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A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

on 19 February 2023 {Lent 1[A],}

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9.

Here we are at another threshold of what it means to share life with God, what it means for folks like you and me to grow into that God-life. I say this because today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. In three days (to use a poignant biblical image), we will enter into the preparatory season of Lent, which (as you know) climaxes with the cross and then the empty tomb. Epiphany itself is the culmination of what began in Advent and peaked with Christmas: namely, “Emmanuel: God with us”. And what is “manifest” in Epiphany emerges and is demonstrated in and through the life and work of Jesus, beginning from his baptism to his Transfiguration.

In this regard, I am drawn to the thoughts of a monastic of our time who provides a helpful summary of what this Epiphany season specifically reveals in Jesus. The monk writes: "Jesus shows us a God we can trust with the evil we see in the world, a God who has not kept himself distant from it or us. A God who spends everything to find and recover us. A God who empties himself to fill us so that we might never be lost or alone again." [1]

This, it seems to me, is what the days and weeks of Epiphany “manifest”. This is what this spiritual time presents to us: “Never being lost or alone again”. This proclamation speaks to the profound reality of Who God is and what life with God is all about. In a word, this is “Communion”, which is God’s will and the Christ’s redemptive purpose.

There are two Epiphany gospel accounts that bracket and illuminate what is entailed in living in God’s Communion. The first Epiphany bracket emerged in the story of Jesus’ Baptism. Remember: Remember how John the Baptist offered a baptism for the forgiveness of sin and how the story said that crowds flocked to John for the opportunity to return to God, to have their sins washed away, to start over with God in the Holy One’s Communion life? And remember how we wondered what Jesus was doing receiving such a baptism and how John questioned what Jesus was doing, receiving forgiveness of sin, when Jesus quite literally embodied (Incarnated) the unbreakable Communion between the Father and the Son? Remember that dilemma?

I hope each of us can speak to what Jesus was doing in the waters of the Jordan and what that bold action says to us and to the world. (I think I’ve just given away what the essay on the final exam is!). At any rate, the story of Jesus’ Baptism also gives the question’s answer away, when the voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” [2]

You will note that this heavenly declaration, first heard at the Lord’s Baptism, is reiterated in today’s Transfiguration gospel, and stands as the Epiphany season’s second bracket. Referring to Jesus’ transformed figure, the heavenly voice again declared: This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [3]

The stunning component of today’s gospel account lies in the detail that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun”, and that his clothes were white as light. Understandably, it scared poor Peter to death, to the point that all he could think of as a response to this holy revealing was to propose building a religious theme park with three sheds. But that wasn’t the issue – not at all. The issue is startling enough to behold what it means that Jesus is the God-life in our midst and on our terms. It is quite another to be willing and able to see what we are to become, “through Jesus Christ our Lord” – to coin a phrase. And the details of what we are to become and what we need to see are named in the Collect of the Day. I’ll read that collecting prayer again. Listen to what it says about the purpose and impact of God’s Communion.

O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and – [wait for it] be changed into his likeness from glory to glory… [4]

That’s it: This is the reason we choose to follow Jesus –or not. This is the reason we will enter the rigors and grace of Lent –or not. This, in fact, is what all that yearning and churning in our guts expresses. We need Communion, God’s Communion. No facsimiles. And the result of the reality and consequence of Communion is that we can grow into what we are called to be in Jesus –“Beloved of God”.

While I regular qualify the nature of Communion as most definitely not limited to what occurs at the altar rails, nonetheless, the Sacrament of the Altar clearly holds a pre-eminence in terms of being an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” [5] In a manner of speaking, this a matter of becoming what we eat and drink, of being more and more Christlike, learning how to die to all that separates us from God, from one another, and from our truest selves. This, I firmly believe, is the will of God: to be in Communion with the Creator of heaven and earth and to be God’s “Beloved”.

