Last Epiphany – The Transfiguration

This morning, we have heard from the Second Book of Kings about the story of Elisha and Elijah. To give you a little bit of background, Elijah was this great prophet at the time of King Ahab. King Ahab was married to the idolatrous Queen Jezebel. It was a difficult time for the kingdom of Northern Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were persecuting the prophets of the Lord. It was a time of wars and injustices and Elijah was sent by the Lord to bring back equity and faithful worship. Most of you probably know that at times, Elijah felt very discouraged with this mission. There is this passage in the Bible where Elijah lies down and asks God to let him die because he is so overwhelmed by what’s going on. That’s when God sends Elisha to be with him, as a trainee, an attendant and a designated successor. From then, Elisha will follow wherever Elijah goes and will learn from him – over a period of time of approximately 7 to 8 years. It’s at the end of this time period that our passage begins. Elijah’s “departure” (or impending death) is announced and that will be when Elisha will have to take over the mission on his own.

The passage makes it clear that Elisha, as well as Elijah and the other prophets, knew this was coming. And yet, we see how difficult it was for Elisha to accept to lose his Master. Twice, he refuses to hear what the prophets had to tell him to get him prepared. Three times, he says to Elijah that he will continue to follow wherever he goes.

It’s interesting we have this passage of the OT mirroring today’s Gospel about Jesus’s transfiguration. It is often assumed that we read from the story of Elijah because on that day Mark tells us about, Elijah appears next to Jesus on the mountain. Yet, as I was reading this, I have started wondering if the story was not placed here to remind us of Elisha as well.

The story reminds us of Elisha as well. The transfiguration is often read as this climax in Mark’s Gospel, right after Jesus announces his impeding death as he heads towards Jerusalem. From now on, Jesus will prepare his disciples to be on their own. So for the Evangelist, not only Elijah appears next to Jesus on that day on the mountain, but Jesus is similar to Elijah in many ways – which could also mean that the disciples are similar to Elisha too.

Indeed, right before our passage, Jesus announces to his disciples that: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” and Peter refuses to listen and tries to silence Jesus, in the same way that Elisha tried to silence the prophets. In the same way also, Peter assures Jesus that he will follow wherever Jesus goes – and we know that it is not going to happen, of course – Jesus will have to die on his own. So we see clearly that the disciples are going through the same kind of struggle that Elisha went through. They love their Master and can’t let go of him, they’re sad and afraid to be left of their own – they don’t know what they would be able to do without him.

And I think it can be easy for us to relate to them, isn’t it? I think at some point in our lives, and even several times, we all had to let go of a friend or a parent that was a tutor or a mentor to us. On top of feeling very sad, we often felt afraid, left behind and worried about what was going to happen to us. And yet, as the prophets reminded Elisha, and as Jesus, and even the voice of God who says “Listen to him”, reminds the disciples, they have to let go and be prepared to be on their own – or maybe, in a more positive way – they need to feel empowered to start their own ministry, feel ready to “take over” and to continue the mission instead of staying a trainee, an attendant all their lives. And maybe this is what you also experienced at some point, after you lost a parent, a guide or a teacher. After the grief and the pain and the disorientation, you realized in which ways you could become a successor, continue the mission and bear fruit worth of what you had been taught and trained to do. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples is not only that he will be killed, there is also a good news – even if in their grief the disciples cannot hear the good news – Jesus announces in our story today is that “The Son of Man will rise from the dead.” Even if the disciples won’t be able to be with Jesus like they used to, sharing meals, stories and long walks, Jesus’s spirit will be in the disciples to carry on the mission, in the same way that Elisha inherited “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit.

So what does it mean for us as a church?

Well, I am currently reading an amazing book called “Letters to the Church” by Francis Chan. Francis Chan used to be a pastor in a megachurch, and then one day, after maybe twenty years of doing this ministry, he started to think differently about the church and what he was supposed to do as a pastor. In one chapter, he says that one of the things he regrets the most is that he spent so much time trying to fill his church with people, when now he realizes that it’s not exactly what a good pastor is supposed to do. He says that good pastors shouldn’t worry so much about filling their churches, rather they should worry about equipping their people to become disciples – which means to get them ready to minister, to take care of others, to share their faith, to teach others and to proclaim the good news around them. Chan says that, ideally, each member of a church should reach a point where they could start their own church wherever the Spirit takes them! Yet Chan observes that, most of the time, it does not happen because pastors and priests are not very good at raising leaders. A lot of church members are schooled to come to church to be fed, but they aren’t taught to think of their church as a place where they can learn to feed others. Most church members don’t feel empowered, or ready, or called to start their own ministry. And Chan says this is very sad when people aren’t taught to mature, to be able to do their own thing, he says “What do we think of people who remain all their lives at their parents’ house, expecting to be taken care of as if they were still children even when they are in their thirties or forties?” “Isn’t it a failure, both for the parents and for the children?”

