The Episcopal Church at Yale
23 February 2020
Called to be Christian
A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teaching drop like the rain, my speech condense like the dew; like gentle rain on grass, like showers on new growth. For I will proclaim the name of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 32:1—3a). Amen.
Each of us lives in the light of the apocalypse.
From the Greek, ἀποκάλυψις (apokalypsis), our English word “apocalypse” describes a climactic rending of the very fabric of the cosmos, a violent unveiling that grants witnesses special insight into the hidden workings of ultimate reality. Not for nothing is it with this term that the Bible’s final book characterizes its grand vision of the final victory that God shall yet achieve over every unrighteousness, that is, as “[t]he apocalypse [NRSV: revelation] of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1 NRSV). Nor is it without warrant that the word has come to be used, in contemporary speech, to name any event deemed cataclysmic, from economic collapse to the onset of war. For when apocalypse is in view, so, too, is upheaval: To receive apocalyptic knowledge is to learn that things are not, ultimately, as they appear to be; that something greater is afoot; and that, when it comes to pass, nothing will ever be the same.
And it is just such knowledge that we who are gathered here this evening have received. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” our reading from The Second Letter of Peter affirms, “but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). Eyewitnesses, that is, of the event our Gospel reading narrates, when Jesus ascended a high mountain and, in the sight of Peter himself and two other disciples, was transformed, “his face [shining] like the sun and his clothes [becoming a] dazzling white” (Matt 17:2). The common name for this episode in Jesus’ life is the Transfiguration, but we might also refer to it as the Conversion, such is the significance not only of Jesus’ own metamorphosis but also that of the apostles who observed it.
Jesus’ appearance having changed, there appear beside him two of the great prophets of old: Elijah, that “man of God” (e.g., 2 Kgs 1:9—10) who, at the end of his earthly life, did not die but, instead, “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kgs 2:11); and Moses, who at God’s beckoning, ascended Mount Sinai and stood amidst “the glory of the LORD” (Exod 24:17). That each entered with boldness into the presence of Almighty God is no small testament to the faith that strengthened them, this given that, as the Letter to the Hebrews cautions us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). But neither Elijah nor Moses could claim to be God. Amongst humans, that claim is reserved for Jesus alone. And it is one that God himself makes, speaking from the same cloud that shrouded Sinai when God revealed herself “as a devouring fire … in the sight of the people of Israel” (Exod 24:17), when the voice declares of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading that “This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased” (Matt 17:5 alt; cf. 2 Pet 1:17).
It is altogether unsurprising, then, that the disciples should throw themselves upon the ground in terror as soon as they apprehend that before them is the same God who spoke the world into being; by whose mighty hand all things come to be; and whose “wrath”, as our Psalm attests, “is quickly kindled” against those who would set themselves in opposition to her ways (Psalm 2). For them to have done otherwise would have been the height of arrogance, an idolatrous equation of the created with the Creator. Nor should we find it perplexing that, when the apostles finally looked up towards the magnificent spectacle unfolding before them, “they saw no one except Jesus himself alone” (Matt 17:8). For although God discloses Godself to the prophets—and they, in turn, testify to the ways in which God is active within human history and all of creation—once one attains to a personal experience of the fullness of God, every witness to it—however righteous, however holy, however noble—becomes as nothing in comparison.
It is not the case, in short, that God only makes herself known to this fallen world in Christ Jesus, nor even only within the Christian tradition. But it is to say that the measure of every revelation’s validity is the degree to which it not only agrees with but points towards God’s preeminent act of self-disclosure: the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth; whom we Christians know to be not only the son of Adam but also the son of God (Luke 3:38). And that, weighed against this one, perfect revelation, every other testimony to the truth is found to be in some way wanting.
If, then, there is something incredible in our Gospel reading, it is surely not that there are so many who attest to our God—recall from The Letter of James that “even the demons believe” God is one, and they “shudder” (Jas 2:19). What defies all understanding is, rather, that we need not remain content with those witnesses who are only able to proclaim the majesty of God deficiently, but may set our own eyes directly upon divinity as it shines in all its glory. And Christ himself summons us to do just that, drawing near to the apostles—and, by extension, we who follow in their footsteps—precisely in the moment when they cowered before him, reaching out his hand, and commanding them to “[g]et up and … not [to] be afraid” (Matt 17:7). Here is the very finger of God—which at Sinai inscribed the Ten Commandments onto tablets of stone (Deut 9:10), and by which, Luke tells us, Jesus drove out from before him every force of darkness (Luke 11:20)—extended in an apocalyptic announcement of God’s identity and designs with no equal; extended not to pronounce our condemnation but, instead, to lift up we who could not otherwise stand.
Our assurance that we have encountered God in this manner is this: that, in the company of all the saints of the one catholic church, we confess the name of the one God, incarnate in this one Jesus of Nazareth, who died but once to take away the sins of every one—an apocalyptic confession that is unintelligible to those who have not yet experienced God’s presence made manifest, but which we who have cannot help but declare with voices at once trembling and triumphant. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of those saints who testifies with us, puts it this way in his poem “Concerning Spiritual Beings”: “However much one approaches the Lord, so much is one a light, and as one’s light is, so much is one’s boast.”
For, having insight into the cosmos not as it seems to be but as it truly is, we know that this is our first, highest, and greatest calling: To be Christian.