By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.
On the mountain top, Jesus is transformed in the presence of the three disciples. And the disciples get a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory. We are told that his face shines like the sun, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mt. Sinai. The three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah. Here again, we find ourselves in the realm of the symbolic, with Moses symbolizing the Law and Elijah symbolizing the Prophets. Their appearance confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Holy Scripture.
Next, we come to Peter’s strange response to the vision. He offers to build dwellings for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Literally translated, Peter offers to make three tabernacles. (Now, a tabernacle is a kind of temporary shelter, like a tent or a hut.) St. Matthew refrains from commenting on the oddness of this proposal. But St. Mark’s account explains that Peter spoke nonsense because he was scared witless. Even so, why offer to build three tabernacles? Here too, I suspect, we have entered into the realm of the symbolic. But in this case, the symbolism is not so clear. Some preachers have seen Peter’s proposal as an attempt to capture and hold onto this mountain-top experience. For these interpreters, the dwellings represent the desire for permanence. The problem with this interpretation is that the dwellings in question are tabernacles! And tabernacles are by definition temporary. A more plausible interpretation is that Peter thought that the Day of the Lord had arrived. According to the prophet Zechariah, after the coming of the Lord on the Day of Judgment, the whole world would keep the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles and build tabernacles in the Lord’s honor. So, Peter may have offered to build three tabernacles, not to capture this mountain-top experience and make it permanent, but to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah. If so, he was mistaken; it was not, it turns out, the Last Day.
Peter, along with James and John, did not have to wait long before the true import of the vision was made clear. God speaks to them from a cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” God himself tells the disciples that the point of the vision is to convince them that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and to command them to listen to Jesus. That same message surely applies to us as well. We too are commanded to listen to Jesus.
Now, let me say a bit more about that command. The Greek underlying the phrase “Listen to him” (ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ) has a range of possible interpretations, three of which are pertinent: 1) it can mean simply to hear what Jesus has to say; 2) it can mean to obey his commands; and 3) it can mean to be Jesus’ disciples.
So, let’s consider each of these three possible meanings. The first is the command to hear Jesus’ words. Now, admittedly you can stay home and read the Gospels out loud to yourselves and thus fulfill this commandment. But there is a better way, and I bet you can guess what it is! You can come to church week by week and hear the voice of another person read out Jesus’ words to you, perhaps emphasizing a phrase that you would not have emphasized. In our tradition, it is normatively a deacon who reads the Gospel, thus connecting the proclamation of the Good News in the church with the ministry of service in the world, as symbolized by the person of the deacon. (Of course, in the absence of a deacon, another cleric reads the Gospel.)
The second sense of the Greek phrase ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ is to obey Jesus’ commandments. Now, if you were an Orthodox Jew, you would need to keep 613 distinct commandments. For Christians, the list is much shorter. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And “you shall love one another, just as Jesus has loved you.” Just three simple commandments! Now, I call them simple, because they are easy to list and easy to remember. But as you all know, to love can be the hardest thing you are ever called to do. You are called to love and to forgive the person who hurts your feelings, whether or not that person is even sorry. You are called to love the person who disagrees with you. You are called to love the person who ignores you, or annoys you, or interrupts you, or contradicts you, or lectures you, or begs from you …or votes for another candidate for President. You are even called to love the person who presumes to preach to you!
Finally, we come to the third meaning of that Greek phrase ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ, to follow Jesus as a disciple. And this requires much more than coming to church on Sundays to hear Jesus’ words. This requires even more than keeping Jesus’ three commandments to love. It requires that we be willing to pay the high cost of discipleship. Jesus’ original disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. They left behind their families, their homes, their jobs. Later, Jesus’ disciples would even give up their very lives, rather than betray their Lord.
Now, I doubt that any of us here will ever be called to martyrdom in the literal sense of the word. But as disciples, we are all called to be martyrs in the original Greek sense of the word. For the Greek word μάρτυς simply means witness. And we are all called to witness to our faith by word and by deed. We are all called to share our experience of Jesus, this “God in man made manifest,” and then to invite others to walk with us as his disciples.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, I say again to you what God himself said to Jesus’ three disciples: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ. Hear him. Obey him. Follow him.
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.