Last Sunday After Epiphany
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These readings are used if the last Sunday of Epiphany is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday. This Sunday may also be observed as simply the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany using the readings for that Sunday.
Commentary on the Texts
This passage is traditionally know as the Transfiguration, from the Greek term used by both Mark and Matthew to describe what happened to Jesus (metemorphotha, Mk 9:2-8, Mt 17:1-8). Since this term as adopted into English often carries connotations of a permanent and radical alteration, as in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, this may suggest to us a similar change in Jesus at this point in his ministry. However, the term simply refers to a change in appearance, as is more obvious in Luke's use of different words to focus specifically on a (temporary) change in external countenance: "the appearance of his face changed" (egeneto . . . heteron, "became different" or "changed"). This, as well as other features dealt with below, marks this as an extraordinary religious experience not a physical metamorphosis.
All three Synoptic Gospels place this event immediately after Peter's confession about Jesus and his subsequent teaching to the disciples about his impending death, as well as an emphasis on discipleship ("If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up take up their cross daily and follow me." Lk. 9:23; while all three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) preserve this saying in almost identical form, Luke alone adds daily). The placement in the Synoptics following the first teaching by Jesus about his death, as well as varying accounts immediately following in which Jesus again deals with his death, suggests that this event must be seen as intricately related to the looming crucifixion.
Since Luke's account of the Transfiguration itself closely follows Matthew and Mark, it will be more helpful to understand this event within the structure and flow of the Book of Luke. There are certainly differences in detail, such as Luke's placement of this narrative eight days after Peter's confession about Jesus, while Matthew and Mark place it six days later. However, if we become too preoccupied with such details, since in this instance there are few solid clues within the biblical text to decide the significance of these differences beyond speculation, we risk not hearing Luke's message at this point. There do seem to be some deliberate internal connections made with this narrative within the book of Luke, and it is those connections that provide us a more profitable avenue into Luke's theology here.
The fact that it was Peter, James, and John who accompanied Jesus to the mountain recalls the first time Jesus called men to follow him, in Luke these same three men (Matthew, Mark, and Andrew). In Luke, that marked a shift in focus from Jesus' preparation and ministry to the response of others to that ministry, as well as a shift to a concern with discipleship (see Commentary for Luke 5:1-11). These three fishermen together "left everything and followed him" (5:11), and became the inner circle, the leaders, of the disciples. Here, they followed Jesus to the mountain and into this extraordinary experience. This suggests that even though this experience is mainly centered around Jesus, it also in some way involves these three leaders of the disciples.
The fact that Jesus journeyed to a mountain to pray recalls another time when Jesus had gone to a mountain to pray, and then returned to choose the Twelve who would help him minister to the crowds (6:12). For Luke, the mountain becomes a metaphor for the place to encounter God, where communion with God helps set a direction of action. This places this event in the context of religious experience. But it is not experience for the sake of experience; the other elements of this narrative as well the nature of the experience itself give very specific shape to this event and prevent it from becoming simply a mystical encounter with God.
Prayer itself is important to Luke, and at crucial junctures in Jesus' ministry, such as his baptism (3:21), Peter's confession (9:18), or facing the crucifixion (22:41), he points to the fact that Jesus was praying (also 5:16, 11:1; cf. the role of other's prayers, 1:10, 13, 2:37, 18:1, 10). It is significant here that Luke is the only Gospel that tells us that Jesus went up the mountain to pray. The most direct connection of this event with Jesus' prayers is at his baptism. There in the context of Jesus praying (3:21), the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice from heaven confirmed Jesus' identity and mission (see Commentary for Luke 3:15-17, 21-22).
It is significant that this narrative follows immediately the questions that Jesus put to his disciples: "Who do the crowds say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" (18, 20). It is also significant that the voice from the cloud here (v. 35) confirms Jesus' identity just as the voice from heaven did at Jesus' Baptism (3:22). This not only suggests a pivotal event here, a new turning point in Jesus' ministry, it also links these two religious experiences of baptism and transfiguration as part of the definition of who Jesus is and what he is about.
This becomes more obvious when we place this event into the structure of the books of Luke-Acts. Luke's Gospel is structured as a journey that begins in Jesus' home town of Nazareth, circles through Galilee and the surrounding areas, and then turns toward Jerusalem. While, for example, John recounts several trips Jesus made to Jerusalem during a three year ministry, Luke tells of only one trip, the final one that would end in Jesus' death. That same structure carries through the book of Acts as the early church was centered in Jerusalem (home), then began moving outward toward Rome (Acts 28:30; "to Jerusalem, to Judea, to all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth," 1:8).
