Sunday, February 21, 1993

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany - Year A - 1993

Year A - Epiphany Last

not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Three weeks ago, Father Sloane invited me to have lunch with your bishop in Fond Du Lac. I mentioned to Father before we arrived that bishops terrify me, but soon after we sat down at table with Bishop Stevens, I was much relaxed and put at ease by his manner. He even had a little joke concerning a brand that he thought appropriately described me.

You see, we had been discussing that Lent was almost upon us (its Wednesday) and the bishop mentioned that he had always found that there was a curious sort of person who would not be seen at Christmas or Easter, but that would attend every Lenten event offered by the Church. I commented that I could relate to that in that I find Lent to be the Season in which I am most comfortable. He immediately determined that I was, as he put it, very Gothic. For the rest of the discussions over lunch, he took great delight in repeating how Gothic everything I said was.

I've been giving this some thought, however, since that lunch (as seminarians quickly learn to give serious thought to anything a bishop tells them-- even in jest), and it reminded me of something my rector back in Arlington once told me. He said, there are two major categories of Christians: The kind that stand at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday and look back at the Cross, and the kind that stand at the foot of the Cross and look forward to the Empty Tomb. I stand at the Cross... ...and look forward to Easter.

In our Gospel today, we have Matthew's account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, and at first glance, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Cross. We have Peter, James and John on top of the Mountain, seeing a vision of our Lord in his Glorified State. His face shining like the sun, and his garments became white as light (glistening white is how I think Mark puts it in his Gospel). Try to imagine this sight in Steven Spielburg terms:

You follow Jesus up a mountain for hours until you reach the top, you can see the small villages far below, and its quiet and peacful. Then suddenly, he is changed before your very eyes. His face begins to shine, and his clothes are emitting light. The other Transfiguration stories from Mark and Luke add different detail, but they all indicate an iridescence, and great glory. Just as suddenly, he is accompanied by to men which he refers to in speaking as being Moses, the Law giver and Elijah the Prophet. Both have been dead for centuries, but these are the greatest hero's of the Jews.

This is beyond history making, this is the singles greatest event that man has ever witnessed to that time. The beauty of the Lord's Transfigured countenance, his raiment of white, the two heros of the Jew's. It is glorious to Peter, James and John. It would have been Glorious for any of us to have witnessed-- but what has this to do with the Cross?

The answer is in what Jesus had told these apostles in the six days prior to Peter's confessing Jesus as the Messiah. There are three items of great importance which have a bearing on the Cross during those six days.

One. Jesus has told the Disciples that he must be Crucified and raised again on the third day. If you remember, this is the point at which Peter expresses his displeasure and Jesus says to him, "Get behind me Satan." This is the first time the Disciples have heard anything about their master being killed, and Peter's reaction is understandable... But the news gets worse.

The second matter of great importance is that Jesus tells them that if anyone would come after him, then he must first deny himself and take up his own cross and follow Jesus.

The third matter is much better news, and it has to be understood that this is the last thing we are told by Matthew, before Jesus goes up to the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Jesus tells the disciples, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."

What the disciples saw at the top of the mountain was the Glory of Jesus that is in His kingdom. They saw Jesus, for a few moments, in the Glory that is his after the Resurrection. They saw the light and beauty of the glorified body. Moreover, they saw what awaits their own bodies; if they too can deny themselves and pick up their own Crosses, because the glory they see is not that of Jesus alone, although his certainly outshines all others. But in Luke's Gospel, Elijah and Moses are said to have "appeared in glory" as well.

Peter says, in his Second Letter, that he wishes to remind the Church of many things as longs as he is still "in this body" and that he knows he will "be putting off this body as the Lord Jesus Christ showed me" on the mountain.

You see, the beautiful vision of Jesus Transfigured was a promise. A promise that made denying oneself and lifting up one's own Cross and following Jesus a blessing rather than a curse. The promise is that we too can share in that glory, it is a glorified body like that of Moses and Elijah that we are to have in the resurrection, and this is a blessing.

This summer, I worked in a hospital with some other seminarians from other denominations. Two of them were from a protestant denomination which I will not name here, because I mean them no malice.

One day, we were praying together and began the hymn, Amazing Grace. It was an easy hymn to choose for a group of varied denominations, because we all knew the words. The Roman Catholics and I sang the first line as

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."

