The Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, in the presence of Moses, Elijah, Peter, John and James is the penultimate “Epiphany moment”, the disclosure of Jesus as God’s Son. (His Resurrection was the ultimate Epiphany.) That is why it is the assigned reading for this, the last Sunday of Epiphany.
The whole of Chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel is action-packed. It frames the gospel of this last Sunday of Epiphany. Here is a summary. Jesus called the Twelve together, gave them power…to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick…
When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them…to Bethsaida, but the crowds…followed. He welcomed them, spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. Late in the afternoon his apostles told him, “We have only five loaves…and two fish…” (About five thousand men were there.) He said, “Have them sit down...” Taking the five loaves and the two fish…he gave thanks…Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute. All ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
Later…Jesus was praying...and his disciples were with him, he asked, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; others, that one of the prophets has come back to life.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer…and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then he said to them: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. … The Son of Man will … come in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
The Kingdom of God had broken through. The apostles had preached, healed and driven out demons. Jesus fed over 5,000, miraculously. (I reject the interpretation that dumbs down the miracle and says that ‘the people just shared their food’. God’s reality is not contained by our explanatory schemes.) Then Jesus acknowledged to Peter and the other apostles that he was the Messiah. The Kingdom of God had become real in word, food, healing, prayer and joy for the people who surrounded Jesus in the days before this morning’s gospel opens.
The gospel for February 27th (Luke 9:28-43a) begins, About eight days after Jesus said this (that the Son of Man must suffer…and be killed and on the third day be raised to life.) he took Peter, John and James and went up a mountain. As he was praying...his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning …Moses and Elijah appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions…saw his glory...As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
The earlier speculation about Jesus’ identity had been directionally correct. He was sent by God, as were Moses and the prophets, but, as Peter had blurted out, Jesus was sui generis, unique, the Messiah. Now, here he was with two of the greatest ‘saints’ of the Old Testament.
Moses had asked God to feed the Israelites in the desert, as Jesus had fed the people who had come to the mountain to hear him. Moses had foreseen someone like Jesus when he said, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. (Deut. 18:15)
Elijah’s appearance in this gospel echoes his encounter with God on a mountain (1 Kings 19:8-13)
They discussed Jesus’ departure. It was on his mind. He had told his disciples eight days earlier, “The Son of Man must suffer…and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” The presence with Jesus of these two saints of the Old Testament, who had ‘been raised again to life’, further validated his claims of Messiahship.
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Three phrases This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him, deserve attention. As with his baptism, the voice of God began, This is my Son. In one sense, this phrase said all that was needed. God spoke of his familial relationship with Jesus. Jesus was of the same nature as God. The declaration recalled God’s words at his baptism that Jesus was his beloved son… a statement of identification and honour.
…whom I have chosen…Beyond being born of the Father, God had commissioned him. While God had sent others, like Moses, to lead the people and prophets, like Elijah to speak in his name, they had not been his Son. The underlying message appears to have been that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should… have eternal life. (John 3.16) Jesus would lead and speak in God’s name, as his Son. As his chosen, God was especially attentive to his life and work.
…listen to him. In case anyone missed the implication that God had chosen his own Son to communicate with the world, he added listen to him. This instruction repeated what Moses had said, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. The Lord said, “…I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.” (Deut 18:15-18) God’s intended ‘listening’ went beyond a passive hearing. It called everyone, not just the three apostles, to internalize and respond to Jesus’ words…to be transfigured by them.
Together, the three phrases drive home Jesus’ significance as the ‘sent Son’ who taught us how to live by word and example. The command to absorb his teaching accentuated Jesus’ importance.
(The gospel continues with Jesus healing a possessed boy, from whom the apostles were unable to drive the devil.)