Those words are difficult to hear – whether you’re a church leader or a church member – I know it was hard for me to hear them. But as I thought about it, I realized that it was probably what Elisha and the disciples were struggling with. They loved God and they loved their mentors, but actually they weren’t ready to let go and start their own ministry. Yet Jesus and Elijah were good leaders. They knew they had to let their disciples take over. Actually, at some point in the Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that it’s to their advantage that he is leaving them.

So it think our lessons today encourage us to mature as Christians: In our churches, we have to keep on learning, studying, praying, reading the Bible, attending worship, to feed ourselves but also because we want to be ready to feed others and start our own ministry. And maybe we should think of our churches as a safe and encouraging place for each of us to start our own ministry, to try something out. You know, when students are done with their studies, they write their dissertations as a way to own the teaching that has been given to them and as a way to start teaching others. In the same way, when you have learned what you needed to learn at church, you need to start sharing in your own way and be supported by your leader as you do so. I am hoping that at Christ Church, you feel encouraged to have a spiritual ministry: to preach, to teach a class, to lead a small group, to be on a committee, to reach out to the neighborhood. As I was writing this sermon, I actually had a phone call from one of you who had an idea about a ministry their wanted to develop and be in charge of. I was overjoyed because I think this is exactly what the Scriptures are about today. And so this is my question for you: What is it that you get from Christ Church that you want to share with others and how do you want to do it?

The transfiguration is not only about Christ’s glory, the story tells us today that it is also about the transformation of the disciples. As he encouraged his disciples, Jesus encourages you to start being a leader, whether you feel ready, worthy or wise enough. So what will you do?

Epiphany 5

Mark’s Gospel, more than any of the three others Gospels, is the Gospel of healing. I’ve mentioned that when we did an introduction to this book: Mark spends little time to detail Jesus’s teaching (comparatively to Matthew, for example). Mark focuses of what Jesus does, and we see that right from the beginning – We’re still in Chapter 1! – Jesus is busy doing healing and casting out demons.

To me, one of the messages we can take away from that is that we are reminded of the spiritual nature of healing. And it’s very interesting to be reading that in a time of a pandemic, where we are very preoccupied with healing – as individuals and as a country. We can’t wait to be healed, and by that most of us mean we can’t wait to have a cure, to receive the vaccine, we can’t wait for the virus to go away. And of course, this is very natural to wish that and to do everything that is in our power to accomplish this goal. Yet in the meantime, we have also to remember that healing is also spiritual.

What do we mean by that?

You probably remember, it wasn’t a long time ago, that when he was elected, President Biden told the Nation that it was “Time for healing”, and in those words I think most of us could understand it wasn’t only about the pandemic. There are a lot of things we need to heal from as a nation: racism, bigotry, division, social and economic injustices, lack of purpose, lack of solidarity, isolation, individualism, greed, lack of respect for the earth and so on. We need bodily healing, but we also need spiritual healing because by our way of living, whether it’s because of addictions, stress, selfishness, lack of respect for our bodies, for our neighbors, for our natural resources, we make ourselves sick, but we also make sick those around us – and today it’s even realistic to say that by our way of living, we make sick people who live thousands of miles away from us.

We need spiritual healing as much as bodily healing.

And I think that at Jesus’s time, that’s also the way people thought about sickness. There were, as today, obvious and serious diseases or handicaps, like leprosy, paralysis, epilepsy, blindness and so on, but people knew there was more to that, there were also all the things that made their souls sick and kept them in bondage: possessions and demons – and we see that as Jesus addressed the ills of the body, he always addressed the ills of the souls, and he cured the bodies by curing the souls, the hearts, and the mentalities not only of the individuals bound by sickness but also, and mainly, by healing the community around them.

