Baptism, transfiguration, resurrection

Last Epiphany B(RCL)
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, before the beginning of Lent, always includes a reading of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from one of the Synoptic Gospels. This year, we hear Mark’s version, the first written of which we have a record. I suppose the lectionary is set up this way to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ glory before we enter the long season of Lent — to give us courage to wait for the outcome. There is a general consensus among biblical scholars that the Transfiguration is a displaced Resurrection appearance, anyway. So we catch a glimpse now of what we will see on Easter.

But why displace a resurrection appearance in the first place? Mark surely knew what he was doing. The Transfiguration seems to me to fit into a larger section that runs from 8:27 (Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah) through 9:33 (the second passion prediction) or even 9:37 (who is greatest in the Kingdom). Peter confesses Jesus the Christ, and then as soon as Jesus tells them he must suffer, Peter says, “Never you, Lord!” Jesus rebukes Peter, and then says that the true disciple of Jesus must be ready to lose his or her life, or the Son of Man will be ashamed of that one when he comes in glory. Then comes the Transfiguration. As they are coming down the mountain, the disciples ask why people say Elijah must come before the Son of Man comes in glory. Jesus replies that Elijah has already come (on the mountain? or as John the Baptist?). When they reach the bottom of the mountain, the rest of the disciples have been unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy. Jesus does it, and then predicts the passion a second time.

When Elisha accompanies Elijah out across the Jordan, he witnesses Elijah’s ascension into heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah, that great prophet, was too important to God’s purposes to be allowed to die. Likewise, Moses after ascending Mount Nebo to see the promised land dies, but no one knows where his body is — a tradition grew up by the time of Jesus that he had been assumed into heaven. So, Moses and Elijah, both taken directly to God, appear with Jesus on the Mountain. Also, both Moses and Elijah had heard the voice of God on the Mountain; Moses in the volcanic eruption, the storm and excitement, and Elijah in the still voice of silence. Jesus also hears the voice on the Mountain from the overshadowing cloud.

I believe that Mark’s Gospel was written as a course in Christian formation. Its purpose is to nerve up potential martyrs. Those who read the book know they might have to suffer just as Jesus did; Jesus makes the good confession, which Peter fails to make. Imagine studying this book during the period before your baptism (say 40 days), and then hearing read cover to cover in the night before you are baptized on Sunday at sun-up. The story of Jesus would map your own story. You are about to be baptized (and driven into the wilderness?). Your tomb likewise will be empty.

The voice comes to Jesus the first time at his baptism before he is driven into the wilderness, to be tested. Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus was tempted by Satan in exactly the same way God’s people were tempted: all the food he needed by turning a stone into bread (when Israel entered the promised land, and the manna ceased, they had all they needed, and forgot God); invulnerablility (as long as the Temple stood, Israel believed God would never let them be defeated); power (Israel wanted a king, just like the nations around). In the wilderness, Jesus, like the convert, learns that he is not God, is not to change the world in a blinding, magic flash, but by patiently living within its constraints.

The voice comes a second time on the mountain, when Jesus is transfigured. Imagine the baptisand hearing this: the voice will come at my baptism, so I, too, must be transfigured. But unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus doesn’t just zip off to heaven unharmed. He comes back down the mountain to deal with a demon his disciples haven’t been able to cast out, and of course ultimately, to make his way to Jerusalem, where we all know how the story ends.

We have been (and are) transfigured, but still walk toward Jerusalem. No wonder Peter wanted to stay up there on the mountain — a lot easier than coming back down. How, in our daily journey, do we reflect the transfiguring glory of God? What demons are we to cast out? Why do we have such a hard time believing that we are “little Christs” (Christianoi)? We are not called to change the world in a blinding flash (turn stones into bread, convert the nations by having them bow down to us, be impervious to harm). We are called to transfigure it from the inside. The image of God restored by baptism is precisely the vulnerability necessary to live in community. We forgot that even God had to make the divine self vulnerable in order to be in relationship with us, so we can’t think we are above that. Those heart-breaking moments of real connection one to another transfigure us.

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