The shift in Luke's Gospel from Jesus' ministry in Galilee to his journey toward Jerusalem occurs just 14 verses later in this same chapter following the Transfiguration (9:51). This likewise suggests that this event is to be understood in relation to that turning point of Jesus' ministry, a milestone of the journey.
We could spend a lot of time asking and trying to answer the question of "what really happened on the mountain?" Was this a historical event of the nature that we could have recorded with a video camera? Were the details of the story as recounted in the Gospel traditions simply literary attempts to put into words an otherwise indescribable shared religious experience? Was it a vision only for the eyes of the four on the mountain, a perspective seemingly supported by Matthew who (alone) refers to the experience as a vision (17:9)?
However we answer those historical questions, the real impact of the narrative is that something happened on the mountain that the Gospel writers use as a window into the unfolding of Jesus' ministry. Especially as we see this event in the context of Jesus' first teachings about his approaching death, we realize that the Gospel writers are recounting this event from the perspective and the culmination of Jesus' ministry at another hill where he would die. In light of that fact, we need to take seriously the tone of this narrative, especially as told by Luke. This may take some effort, and may lead us to hear this narrative in ways that we are not accustomed to hearing it.
The experience itself draws heavily on Old Testament images and symbols. Fire and cloud, as well as corresponding metaphors of light and wind, were common Old Testament ways of describing the presence of God (See Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; cf. Gen 15:17, Ex 3:2ff, 13:21-22, 19:18, Psa 104:1-4, etc.). Even the term "glory" often used to refer to God indirectly was understood as a brilliance, a radiant light that marked God's presence but concealed God himself (Lev 9:23-24, Deut 5:24, Exe 43:2; cf. 1 Kng 8:11 for the "glory" associated with a bright cloud).
These metaphors of God are often associated in Old Testament traditions with a particular way of describing manifestations of God's presence called a theophany. This is simply a poetic literary form that used various metaphors and symbols to describe a manifestation or experience of God, especially when God acts in revelatory or salvific ways (for example, Psa 18:6-15, Hab 3:1-15; cf. Exod 3:1-6, 33:17-23, Isa 6:1-6). It is just such a theophany that is presented in the Old Testament reading for this Sunday from Exodus 34:29-35. There are enough common features between this event and Moses' experience (the location on a mountain, the shining face of Moses, the authority of Moses in presenting the commands of God to the people, the intermediary role of Moses between God and the people) to suggest that the Gospel tradition either used that description as a model for describing Jesus' experience here, or that there were common ways of describing this kind of revelatory encounter with God from which both accounts drew.
The connection with Moses' theophany is highlighted even further by the fact that Moses is one of the two men seen with Jesus on the mountain. With the use of theophonic language here, the connection is made between Jesus and the role of Moses as mediator between God and the people. In this context on the mountain of the Transfiguration, Moses represented the instructions given by God to the people and the covenantal relationship made at Mount Sinai.
The other figure on the mountain, Elijah, has already appeared prominently in Luke's Gospel, first as Luke identified John the Baptizer with Elijah as the one who would prepare the way for Jesus (1:17), then as Jesus presented Elijah as the example of a prophet who did great things outside Israel (4:25-26). Luke has also noted that some people thought Jesus was Elijah (9:8, 19). Because of these earlier references, Elijah emerges as representative of Old Testament prophets, those who also served as mediator between God and the people. Both these figures serve to place Jesus in continuity with those traditions, both the law and the prophets, while at the same time, since they leave and Jesus remained, serving to allow Jesus a more prominent and final role.
Only Luke tells us the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah that points to the heart of the event. They were "speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem" (v. 31). The Greek word used here highlights the significance of this conversation. Luke uses the term eksodon, exodus, to describe Jesus' trip to Jerusalem and the events that would unfold there. More than simply referring to a physical "departure," there is clear allusion to the saving acts of God in the exodus as he led the Israelites to freedom from under the slavery of Egypt. But it is also an unmistakable reference to Jesus' exodus from Jerusalem, that is his death, which would be the outworking of Jesus' preceding and following teachings about his passion. This detail moves this entire experience from a "mountain top" religious experience that is usually associated with positive emotions and joyful response to a much more somber tone as the shadow of the cross lengthens over this scene. But it is not a somberness to be mourned, for this shadow will eventually reveal the true light!