In the face of Jesus’ epiphany, where upon the Holy Mountain his life radiated God’s light and life. I need to have more compassionate for Peter, James, and John. The truth is that their wincing away from the brilliance of the Transfiguration and reverting to the puniness of what they knew as “religion” is pretty much what I do and what you do, too. Being “changed into [Jesus’] likeness” may sound like a noble spiritual goal; but living and embracing this transformational change is another thing all together – hence, the Collect’s petition that we be “strengthened to bear our cross”. As is often posed, “Change is good; you go first!”

Being changed “into [Jesus’] likeness” clearly doesn’t happen all at once; nor is it automatic. There is no magic involved. There are no shortcuts. Undoubtedly, this is the reason we must pray about such transformation – pray to be strengthened not to run away, not to give up but constantly to take strides to receive God’s life. This is the reason that the gesture we display at the Communion rail is so telling. The transforming gift is given, but we must reach out to receive it and take it into our lives.

I want to close by addressing an aspect of God’s Communion will and with our own calling to be Christlike. What I am about to say is not universally accepted, but I do firmly believe what I am about to say. What I want to address – too briefly and too incompletely – has to do with our deaths and our lives with God and our transfiguration with Christ.

Commonly, folks inside the church and outside the church use the terms of “heaven” and “hell” to describe what awaits us at our death. In some circles, the issue of “heaven and hell” plays out as if it were a game of “Chutes and Ladders”. You know that children’s board game? The board is laid out in a circuitous pathway that winds its way across the game’s surface. The object of the game is to reach the end of the pathway in the quickest way. Players roll the dice to determine the number of steps one can take toward the end goal, but at several points along the way, there are some chutes, then again there are some ladders.

If a player lands on a chute, their position is lost, and they slide downward to a lower level and toward the game’s starting point. However, if a player lands on a ladder, then their playing piece is advanced upward to a higher level on the pathway and closer to the goal of finishing.

In many people’s minds – and their notion of faith and theology – death confronts us with a kind of “Chutes and Ladders” situation. Either you go “up”, or you go “down”. That’s all there is to it. But I reject this out of hand. I find it too simplistic and, too moralistic, and contrary to the revealed nature of God. You know the saw: “good” people go to “heaven” and “bad” people go to hell. Too many people regard being “religious” and, in particular, being a “Christian” in this way.

As I say, I reject this as being far too simplistic, far too moralistic, and far too mechanical. And as an antidote, I place before you what we have today in Jesus’ Transfiguration and in the Collect of the Day’ phrase: to be “changed into his likeness”.

As plainly as I am able to put all this, the brilliance of Jesus that we see in his Transfiguration overwhelms Peter, James, and John; and this is understandable. There is so much change entailed between what Jesus reveals in that holy light and what we are used to facing that we wince at the vision and at the proclamation of being the “Beloved”. And here is the point: To the extent that we make a practice of wincing to avert our attention from God’s holy light – the light that also shines on us, that is the hell of it because we miss seeing precisely what we need: namely, the Holy One opening his arms to welcome us as “beloved” Conversely, to the extent that we practice adjusting to that light and what it unveils about God and us, then we catch glimpses of life on God’s terms, glimpses of who we truly are called to be and to Whom we truly belong. And that transforming light, we are reminded that we can trust the Holy One not to be distant and in that Communion-life “never be lost or alone again”. The question is: How do we learn to receive being God’s “Beloved”?

The hell of our lives is that we are not prepared, not willing to receive the very thing we need, and that God so freely gives. We wince and make a habit of turning away. And here is a great dilemma. I don’t know if we who become addicted to the dark (and we all are addicted to some extent), can we eternally deny God’s light shining to change us to be like Christ?

What I do know, however, is that God’s light never goes out.– no matter what. And in that holy light, there is always Emmanuel: God with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Br, Sean Glenn, SSJE: “Give Us a Word”, 5 January 2023 [2] Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:21; John 1:31-34 [3] Matthew 17:5. [4] Book of Common Prayer. page 217. [5] Book of Common Prayer. “An Outline of Faith”, p. 857.

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