Second Sunday in Lent, 4th of March, 2012
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Well this is a straightforward one isn't it? Jesus is transfigured, glorified on the mountaintop, proclaimed as God's son and revealing himself as the light of the world. Although, you might say, a rather odd choice of a gospel for Lent. (And, indeed many church lectionaries don't have this reading today). But, no... as is so often the case with Mark's Gospel, a close reading of the text demonstrates that there is a lot more going on. And much of that is much more uncomfortable.
I'd like to suggest that we get the most out of this passage by focusing on the experience of the disciples Peter, James and John — by seeing them, in a sense, as representing us as disciples. And, as disciples, this story tells us a great deal, not only about Jesus, but about the nature and consequences of the discipleship which will be expected of us.
Firstly, the disciples see the image of the transfigured Jesus himself. 'His clothes,' Mark tells us, 'became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.' As well as being glorious, there may be an additional meaning here — for the disciples and for Mark's original readers. For elsewhere in the New Testament — and particularly in the apocalyptic literature with which Mark has some important connections, the white robe is the distinctive garment of the martyr — compare the vision of John of Patmos: where those robed in white are the ones who have 'come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'
Secondly, the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Certainly and obviously they reinforce Jesus' message — they represent the Law and the Prophets who are shown to stand beside and support him. But let's not forget where they are in the story — on a mountaintop. For the disciples who have followed Jesus, their presence in this place contains an important message. They see Moses who, of course, received the Law on Mount Sinai but they would know this is not a story of straightforward success. His message was first rejected by the people and he had to ascend the mountain a second time. And in the first book of Kings Elijah spent the night in a cave on Mount Horeb, alone, when he was in fear of his life, pursued by the forces of Queen Jezebel. The Lord appears to Elijah in the silence following a great wind, and earthquake and a fire. 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' he asks — and when Elijah tells him he has fled, the Lord sends him back into the struggle. In both cases, then, the mountaintop is a place, not so much of glorification, but of renewed mission — and mission in the face of opposition and danger.
Thirdly, the disciples response is not straightforward worship but confusion and fear: 'Peter did not know what to say,' Mark writes, 'for they were terrified.' And like us when we are challenged and afraid, he tries to hold onto what he knows — he proposes to try to fix this experience into a conventional religious framework — to keep it there on the mountaintop in booths like those prepared for the Jewish festival of Sukkot — the Feast of Tabernacles. The American biblical scholar Ched Myers suggests that it is significant here that Peter calls Jesus 'Rabbi'. At the two later points in Mark's story in which a disciple calls him 'Rabbi' occurs, he observes, the disciples seem to stand with the dominant Jewish religious ideology against Jesus — in chapter 11 they possibly lament Jesus' repudiation of the temple in the story of the cursing of the fig tree and in chapter 14 Judas greets him as 'Rabbi' as he betrays him. Mark's choice of words, Myers asserts, reinforces the extent to which Peter's response misinterprets, or even betrays, Jesus.
And when the voice of God proclaims Jesus as 'my Son, the Beloved' — in exactly the same words that Jesus himself heard from heaven at his baptism, the disciples are instructed to 'Listen to him'. But listen to what? The transfigured Jesus on the mountaintop says nothing. But this episode follows directly after Jesus' teaching about his death and resurrection, centred on his key message that 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.' And in this preceding episode, Peter has already been rebuked for failing to understand the path upon which Jesus was set.
On their trip back down the mountain, too, Jesus tells them to tell no-one about this until after his rising from the dead. 'So,' Mark says, 'they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.' The Greek here though, says kai ton logon ekrátesan (they held fast to the word), which could mean more than simply keeping the matter to themselves. Ched Myers sees it as referring to the word of the cross which the disciples are faithful to, even while they don't understand what Jesus means about rising from the dead. He sees Jesus' warning here as integral to Mark's presentation of the cross. Mark's Gospel ends, not with resurrection appearances, but with the empty tomb.
'At the perplexing and abrupt conclusion of this Gospel', Myers writes, 'we will have to ponder "among ourselves" the "meaning" of the announcement that Jesus has "risen from the dead". Though we may not fully understand it, we must nevertheless hold fast to the "word" of the cross, the new way of discipleship.'
This is my last sermon at St Peter's, at least for a while. What does this part of Mark say to this community? For us, I suggest, it's, at least in part, a warning. We need to look carefully at the response of the great but flawed man who gives us our name. Are we, like him, responding to the call to discipleship by trying to contain Jesus in a tabernacle where we can be comfortably religious, kidding ourselves that we can stay on the mountaintop? Like Elijah, do we need to hear the voice of the Lord saying, 'What are you doing here?' I know it's perhaps an Anglo-Catholic cliché by now but I can't go past the famous words of Bishop Frank Weston to England's Anglo-Catholics in the 1920s:
I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.
'This is my Son the Beloved,' God proclaims of the transfigured Jesus. 'Listen to him'. And he says 'deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me'.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.