A significant part of my discernment and life was the three months I spent living in Brasil with a family that didn’t speak English. During this time, I learned Portuguese, taught English, and began to help the church with which I was working in the early stages of their development of an orphanage, the first for the city of Belo Horizonte. During these three months I was changed; I was changed during these three months not just by the challenges of being in a country where I didn’t speak the language or learning to navigate a culture that was foreign to me, no, I was changed by the relationships that were forged in that time. I was changed by what I saw, of course, but it was the conversations that were part charade-part broken Portuguese during this time in which not all that was said was understood, but they significantly shaped how we regarded and interacted with each other.
In our gospel passage today, three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, are taken by Jesus to the top of a mountain and when they come back down the mountain they don’t fully understand what took place. Because this year we hear the story of the transfiguration from Mark, as soon as they reach the top of the mountain Jesus is immediately transfigured before them. His clothes turn a brilliant white that isn’t even possible to create on earth and standing with him are Elijah and Moses. Elijah and Moses are two of the greatest prophets in the minds of the people of Israel, and them appearing with Jesus seems to affirm Jesus’ place with the people of Israel. Peter speaks up, as Peter is known to do in the Gospels, and offers to build three dwelling places, one for each the three, but before Jesus has a chance to respond to Peter’s immediate impulse to get to work, a cloud comes and covers them and a voice from heaven speaks. God speaks into Peter, James, and John’s life and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” The cloud goes away and with-it Elijah and Moses, and Jesus is left standing alone, back to normal.
The Transfiguration is a big deal in the life of the church. It is a moment upon much of Jesus’ claims to divinity and to his son-ship to God the Father hang; some of the church fathers thought this moment to be the most important moment in understanding the nature of the Word made flesh. Every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany we hear one of the narratives of Jesus’ transfiguration, and the Feast of the Transfiguration, which happens in August, is one of the Feast of Our Lord listed in the prayer book that takes precedence. What is happening in the transfiguration is unclear, other than the fact that it is a mystical, miraculous moment; it reveals much about who Jesus is and how God interacts with him. Many paintings of this event from the Renaissance depict a floating, glowing Jesus, flanked by an ethereal Moses and Elijah.
But I want to focus on the disciples; imagine this scene playing out from the perspective of Peter, James, and John. I wonder if they, as Jesus invited them to come to take a hike up a high mountain, excitedly began the journey, eager to spend time with their mentor and teacher, away from the crowds. I wonder if they walked quietly together or chatted the whole way. Mark doesn’t give us these details, but we do know that once Jesus is transfigured they are terrified; being shocked and full of fear was no doubt an experience with which the disciples were familiar. But then, in the midst of their terror, a cloud comes and covers the transfigured Jesus and Moses and Elijah and God speaks. God speaks not to Moses or Elijah or even Jesus, God speaks directly to the disciples.
God’s instruction for them is simple and powerful: listen to Jesus, the son. God’s command is clear and leaves no room for questions, but imparts a significant task to the disciples. Inherent in God’s instruction for the disciples to listen to Jesus is an assumption that they will be in relationship with the Christ. The first thing that Jesus says to the disciples as they descend the mountain is to not share what they have seen. Jesus instructing the disciples to keep a secret is not unusual to Mark’s narrative; he again and again wants to keep the miraculous happenings quiet. But Jesus’ instruction isn’t just to the disciples to keep quiet, it is for them to keep it quiet until he has risen from the dead. This, of course, confuses the disciples. Remembering what they had just witnessed, and the terror that they felt in the moment, they are especially confused by what Jesus means by being raised from the dead.
Now, we know that, because of the crucifixion and resurrection events like the transfiguration help to paint a more complete picture of who Jesus was and of God’s mission in and through Christ. But Jesus commands the disciples not to share what they have seen until he has risen from the dead because outside of the crucifixion and the resurrection, what Peter, James, and John saw in the transfiguration doesn’t make sense.
Today, in the life of the Episcopal Church we celebrate World Mission Sunday. Every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany we hear the story of the transfiguration, but we also take this time to note the mission work going on around the world. Perhaps this decision was made arbitrarily at General Convention in 1997, or perhaps there is a truth in Jesus’ instruction to the disciples that needs to impact our sense of mission. Jesus instructs the disciples not to share what they have seen because outside of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the message of and about Jesus doesn’t make sense. And so it is with the work we do as Christians. We could be compelled to go and do entirely good work, but if it is not motivated by the truth and the power of the crucified and resurrected Messiah, then what we are doing is little more than social work; good and important work, sure, but without the humble supremacy of the cross it is not our mission.
As we are fully initiated into the light of Christ in our baptism, everything we do is shaped by the command that God gave to the disciples on that high mountain the day our Christ was transfigured: listen to Christ. In our baptism, we are tasked with seeking and serving Christ in all persons. In our baptism, we are crucified and resurrected with Christ in the baptismal waters and with that comes the compulsion to bring about in this world the light of Christ; it requires us to be in relationship with Christ, to listen to God. We, in our baptism, are called to be a light to the world; we are called to go out in this world, not just to do good work, but to do the good work is intrinsic to the crucified and resurrected Messiah. May we all embrace our call to engage this world in our baptismal promises through the transformational relationship that God invites us to in relationship with each other and with Christ.