Luke then shifts attention to the disciples who had accompanied Jesus to the mountain, and we now learn that they have been asleep up to this point. Luke's Gospel tells us of two crucial times that the disciples were asleep: here on the mountain and in the Garden of Gethsemane just before Jesus' arrest (22:45-46). While Luke generally portrays the disciples in a positive light, here he highlights the fact that they have only partially witnessed what was happening on the mountain, waking up just as the conversation ends and the two men were leaving Jesus. In both cases sleep becomes a metaphor for a lack of comprehension of the magnitude if what was transpiring, in both cases related directly to Jesus' impending death. While they had seen the "glory" of Jesus and the two men, Luke is clear that they had not comprehended what they had seen (v.33). The next scenes (vv. 45, 46-48) and later ones in Luke will continue to work out the disciples' failure to grasp the full import of Jesus' teachings about his death.
Symbolism permeates this last part of the account and carries the weight of communication. Peter was astute enough to recognize this as an extraordinary event ("it is good for us to be here," v. 33). However, his desire to remain on the mountain, presumably to prolong the experience, was cut short by the descent of a cloud on the mountain. As with light, the cloud is a symbol of the presence of God, yet a presence that conceals more than it reveals (there often occurs in theophonic accounts an unlikely mixture of the symbols of light and darkness, for example, Deut 4:11). The cloud recalls the cloud of God's presence that settled over Mount Sinai and terrified the people (Ex 19:16; cf. 24:16-18). Contrary to popular notions today, in much of Scripture to be in the presence of God was not an occasion for joy, but was a terrifying experience that called for fear and reverence (the same word in Hebrew; note the response in Isa 6:5, where "smoke" serves the same role as "cloud" does here). So the disciples' terror is an indication that they have realized that this is not just the "glory" of Jesus, but the very presence of God himself.
The focus then shifts back to Jesus as the Voice speaks from the cloud. This is unmistakably related to the Voice that spoke from heaven at Jesus' Baptism. While the thrust here is slightly different, the message of the Voice was the same: it confirmed Jesus as the Son of God, and confirmed his mission as the Messiah of God (cf. 20). There is added here the instruction, "Listen to Him." There is no direct indication here exactly to what the Voice is referring to which they should listen. It could be a general exhortation to listen to all the teachings of Jesus, and probably does include that in a general way. However, the context in Luke at this point has been very carefully shaped around Jesus' prediction of his passion. This is emphasized by the strong exhortation to the disciples just a few verses later (vv. 44-45): "'Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.' But they did not understand this saying. . . ." This suggests that the command to "Listen" is really a call to a deeper understanding of Jesus and who he is as the Son of God, as well as a subtle call to followers of Jesus to understand the implications of following Jesus.
The narrative at this point in Luke serves again to confirm who Jesus is as the incarnate Son of God. That confirmation had been given once already at Jesus' Baptism in an extraordinary experience that commissioned him in his ministry. But there it confirmed who he was in terms of the power of the Holy Spirit by which Jesus could proclaim the coming of the Kingdom (4:1, 14). Here, the confirmation comes in the midst of teachings about an impending betrayal, suffering, and death. On one level, this could have served as an apologetic for the early church to affirm that Jesus was still the incarnate Son of God in spite of his ignominious death as a Roman criminal. However true that might have been in terms of the Gospel traditions, Luke has incorporated this event on a far deeper theological level to affirm something not only about Jesus, but about the nature of discipleship.
When this confirmation of Jesus in terms of suffering and death on a cross is linked with the teaching about discipleship in the surrounding passages, such as the immediately preceding sayings about Jesus' disciples taking up their cross daily to follow him, it takes on a much more somber tone and moves more directly to theological communication. It implies that if, or really since, Jesus is the Messiah, the journey to Jerusalem will end much differently than the disciples can possibly imagine at this point in the journey. And as Luke has been building a theology of the church from the beginning of the book, the implication is starting to unfold that the same journey that Jesus made physically to Jerusalem, his followers will also make as they live out in their own journeys the call of the Gospel.
It is one thing to affirm Jesus as the Son of God in terms of power. Most people, including the disciples, find that easy to accept. They were quite willing to accept such a definition of Jesus, and thereby to accept a definition of the Kingdom in terms of power (cf. vv. 46 ff). But that is not the whole story by any means. The Kingdom that Jesus spoke of as coming, indeed present among them, was not just a kingdom of power, but was also a kingdom that would call sinners to accountability, that would eventually confront the mighty power of Rome itself with a message that, if accepted, would forever shatter the very foundations upon which empires like Rome were built. This message of the Kingdom is about the reversal of fortunes, the subversion of human values that place riches and control and power at the center of the human equation (4:18-19, 6:20 ff). Such subversion of power will not go unchallenged in a world in which power in the primary currency.
