In the midst of Death, we are in Life.
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
A Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 15, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Muriel Brownlie, Robert Olesen, Richard Egbert
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Death has been lurking around the perimeters of my life these last few weeks. By that, I don’t mean to say that my family has suffered any loss, thank God. Neither do I mean that I’ve had premonitions of my own demise, or anything like that. But rather, the last two weeks have brought word of the deaths of several old friends. They were very different people from very different parishes I have served. None were terribly young or terribly old—none especially well or especially sick. None of them were expected to die when they did–and yet, of course, their deaths, like anyone’s death, were not outside the realm of possibility. Though I hadn’t talked to any of these people recently—in one case, for several months, in other cases, for several years—nevertheless their deaths have been weighing on me. It is that horrible mixture of shock and yet no shock—of surprise, and yet also resigned expectation—that keeps pressing itself onto my mind. Death was always there, roaming the edges of their stories. It struck down my friends, and in so doing it reminded me of what I ought never to forget: that, as the Burial Office in our Prayer Book puts it, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”
That painful difficulty—that undeniable reality of Death skulking around the edges of life—is present even in our Scripture passages this morning. Did you notice the strange, almost euphemistic quality to the beginning of our Gospel lesson today? St Mark’s account of the Transfiguration begins, “Six days later,” which necessarily begs the question, “Six days later than what? What happened six days before Jesus took Peter, and James, and John, and led them up a high mountain apart?” One of the most lamentable side-effects of encountering the Sunday readings in bulletins only, and not in actual Bibles, is that events and teachings are cut off from their intended place in the larger narrative, and we are often left with dangling, unexplained phrases—phrases such as “Six days later.”
But when we consider the story of the Transfiguration in the original context Mark gives it, we find that what happened six days prior was actually an extended conversation about Death. In Chapter 8, in the verses immediately preceding the verses we’ve heard this morning, Jesus shocks his uncomprehending disciples by telling them “that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
As if these words were not difficult enough, Jesus goes on to announce both that this fate will unfold according to the plan and purpose of Almighty God, and that if they would be his true followers, his disciples must be ready to face Death as well. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”
This is the context, then, for the extraordinary event witnessed by Peter, and James, and John in our reading today. It is Death that encircles the story of the Transfiguration—Jesus’ prediction of his own death, and Jesus’ call to his followers to die to self that both come before; and Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem—his journey to suffering and death—that will follow hereafter. Death lurks at the perimeters of this story. Once again we find that “In the midst of life, we are in death.”
So what is the meaning of this story in this moment? Why do we read it here—now—as we stand upon the threshold of Lent? We often think of this impending season as a time to prepare for the celebration of Easter, and it is that. But the forty days of fasting and self-denial now looming before us are also a time to examine our lives in all their fallenness and fragility. The days of Lent are a time for us to remember our own mortality. As we will hear at services this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday: “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These days are a chance for us to face the inevitable fact of our own end. They are a time for us to take up our own crosses, and to die to ourselves. And they are an invitation to follow Jesus’ footsteps in the dusty pathway of Death.
Surely, it was such thoughts as these that occupied the minds of the disciples as they followed Jesus up the mountain. Surely, their minds over the course of the preceding week had been filled with thoughts of mortality—filled with the dread certainty and mystery of Death. Surely they found themselves weighed down by the sorrow they now knew they would face, and the ugly finality that they now knew must come.
And then, suddenly, Jesus was transfigured before them. Suddenly, their downcast eyes were drawn up by the vision of their friend filled with light. Suddenly, their darkened minds were brightened by the sight of their teacher talking with Elijah and with Moses. Suddenly, their heavy hearts were lifted by the affirming voice of God the Father, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
In that moment, they saw Jesus—the man whom they have left everything to follow—revealed to be something so much more than a prophet, a preacher, and a healer. His human body is not consumed, or discarded, but in and through his humanity shines the astonishing light of his divinity. Moses and Elijah—the personal embodiments of the treasury of Scripture, the Law and the Prophets themselves—both stand by to point to the fulfilled Promise of their own words. And as the cloud overshadows them, in that specific moment in time “six days after” Jesus’ dark words of death, the disciples suddenly find themselves caught up into the eternal light of the everlasting love of God.
Peter, and James, and John go down the mountain changed. They have not been freed from facing the trials ahead. They have not been released from the bitter necessity of suffering with their Lord. They have not even been granted the wisdom to discharge their duty perfectly, for as we know even these men will desert Jesus in his last hour.
And yet in that moment on the mountaintop, Peter and James and John see that God’s power has come down to work in and through a body like their body. In that moment on the mountaintop, they see that the mortal flesh of women and men shall be clothed with the garments of immortality. In that moment they see that Death, though persistent and ever-present in our lives will not, cannot, must not at last be triumphant in our lives.
For the truth, beloved, is that Death does lurk at the perimeters of all our stories. It meets us, expected and yet surprising, when we open the newspaper or turn on the television. It meets us, always a stranger and yet always well-known, in the sudden, tragic loss of a friend as well as in the slow, painful passing of a loved one. Death meets us at work and at home; online and on the roads; in the bright days of our triumphs and in the dark nights of our despair. Death roams the borderlands of our lives, impossible to tell when it make strike, but sure and certain that it one day will.
And yet the promise of the Transfiguration is that it is here–here in this life, here in these bodies, here in our stories–that God has chosen to reveal himself in glory. It is here, here as we walk this valley of the shadow of death, that the Mount of Transfiguration rises suddenly before us. It is here, here within the dark banality of Death’s startling inevitability that the light of life breaks upon us, radiating from the very garments of Jesus.
For the announcement of God in the person of Jesus our Lord is that in the midst of Death—Death all encroaching, Death inescapable, Death uncertain, Death inevitable—in the midst of Death, we are in Life—Life most glorious, Life unconquerable, Life unending, Life divine.
So do not fear, beloved, to climb the Mount of Transfiguration this day. Do not fear to lift your eyes from the rough, rocky ground below you to behold the light of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus. Do not fear to follow him back down the mountain—to follow him back into the pain and sorrow and the foreboding threat of Death below. Do not fear to walk with him steadfast to Jerusalem, and to see him meet Death in the great contest. Do not fear to hear and heed his command, to take up your own Cross, to follow him.
For this creation shines now, not just with the inextinguishable light that pierced the uncomprehending darkness at the mighty Word of God; This creation shines now, not only with the brilliant light of revelation breaking forth from every page of the Law and Prophets; This creation shines now, not simply with the glory of Christ transfigured there upon the mountaintop. But this creation shines now and evermore with the light that pours from the open door of the empty tomb. This creation shines with the unending life of the Risen Jesus. This creation shines—and we, dear people, shine with it—by the bright light of Christ our Lord who died, and who lives, and who will never die again.
So let Death come, and all his awful host with him. Let Sin besiege us with all the terrors that this darkened world can muster. Let Lent come upon us and hold before us the ever-present reminder of our mortality, and the call to us to die daily. We are children of the Transfiguration light. We are Daughters and Sons of the Resurrection. “And even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”