Last Epiphany, Year B – Change and Light

Title:Last Epiphany, Year B – Change and Light

The readings are here

This week on Last Epiphany the readings are about change and light. There are amazing visuals – the story of the transfiguration in the Gospel, the ascension of Elijah in Kings. From Paul there is more use of light in relationship to Christ. The light of Christ as unfading in contrast to the fading light of the law. It now shines in the hearts of believers gradually changing them into Christ’s likeness. Light, glory, glow – these are ways of expressing God’s being. In the Gospel, Epiphany and the emphasis on Christ’s entry into the world moves to Christ’s resurrection. The account of Jesus’ transfiguration is closely tied to the disciples’ confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ subsequent teaching on his death and resurrection, and his demand that disciples identify with his cross and empty tomb.

In the readings from Kings, Elisha receives the mantle of prophetic responsibility from Elijah. This story recounts the bodily ascension of Elijah and the commissioning of Elisha as his successor. “The company of prophets” (v. 3) come to meet Elisha. They are members of the prophetic guilds, often advisors to the king. When they come to the Jordan, Elijah parts the waters like Moses at the Red Sea and Joshua at the Jordan. Elisha asks Elijah for “a double share” (v. 9)—the portion of a firstborn son—of his spirit. The fire that separates the two men is associated with the power of God acting through Elijah.

Paul pictures the changes brought by the light of Christ. The God of creation is now manifested in the new creation through Christ. The light of Christ is unfading, in contrast to the fading light of the law. It now shines in the hearts of believers, gradually changing them into Christ’s likeness.

In Mark’s Gospel, Peter, James and John are forever transformed by Jesus’ transfiguration. The reading is appropriate for the last Sunday in Epiphany. Both Last Epiphany (Transfiguration of Jesus) and the First Sunday (Baptism of Jesus) after the Epiphany are texts where God (a voice from heaven) makes Jesus known to the world. (“epiphany” = “to make known”). Here like the transforming experiences of Moses and Elijah, Jesus receives heavenly confirmation of his special role in God’s purpose for his people

These scriptures also mark the beginning of Lent. The theme of transformation signals that the time of our conversion is at hand. The transfiguration took place at the beginning of the apostles’ “Lent,” a dark time as Jesus moved surely and steadily toward his passion. They were probably as confused about his mission and their part in it as we are, as reluctant to follow, as needful of light for a murky way.

The sublime silence of the mountaintop frightened Peter into jabbering talk. Ironically, Peter’s later writing reveals that he has cherished that moment of insight on the mountaintop over years that must have often seemed dark or confusing. The vision of light sustained him through the darkness of the passion, the torture of his own betrayal and the Church’s tumultuous early years when he must have been bewildered about which direction his leadership should take.

“LISTEN TO HIM!” By Philip Bass
Peter’s role

There is much to be done in the work of Kingdom-creating. We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, awakened more than ever to the ills of systemic oppression in many forms, more aware of inequalities in access to healthcare, more aware of growing class divisions and more aware of the divisions in general in our world. As Christians, we are also well aware that we have been commanded, as the Body of Christ, to address these challenges and to live out the work of Christ in our lives. But today’s reading offers us a different perspective on just how we are to do this. It reminds us that action, without first being centered in Jesus, without first seeking clarity, will not be enough and often can be misguided. True Kingdom-creating must be centered in Jesus. We must “Listen to Him!”

Prior to witnessing Jesus’ mountaintop transfiguration, Peter had been present as Jesus performed miracles of healing and feeding, he had heard Jesus teaching the crowds, and he had been personally called upon to join in Jesus’ ministry. He had been welcomed into the action! So, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Peter who quickly announced with confidence, “You are the Messiah.” I imagine that it was tough for Peter to slow down. He very much wanted to do the right thing, and he seemed to want to do it right now. But Peter frequently struggled to recognize what was right in front of him. In his eagerness to take action, Peter often over-acted and under-listened. This is a challenge many of us in the Church continue to face today. We are ready to take action on the pressing needs all around us. But our reading today reminds us to first listen, then act.

Peter had a place of privilege among the traveling band of Jesus followers, including receiving one of only three invitations to the mountaintop. And it is there on that mountaintop that Peter was awakened to the reality that Jesus was more than he had recognized Jesus to be. It is there that he witnessed Jesus transfigure before him and saw the appearance of Elijah and Moses with him. And it was there that Peter once again, out of fear (and I suspect quite a bit of confusion) jumped into action. Without pause or hesitation, Peter blurts out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” From his place of privilege as one who knew Jesus, Peter thought he also knew what was expected of him. He thought he knew what to do.

It is important to pay attention to what happens next in the narrative. We are told, “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him! Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Peter thought he knew Jesus, and in so many ways he did. But God reminded Peter, James and John that they did not yet fully understand what it meant to participate in the work of God’s Kingdom-creating. God, in a voice from the cloud, answered the earlier question of Jesus, “Who do you say that I am.” God announced that Jesus is the Beloved. And God commanded those present, and us, to first Listen to Jesus. And on that journey back down the mountain, when Peter listened, he was introduced to a clearer picture of the work of Kingdom-creating.

Like Peter, we have been invited into the ministry of Jesus, and we have been welcomed into the Body of Christ. Our reading is not a call to inaction. Our reading is, instead, a reminder to listen first, then act. Before we take action in ways we deem right for Kingdom-creating, we are commanded to spend time listening to Jesus to better understand what action we are being called to take.

Through prayer, worship, liturgy and conversations with others, we are offered opportunities to better recognize the fullness of our Christ. And we are offered opportunities to listen. As Christians, we have much work to do. As we prepare to take on the tasks of Kingdom-creating, and to tackle the challenges we face in our world today, we must ask ourselves:

How are we listening to hear Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom?
How are we listening to hear Jesus’ invitation to ministries for which we are called?
How are we listening to hear Jesus in prayer?
How are we listening to hear Jesus in those around us?
How are we listening to hear Jesus in those unlike us?
How are we listening to hear Jesus?

Philip Bass is a member of St. Luke’s, Durham.