And yet, Luke understands that both the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), the entire witness to God throughout Israel's history from Sinai onward, confirms Jesus in that path of suffering and death (v. 30; cf. 24:25-27, 44-49). The power that comes from the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission to the world is not the power to rule a Kingdom; it is the power to participate in a Kingdom whose goal is to transform the world, even if it takes death to do it. The power is the power to be faithful unto death. As the disciples continue their journey beyond Jerusalem, they will finally understand (note 2 Peter 1:16-19).
Most sermons I have heard on this passage assume the experience on the mountain was a positive one that can be compared to the emotional "high" that we sometimes experience in worship or in personal devotion or prayer. The mountain then becomes a metaphor for elevated "mountain top" experiences and positive times in the presence of God. But in Luke, there is a dark "cloud" over the mountain. While there was a fantastic encounter with God, the content of that encounter was anything but positive and joyful. We like "mountain top" experiences; but the subject on this mountain was death (Craddock). Preaching paths for this Sunday, while not having to be dark and gloomy, should take this dimension of the text seriously and not make the story into a "mountain top" experience that ignores the shape of the narrative.
While the story of the encounter on the mountain top centers on Jesus and God's revelation about him, the surrounding context also places the disciples as a significant part of the story. This suggests two directions for preaching, either separately or as two dimensions of the text itself.
First, the confirmation of Jesus' ministry is at the heart of the text. Preaching this just before the beginning of Lent (or on the second Sunday of Lent) allows a focus on the incredible grace of God that is willing to choose a path of suffering for the reconciliation of humanity to Himself. We could debate much about whether this was all necessary or not, or all the intricate theological formulations of the Atonement, or what Jesus' death did or did not accomplish. But none of these issues are here. There is simply the fact that God confirms Jesus in a path that would lead to his death on a cross. All the glory and majesty and power of God is now active in the world to follow this path to Jerusalem, to die, and be raised again the third day (v. 22).
Here is the beginning of the scandal of the cross. It is also the outworking of the reversal that marks the beginning of the Kingdom of God and his reign. It is not by acts of power that the Kingdom will be revealed, as important as those were. It is by the first becoming last and the last becoming first, it is by the death of this One who stands transfigured by the presence of God that new life will come, that a new future will emerge. Some of those teachings are still in the future for the disciples, but like Luke we know the end of the story. Jesus here on this mountain committed himself to a course of action, confirmed by God, that would change the world forever.
The second dimension of the text revolves around the disciples. While in other places the disciples are cast in a more favorable light, here they simply do not understand. It is not a deliberate or rebellious refusal to understand, just a lack of comprehension built by false expectations and human ambition and values. These are the very values that need to be transformed if they are to be true disciples.
Peter wants to build dwellings on the mountain because they have not understood the suffering dimension of Jesus' life. They have not yet understood the incredible price he will have to pay for speaking the truth, for bringing the word of God into the world, for announcing the reversal, the subversion, of the Kingdom. Nor do they yet comprehend the incredible price they themselves will have to pay for following Jesus and proclaiming the same message. But that is the nature of the journey! The presence of God brings incredible light into our lives, but does not show us everything. Some things are still shrouded in the cloud, and we will not know the contour of the journey until we travel the path following Jesus.
Yet, the commitment that we are called to make as disciples is not to die or even to make the journey toward death. The commitment is simply to leave all and follow Jesus! And we make it, without really knowing where the path will lead or what awaits along the way. We only know that He has called us to follow, and that he has promised us power and strength for the journey. But that commitment is also made with the full knowledge of where Jesus' journey took him. We should not seek martyrdom or suffering any more than Jesus sought it. But if, indeed, the disciple is not above the master (10:3), then following Jesus will likely lead down a path that we have no idea the cost of traveling. And yet, he "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (v.51), and calls us to make the same commitment (vv. 57-62).
A final observation. I have often heard the "mountain top" experience linked with the following healing narrative (vv. 37-43), illustrating that "mountain top" experiences are often followed by a return to the ordinary problems of life. That casts the healing narrative in a very negative light compared to the Transfiguration narrative. However, the exact opposite perspective would fit the flow of thought better in Luke. That is, the Transfiguration narrative confirms Jesus on the path to death and at this point in the narrative raises a shadow over his ministry. Yet, Jesus immediately returned to the people who were hurting and continued carrying out the reversal of fortunes that were a mark of the Kingdom. This leaves the healing of the epileptic child as a very positive event, and a further confirmation that the Kingdom of God has already come in Jesus ("all were astounded at the greatness of God," v. 43).
This Sunday in the Church Year
Last Sunday after Epiphany
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Year C, Lent 2 (alternate)