If we’d have to describe the way Jesus heals people, it’s not only by making them disease-free, but he very literally de-possess them, set them free from the bondage that isolate them – whether they isolate themselves – ashamed or angry – or whether they are isolated by others – rejected and seen as contagious, unclean or dangerous. Healing, forgiveness of sins and proclamation of the good news are all woven together in the Gospel: It’s all about liberation and reconciliation in the depths of our beings, with God and with one another.

Now, how do we do that? How can we receive spiritual healing or participate in the spiritual healing of the world as follower of Jesus? Can today’s Gospel help us a bit with that? Well, I’d like to think so.

I really love that, among the throngs of people who come to him to receive healing, we have in our Gospel a “snapshot” of how Jesus brought healing – how he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I think I’ve mentioned to you that Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter and Mark’s Gospel is basically Simon Peter’s memories. And Simon Peter remembered probably very vividly that day we’ve just read about– the excitement and the joy of receiving Jesus in his house, and then the disappointment and the pain of finding the mistress of the house incapacitated and unwell. Actually, the commentaries of the Gospel agree to say that the way her illness is described, “a fever”, probably meant that she was not just “unwell” but rather seriously ill. As for Simon Peter’s mother in law herself, she was probably quite disappointed and even ashamed to be found in bed, unable not only to entertain the guests, but even unable to greet them at the door. I don’t know if it ever happen to you to be sick on a day you have been expecting for a long time – it is quite frustrating if not infuriating. We can only imagine how Simon Peter’s mother in law must had been excited in the days before about finally be able to meet Jesus, and how much she probably had wanted to have her house and table ready and to look her best, only to be found in bed unable to stand up.

Jesus though, maybe the only one in the crowd, isn’t disappointed or irritated. If she cannot greet him, he comes to greet her, gently touch her hand and raises her up. As he does that, the Gospel mentions, “the fever left her and she began to serve them”. This passage has often been negatively interpreted: She does what women are expected to do, serving her family and waiting on the men in the household. Yet I don’t think this is what it is about. I think she is just back to herself, back to being a Mom and to have the joy to have hers sons and their friends at her house and be able to feed them and to spend time with them, laugh and talk at the table with them and be proud and amazed at who they are and what they do.

And I wonder if it isn’t the way Jesus is doing healing all along: He lifts people up, he frees them from whatever it is that keep them down, make them unable to appreciate and enjoy life and disconnect them from their true selves. Freeing us from all that bind us and bring us down, Jesus brings us back to our senses, to who we are and to what we are called to do to serve and love one another.

In this sense, there are many different kind of healing. You don’t have to be healed in your body to be healed in your heart or in your soul. Or maybe you look very healthy on the outside, but you’re still in need of spiritual healing because you have troubles living with yourself and with others, you have troubles receiving joy and energy to live the life God has called you to live.

So how can we do that? How can we receive and bring healing?

Well, the first clue we have in our passage is that, in order to bring healing, Jesus took time to pray, and he did it a certain way. For a long, long time, I used to think that there was no right or wrong way to pray. But the more I think about prayer and practice prayer, the more I think that, even if it’s always better to pray than to abstain from praying, the more I think there are better ways to pray than others. And we can certainly take example on the way Jesus used to pray: He took time to be on his own with God – to meditate, to still his soul, to listen to what God had to say. How often our prayer life are anxious monologues, talking at God about what we need instead of receiving what God wants to give us! Sometimes we need to talk at God in order to release our negative feelings, and it’s all right and a good thing, and sometimes we need to talk at God about all the things we want to do or the people we care about, but let’s also take the time to listen and give time to God to give us attention, restore our strengths, and renew our energy. Let us accept to be greeted by God before we greet him, as Simon Peter’s mother in law let Jesus serve her before she could serve Jesus.

Second clue is that Jesus shows us that healing happens through gentle care and lifting each other up. Even when he addresses the demons and the strongholds that possess us, Jesus show care and concern for the people. When I see that, I wonder how often is it that we see the good in people before we try to “exorcise” them of all the things we don’t like in them. I wonder how often we are really concerned about lifting each other up– although it’s something we could all use in this time where a lot of us feel depressed or de-energized. Do we remind others of their gifts, of their value, of the good things they do for us or bring into the world, or is it easier to judge and to criticize or to make others feel bad about themselves? The Gospel reminds us that we cannot heal on our own. We cannot be truly healed until everyone else is healed too. As we have heard so many times in the past year: “we are all in this together”