The other two, however, sang the last part of that line as:

"that saved and strengthened me"

They gave us a funny look. One of them appeared to be almost disgusted with the way we had sung the hymn. They probably thought I was Gothic or something. I later found out that their denomination did not consider their members to be wretches, and explained that as this is the Kingdom of God, and as they believe in Jesus Christ, they are without sin altogether.

Now, even in a theological discussion, one must be very careful how one responds to an opponent who states that they are not a wretch... I know this... Now... because, if you do it the wrong way, as I did, you end up leaving them perfectly willing to accept the fact that you are indeed a wretch, and all the more sure that they are not.

You have to admit, they have a very appealing point of view (about already being without sin, not about my wretchedness). It is also a very American point of view. We, more than any other culture are tempted to pray the prayer of the Pharisee, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men." While the righteous man prays quietly in a corner, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." We do not have a corner on the righteousness market. We are in fact, in grave danger of assuming that our wealth and prosperity are a sign of divine favor, when in all probability they will be a cause for Divine Judgement.

Yes we are strengthened, as the protestants sang. But we are not strengthened to the exclusion of our wretchedness. What is that T-Shirt slogan "If I'm O.K. and Your O.K., What is that guy doing up on that Cross?" The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God. We are not a nation of glorified people. I have met no one who glows so brightly that they must be covered with a cloud to prevent harm to those who are near. Moreover, we are not a people capable of building the kingdom of God. How sad to think that we can.

If we start believing that we have no wretchedness, then we might start believing that we are capable of building God's Kingdom. And I want no part of that Kingdom. No, we are promised more than that. We are promised glorified bodies, and a Kingdom prepared by our Lord himself.

But to receive these bodies, and to inherit this Kingdom, we must pick up our Crosses. Facing our wretchedness is a very heavy Cross. It is all the more heavy in a culture such as ours where the current trend is to blame parents and/or society for every crime that is committed, and every parent is able to blame their lack of perfection on their own parents-- it seems nobody is responsible. But the truth is, every time a crime is committed it is a sign that we are indeed wretched. And we must face the fact that we are not perfect, and we are not even any better than those to whom Jesus was speaking nearly two-thousand years ago. We are as much in need of a Saviour as they were.

We need to take our queue from Paul who tells us in the Epistle today that he has no righteousness of his own, but what righteousness he does have belongs to God, and is received only by faith. He then says that he presses on towards that righteousness by sharing in the suffering of Christ. Paul is talking about picking up his own Cross.

This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, and the Transfiguration is the ultimate showing of the Glory of our Lord before Easter. It is also a startling indication of how far from his Glory we are. We are to strive, or press on, towards that Glory ourselves, knowing that we cannot obtain it for our own, except by faith and suffering for Jesus sake. This is the perfect attitude in which to begin a penitential season. Shrove Tuesday is so named because on that day we are to be SHRIVEN, that is we are to confess our sins, accept penance, and receive absolution for our sins by a priest.

Being the Gothic man that I am, I commend two things to you. One is my favorite prayer which is very ancient, and as near perfect as any prayer that man can devise. It is called the Jesus Prayer, and it is almost identical to the prayer of the righteous man in Jesus parable. It goes, "Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, have mercy on me a sinner. Amen." It is not a very fasionable prayer, but it is a very good one that has found to be appropriate for any situation.

The other thing which I wish to commend to you, is to be gothic yourselves. Embrace Lent as a season to recognize how our glory compares (or doesn't) to the glory of Christ. And also how our humility compares (opr doesn't) to the humility of Christ during his forty days in the wilderness.

Remember that picking up the Cross is not a curse, it was not a judgment upon the disciples, it was a blessing and an invitation to us all to follow him and receive our glorified bodies which will dwell with our Lord for ever.

I'll leave you with Peter's own words concerning the importance of the Transfiguration:
And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 2 Peter 1:10 19
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


{12} The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." {13} So Moses rose with his servant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. {14} And he said to the elders, "Tarry here for us, until we come to you again; and, behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a cause, let him go to them." {15} Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. {16} The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. {17} Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. {18} And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. Exodus 24:12 18

{7} But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. {8} Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ {9} and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; {10} that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, {11} that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. {12} Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. {13} Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, {14} I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:7 14

{17:1} And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. {2} And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. {3} And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. {4} And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." {5} He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." {6} When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. {7} But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." {8} And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. {9} And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead." Matthew 17:1 9

Copyright © 1993 W. Crews Giles

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