent moment, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear and they are talking with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead, are suddenly not dead, and not gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi.

Aware of the historical significance of this event, Peter offers to build a memorial (a traditional response to a moment like this) – but before he can finish speaking, he and the other disciples are overshadowed by the Spirit of God who takes the form of a cloud, just as on Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the tablets of guidance; just as Mary was overshadowed when she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

In today's story, however, what these disciples conceive is the beginning of understanding of a transforming truth – the truth that Jesus is not just another powerful prophet or Biblical hero. He is the Incarnation, The Son of God – fully human, fully divine.

Theologian Raymond Brown says that the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain made Jesus "transparent to the apostles' gaze.” Seeing him glow in that unearthly light and hearing the voice from heaven claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples now were beginning to understand what they hadn't understood before. They were becoming aware that all of their preconceived notions about Jesus, including their grand expectations of him as Messiah, suddenly seemed so limited, so small.

Overwhelmed, they fell to the ground, …overcome by fear. Then their gentle rabbi touches them and speaks peace to them saying: "Get up [now], and don't be afraid."

Opening their eyes, the world has returned to one they can comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The bright cloud of God's powerful presence was gone. It was just them again – Peter, James, John, and Jesus – on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain to rejoin the others, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. We can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: Did that just happen? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! Maybe they saw the cloud like the Israelites did when Moses was on the mountain. But Jesus warns them, Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

The disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their new lives - transformed lives. The truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow. They do as the voice from heaven commanded them: they alter their lives so that they can continue to listen to him.

The remainder of Matthew's gospel shows us how their new understanding is nourished and expanded by their teacher, Jesus, with lessons on forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven and who belongs to it, healing as a sign of the generosity and accessibility of God's grace, and the very difficult concept of self-sacrificing,servant leadership.

It's a long journey for them. They constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and Jesus patiently guides them beyond those limits again and again. It is a comprehensive formation process, and it will be necessary to prepare them for the passion and terrifying crucifixion to come. It will also be necessary to sustain them after Jesus' resurrection as they go forth into the world baptizing and teaching in his name.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we begin our liturgical journey down the mountain and into the wilderness of Lent. There we set aside time to confront the limits of our own habits and thinking as we make space in our busy lives for Jesus to guide us beyond our own limits.

One of the limits we modern Christians constantly confront is our individualism. Throughout Scripture we hear about God's people, God's salvation of the whole world, and yet, we go about our lives as if salvation is about me, not us. But, as we hear in the second letter of Peter, the good news, the prophetic message we share lives in the community of men and women moved by the Holy Spirit.

If we, like the first disciples, are to be made ready to be bearers of the Good News, we must allow ourselves to be brought beyond all of our small, comfortable conceptions about God and ourselves. We must allow ourselves to be guided beyond the limits of our understanding and experience. We must be willing to practice Lent together, as men and women moved by the Holy Spirit, so that we can be made ready to serve together for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

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