Last Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
February 14, 2021
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany which means Lent is just around the corner. Can you believe it? Easter is early this year, which means that Ash Wednesday is early. Just before the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus when we heard God the Father say to Him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The story we heard today from Mark’s begins immediately after Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, to which the disciples do not respond well. Peter, for example, tries to rebuke Jesus for saying such a thing! But then, Jesus immediately leads Peter, James, and John to a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured, and his clothes became dazzling white. Elijah and Moses, deeply important figures from Israel’s past, appeared to them and proceeded to have a conversation with Jesus. Peter, for some reason, suggests that they make three dwelling places there on the mountain: one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. Then, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Oh, what it must have been like to be one of these three disciples. What raw emotion they must have felt when they saw Jesus transfigured before them! To see Moses and Elijah in the flesh! It must have been such an emotionally raw experience.
Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters hold that the transfigured Jesus in this story represents the transfiguration, or metamorphosis, that each Christian is called to undergo. They hold that this story is an icon of a process called “deification,” which means to become divine. We read in the book of Ephesians that we are called to grow into the measure of the full stature of Christ (4:13). St. Athanasius in the 4th century says it this way: “God became a human person by nature so that human persons could become divine by grace.” This is deification: the partaking of and sharing in divine nature by invitation, by adoption, by gift (2 Pet. 1:4). Eastern Orthodox priest and author Fr. George Gray says this about deification: “Human beings are called to be transformed and transfigured (meta-morphed) from a fallen nature to their original nature to pursue our original God-given vocation” which is perfect union with God.
On the top of this mountain, faced with this dramatic scene, Peter recognizes that this is a significant moment. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” He then suggests that he build “dwelling places” or “tents”, presumably “to capture the moment, or to preserve it for safekeeping…One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like a [school boy] who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not really understand the question.”
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve experienced several moments in my life in which I encountered the divine in a similar way that Peter did. No, I didn’t physically see Jesus or Moses or Elijah, but God’s Spirit spoke to me in such a deep and moving way that I was amazed and even astonished. My encounter with Jesus Christ in these moments was so moving – so strong – that one might describe it as “spiritual high.” Beyond some indescribable moments in the mountains of Colorado, I can recall a true moment of spiritual high even during the isolation and loneliness of this pandemic. A week or so after the initial shutdown, when I was celebrating Mass at home on the buffet that normally serves as our bar, the simplicity of God making himself present under the auspices of bread and wine moved me to tears. Which leads me to the many spiritual highs I’ve received when I’m praying here, by myself, in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance. Looking upon Christ in the Blessed Sacrament often leaves me feeling overwhelmed with a sense of assurance and comfort knowing that Jesus does in fact share himself with us at each and every Eucharist, giving me his unconditional love, helping me to overcome every doubt, every tinge of regret, every feeling of guilt.
You may have had a similar experience or two in your life when you were so overwhelmed with God’s presence that you wanted to stay there forever.
People don’t generally live on mountaintops. Peter’s suggestion to build dwelling places on this mountain must have sounded ridiculous to his friends. We climb mountains, we spend a bit of time there, but we come back down, and most of our lives are spent in the valley. It is no accident that this reading is prescribed before Lent begins. We are about to enter the desert with Jesus as he is tempted in every way, and ultimately prepare for the sorrow and suffering that is to come on Good Friday. During Lent, you and I will be tempted. We will pray. We will try to resist sin, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We might even go to private confession. We will sin. We will humbly confess our sins to God and be forgiven. But ultimately, none of this makes any sense without first starting with God’s grace, grace being God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
And that brings us back to deification. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God in order to restore our original likeness. This process starts by spiritually watching and listening – being open to seeing God’s grace in our day-to-day lives. And then when we see it, we accept it. Remember that grace strengthens our wills. The next time we’re faced with temptation and sin, God has already given us the grace we need to choose to say no. And so, it goes. We are tempted, we pray, we try to resist sin, we sin, we repent, and are forgiven. This cycle is part of being human – no one can escape it. But if we cooperate with God’s grace during the cycle, we are being restored – little by little – to our original likeness. God’s grace transforms us into His image as revealed in Jesus. In the transfigured Jesus, we are given a glimpse of what we are to become.
If you’re watching and listening, you will experience God’s grace – his unearned and undeserved favor – in the doldrums of your life, even in the midst of a pandemic. You’ll experience it inside – in your interior or spiritual life. But thanks be to God, we have been given outward and visible signs of this inward and spiritual grace in the Sacraments of the Church. Cooperating in God’s grace, for us, also involves choosing to accept the love he offers us in the Sacraments. When you receive communion, no matter how you may or may not feel emotionally, God forgives your sins, enlightens your mind, stirs your heart, and strengthens your will.
Lent begins on Wednesday, and we know we’ll be in the valley for the next 40 days and 40 nights. Let us ask God to give us a strong memory of those mountaintop experiences we’ve had – those spiritual highs, so that when we are tempted to sin, we intentionally remember the closeness and intimacy we felt with God in those moments and resist temptation. And let us ask God for the courage to watch and listen for his grace at home, at work, and at church; and to say yes and accept his unconditional love each and every time we encounter it.
 George Gray, "The Transfiguration of Christ and the Deification of Mankind," St. Nicolas Orthodox Church (blog), December 1, 2007, accessed February 10, 2018, https://stnicholasportland.org/transfiguration-deification/.
 "Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9 by Audrey West," Matthew 17:1-9 Commentary by Audrey West - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), February 3, 2008, accessed February 10, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27.
 The Book of Common Prayer: And Administrations of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 858.
 Paul Nuechterlein, "Transfiguration B," Girardian Lectionary, February 9, 2018, accessed February 10, 2018, http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/transfigb/.
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