Suffering Epiphany

Week of Sunday February 14: Transfiguration
Gospel: Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while hewas praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

The Transfiguration is in the ‘right place.’  By now in Luke, everything has been put in position.

There has been annunciation and birth.
There has been the reply to John: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ 7.22  Luke gives multiple examples of these in the stories so far.
Jesus “commands even the winds and the water.” 8:22ff
He has issued his great challenge: 23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 9:23ff
Death and resurrection has been foretold (8:21) and faith declared. (8:20)


Now God will place upon Jesus the final seal of approval: "Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’" (8:35)  From now on, in one sense, all that remains is to see how this plays out. There is no confusion as to who this man is.

We should note, also, that already Luke makes the death of Jesus utterly integral to who he is. Not only does Jesus discuss his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” but Luke has placed story of the Transfiguration between two foretellings of Jesus’ impending death. (9:23-4, (9:46-48) And not only of his death: also included is the same connection with greatness and status which Mark makes in chapters 9 and 10. Taking up the cross is intimately connected with the rejection of power hierarchies.

Loader notes another connection with the death of Jesus, addressing one of those little ‘incidental’ details we sometimes  see in the gospel stories.

Luke also presents us with the reactions of Peter, John and James. Only he indicates they were very tired - those who knew the Gethsemane story might have sensed an echo here.

Let me labour the point. John Petty says

Luke introduces the transfiguration by inserting the phrase "after these words" (meta tous logous toutous), thus linking the transfiguration even more directly to Jesus' sayings about suffering.

My first emotional response to this story is a recognition of epiphany. Long ago I had a similar sort of experience, half-asleep-in-and-out of some odd form of consciousness. Whatever its origins, and however it has been used in the tradition, this story has authentic experience in its foundations.

Perhaps for some of us, there is a gift of insight associated with our seeing Jesus as Messiah. This is not something ‘required’ for faith, which is an error some Pentecostal traditions make. Epiphany is about God, not us.

On its own, the experience will not count for much.
It can also become an unsatisfying experience that loses its reality. Perhaps I am graced with a glimpse of something divine. It is easy to want more... and more... and more.... and become a junkie, desperate for another fix, not seeing that the drug is destructive, delusion, and blinding us to greater joy that is all around us.

A religious experience on its own inevitably fades; one more discarded belonging in a consumer society.

What made Moses' experience become a foundational religious event? How come the experience did not die? How did it come to nurture a people and empower them, instead of becoming a stale Pentecostal party trick. The answer is that a thousand years before Jesus, Moses took up his cross. He didn't just enjoy the experience, and look for more. He lived with its consequences. He stepped right out of this new place of excitement and comfort, and went back to Egypt. He lived through the dangers. One Man's Web

The experience of the transfiguration must always be held between the stories of cross carrying, betrayal, and death.

The other thing which accompanies the epiphany is the brutal immediacy of cross carrying.  I used to think that the story of the boy with a demon was a kind of foil to the disciples’ experience of the transfiguration; a ‘coming down to earth,’ after a religious high.
But look at the pattern again:

9:21 suffering and death
9:23 take up your cross
9:28 Transfiguration
9:37 heal the boy
9:44 betrayal (and death)

In the chiastic structure,  the healing of the boy corresponds to the taking up of the cross.  We tend to romanticise ‘take up your cross’ in churches, or trivialise it.  We talk about it, but it remains too often in a personal, not corporate sphere.  “My hay fever and sciatica are the cross I must bear.”

Mental illness, and diseases like epilepsy, are in a different order of experience.  Undiagnosed or untreated, and even sometimes despite treatment, they frighten us. They are intransigent, and uncontrollable; alien. They refuse to lie compliantly in their hospital bed, and invade our personal cocoon. They drag us out of our private faith into the utter, often brutal, messiness of life. And that’s if we are fortunate to be the onlooker.  God help us if we are the one suffering; many will seek to carry their own cross, but flee from us, or demonise us. It is surely not by accident that it is not a blind person at the bottom of the mountain. It is human suffering at its most raw.

Jesus’ radical ideas and behavior undoubtedly lead to his death. The phrase “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” very directly casts the coming crucifixion as an accomplishment, not a failure. Although I do not see an epiphany as ‘required’ experience, the use of the word ‘accomplishment’ at the very centre of the Transfiguration, and its sandwiching between cross bearing, suggests to me that crucifixion is normative, if we are to be faithful. We may, by good fortune, escape physical crucifixion, but it always remains a real possibility. And if we do not suffer other crucifixion in sacking, betrayal, exclusion, humiliation, legal attack, physical and verbal abuse, maybe we should question our faith.

So, I am confronted by the Transfiguration.  Within it, an authentic experience of God is welded to uncompromising, dangerous discipleship. Luke is not writing theoretical theology here. He is placing holiness in the midst of chaotic, mauled human existence. Confronting this is the only faithful way to follow Jesus.

A recent ethnic addition to my local shopping centre has been the presence of Islamic dress patterns. The largely Anglo-Asian mix when we first arrived here, has been sprinkled with African people for some time. But the Muslims are new.  I recently noticed a small group of women in exquisite hijabs and gowns. In my normal absent mindedness, I was reflecting on the contrast between this elegance and some of the in-your-face female Bogan attire (or lack of,) as we wheeled our shopping out of the centre. Slowly I began to realise my companion was furious.  Unnoticed by me, a three or four year old had been repeatedly chanting “We’re in Australia now!” at the women.

“What can you do?” raged my companion. “I could hardly go over and slap the kid, who really had no idea what they were saying.”

I knew what the answer was. Go over. Ask the child, “Where’s your Mum, or Dad?” Then remonstrate with them.  Or, perhaps, in a loud voice, proclaim to the shopping center, “Being in Australia, means we can dress how we like!” Mum, or Dad, would then, very likely, have made themselves known.

Did I do this? Did I, brought back to reality from my day-dreaming,  go back in and see if the kid was still yelling? Of course not.  I told myself I had enough on my plate for the day- and I did.  But behind that, was also a very keen appreciation of what was at stake. Likely a yelling match, and possibly being assaulted. I was not prepared to go all the way, which is what a hot, humid afternoon confrontation with a racist Bogan risks.

It is true that we need to decide which battles we will fight. But when I look at the underlying theology of the Transfiguration pericope, I am challenged to ask how often I choose strategically, and how often I am simply unfaithful.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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