The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Mark 9:2-9

A bright, hot sun hung in the top of the sky. Peter sat on a rock and felt the sweat run down his face and back. Ahead of him, he saw Jesus and James and John climbing the steep path up the mountain. Normally, he would’ve been right up there with them, probably leading the way in his enthusiasm, but, today, he felt drained. All his energy was gone.

He was confused, and he was depressed, and he wondered what he was doing there. He couldn’t get the memory of what had happened out of his mind. It was “six days earlier,” Mark reminds us at the beginning today’s gospel lesson. Jesus had said to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter had been the one with the courage to say it: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” It was a glorious moment.

But a moment only. For then, Jesus had started talking about how he would be disgraced and tortured and murdered. Peter hadn’t been able to stand it. He wouldn’t hear of it: Not you Lord, God forbid, not the Messiah! So he spoke up again: “Don’t say that Jesus! Don’t even think it!”

And then, Jesus gave that stunning rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! I will die in shame on a cross. And if you want to follow me, you will have to take up your own cross.”

All the way up the mountain, Peter couldn’t get that scene out of his mind. As he picked himself up and trudged up the path in the bright sunlight, his mind was full of darkness and gloom, and he knew why he didn’t have any energy.

He didn’t see a way in the world that a man dying a senseless and disgraceful death could be the impetus for the salvation of the world. And Peter couldn’t hold back frightening thoughts: “Maybe it’s all a mistake. Maybe he isn’t the Son of God. Maybe –I’m following the wrong guy—the wrong one.” He was afraid that the whole thing had been—would be—futile.

But then, they got to the top of that mountain. And you know what happened. Jesus was transfigured before their very eyes. He began to shine with a brightness that out shone even the sun in the cloudless sky. And he talked to Elijah, the great prophet, and Moses, the lawgiver.

And Peter was awed. Renewed! He got excited and wanted to build a memorial right there on the spot—because you just couldn’t be more honored than to talk to Elijah and Moses. Except for what happened next. Suddenly, in that cloudless sky, a great cloud appeared over their heads and the voice of God came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”

The cloud had blocked the sun overhead, but the words brought real light into Peter’s life. He still didn’t understand, but now he trusted that Jesus is the one, that this is how God acts, that God will break into history in humility. And that by suffering as a victim, God will be in radical solidarity with victims everywhere. The shameful death on the cross that Jesus had predicted is how God will show the oppressed of the world that they are indeed blessed, & that God is radically committed to them.

As we well know, Peter wasn’t perfect after his mountaintop experience, far from it. He made lots of mistakes. But the big difference in Peter was that he now had the courage and the faith to follow Jesus to the cross, and to take up his own, and to devote his life to ministry.

For the rest of his life, he held his vision of who it was that he was following, the beloved Son of God. And that vision sustained him in the seemingly “futile” effort to change the world by telling the story of how God became human and died a shameful death as a victim.

Years later, Peter would teach his students about the hope that comes from the knowledge of who Jesus is, and how that hope enables us to live as transformed, shining people in the midst of dark times.

Peter told his students to remember Jesus’ transfiguration and let it shine like “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” And because Peter always looked to that lamp when things seemed dark, fear never conquered his hope. And he did help to change the world.

Paul in our epistle this morning also speaks of this same shining light. “It is the same God who said ‘Out of darkness, let light shine,’ who has caused his light to shine within our hearts and to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

As Christians today, we live in world often paralyzed by the fear that we can’t make a fundamental difference. It is the fear of futility, and it’s easy to be overcome by it. We can, like Peter on the way up the mountain, find ourselves fearful that God’s vulnerable love simply won’t be up to the task of changing the world.

But the call has been issued—a holy call. And our response to that call—through our baptisms—binds us to holy service in Christ’s name.

We are called to demand justice and dignity for every person—not just those who are like us, or those whom we like. [and] We are called to examine the structures and institutions of our society from the standpoint seeking and serving Christ in all people, including the least powerful people. We are called to critique our economic and social and political institutions from the viewpoint of a homeless family or a child born into poverty with little or no chance for advancement. Or as Jesus would say, the least of these, my children. And to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

You see, when we stop focusing on individual acts of charity and start examining the structures of society that make charity necessary, it’s easy to be like Peter on the way up the mountain, to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, and to be paralyzed by the fear that God’s vulnerable love can’t change these seemingly immovable structures.

And it’s easy to be afraid for ourselves—for our lifestyles. At least, it scares me. Because if our economic and social systems were motivated by a shining commitment to the full dignity of even the least powerful of us, our lifestyles would change. (the privileged of us). We’d have to sacrifice. And that is scary.

But, if we are faithful to God (and our baptismal vows) and if we are true to the name “Christian,” our fears will be overcome.

Because although it may seem hopeless at times, we are a people who have seen God do an astoundingly powerful thing in the most hopeless of situations—the Messiah hanging dead on a cross. –And we can sacrifice because we are a people formed by sacrifice. Our very faith is based and built on sacrifice.

At this table, we receive the life of Christ, and we offer our lives to Christ. We don’t just come to the table to be fed for our own personal benefit, “for solace only,” but to present ourselves, and be nourished and strengthened and renewed for service in Christ’s name.

This coming Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten season. And as we make our annual pilgrimage through the desert & into Jerusalem & up to Golgotha and the foot of the cross, (in the face of all of that,) we can remain hopeful people—a people who can take a full look at the worst and, yet, not be overcome by fear.

Because even though we, like Peter, sometimes don’t see a way in the world that God’s paradoxical power can cause such radical change, and convert our society to bring true justice, true mercy, true humility and true peace—true light—nevertheless, we hope, we trust. Because we, like Peter, know that we follow the beloved Son of God, the one who was transfigured and shines even now—even now—as “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts–and in our world.”

And in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.