The Rt Rev'd Ian T. Douglas
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018
In the name of the One Holy and Triune God. Amen.
In 1997 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, our church-wide governing body, designated the Last Sunday of Epiphany as “World Mission Sunday” calling on the church at every level, parish, diocese, and General Church to increase awareness of and participation in God’s global mission. The last Sunday of Epiphany, which we celebrate here today, was chosen as World Mission Sunday because in Epiphany, the season of light, the Church recalls that the Magi, those wise men from the East, were the first gentiles to see and understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the light of the world. It is a good and right thing that we are celebrating World Mission Sunday today here at Christ Church in New Haven. (And I have to confess, I was the author of the General Convention resolution back in 1997 – so I never neglect to note God’s global mission on this the last Sunday of Epiphany.)
And on the Last Sunday of Epiphany the Gospel is always the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. Depending on which year we are in in the lectionary cycle we hear either Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s version of the story - and they are all very similar. This year we have Mark’s version. So the question might be asked: Why would the General Convention choose this Sunday, when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as our Gospel, to focus on world mission? What does the Transfiguration have to do with mission, with God’s mission?
You probably are not surprised to hear that I think the Transfiguration of Jesus has a lot to say about God’s mission, specifically: 1) that Jesus embodies and extends God’s saving mission in the world begun in the covenants God made with the people of Israel and affirmed in the words and witness of the prophets. 2) that we followers of Jesus, (disciples) upon discovering and experiencing what God is up to in Jesus the Christ, too often want to institutionalize, or fossilize, the radical good news of the Jesus movement. 3) Yet Jesus invites us, urges us, to go down from our mountain top epiphanies and join God as apostles of God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation.
Recall the story. Jesus goes up on the mountaintop with Peter, James and John to pray. And there Jesus is transfigured in the glory of God and his cloths become dazzling white. And appearing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah. Moses - the one who received the law and led the people of Israel out of bondage in fulfillment of God’s covenants with God’s treasured people; and Elijah the prophet, the one who called the people of Israel back into right relationship with God. The appearance of Moses and Elijah underscores that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And if there is any question about who Jesus is and what his mission is, a voice from the cloud makes this unambiguously clear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” Jesus is indeed the son of God, the Messiah, fully human and fully divine. The one who has come to restore all people to unity with God and each other as the Christ.
And what do Peter, James and John do when they see and experience the truth of Jesus revealed on the mountaintop? Do they immediately go as apostles, sent to witness to the Transfiguration? They do not. Instead they say: “Let us make three dwellings, one for you (Jesus), one for Moses and one for Elijah.” They seem to want to capture and domesticate the mission of God as revealed in the law and the prophets, and in Jesus the Son of God. Their inclination is to set apart the good news, to institutionalize and enshrine it. It is almost as if they want to hide the light of God’s mission in Jesus in the baskets of the dwellings they seek to construct. Companions in Christ, how often does the church do the same today?
But is that what God wants? Does God want us to remain safe and secure in the dwellings of our own construction? - to rest inside even the most beautiful of our church structures? God does not. For God sends us out as apostles (literally those sent) to be about God’s saving and healing work in the world. That’s why in all three Gospel versions of the Transfiguration, (Mathew, Mark, and Luke) the story is followed immediately by Jesus’ healing of a boy with a demon – from Transfiguration to healing, from mountaintop to mission.
And the good news is each and every one of is likewise sent as apostles to comedown from our mountaintops and join Jesus in God’s mission of healing and wholeness. By virtue of our baptism, we are commissioned, co-missioned in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. In baptism we are sent forth to be agents of God’s restoration and reconciliation in the world.
In a few minutes, Brett Alan Judson and Chaou Li will come forward to be confirmed promising to follow Jesus as his/their Savior and Lord. Before he/they are confirmed all of us with will be given the chance to affirm our own baptismal vows using the words of the Baptismal Covenant.
In the first three questions of the Baptismal Covenant we will be asked to profess our belief in the Triune God. Responding with the words of the Apostles Creed, we identify as disciples of the Transfigured Messiah seeking to follow God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Then in the last five questions of the Baptismal Covenant we promise to come down from our mountaintop experiences of Jesus and participate in God’s mission of healing and wholeness in the world. With God’s help we commit to being apostles of God’s restoration and reconciliation in the world living lives of: worship (Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?) forgiveness (Will you persevere in resisting evil and when you sin repent and return to the Lord?) evangelism (Will you proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Christ?) service (Will you seek and serve Christ loving your neighbor as yourself?) and justice (Will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?)
So there we have it. On this the last Sunday of Epiphany, on this World Mission Sunday, each and every one of us, is invited to own again our mountaintop experiences as disciples of the living God in Jesus; and then commit our lives anew as apostles of God’s mission in the world. May we be those disciples and apostles of the Transfigured Jesus that God wants us and needs us to be. Happy Epiphany!