Sunday, February 23, 2020
HE TOUCHED THEM AND SAID “DO NOT BE AFRAID”
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Last Sunday of Epiphany 2020
Today’s passage is the point where Matthew makes it 100% clear that Jesus is the Messiah. This is a turning point in his gospel. From this point on, Jesus along with his inner circle who now have no doubt about who is are on their way to Jerusalem for the final confrontation with the Jewish and Roman authorities.
This is set six days after Peter’s confession of who Jesus really is, not only who do people say he is but Peter’s answer when Jesus asks, “And who do you say I am.” The six days are in keeping with the timing of the Festival of Booths in the fall. Jesus takes his inner circle up the mountain. There they experience this apocalyptic vision. There are several important aspects in this.
Jesus has an inner circle of three just as King David had an inner circle of three Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, 2 Sam 23:8, 18-23. This is important since Matthew is focused on proving that Jesus was a descendant of David, both physically and theologically. This tie to David is very important to Matthew as he tries to convince his readers that Jesus really is the Messiah.
In the previous chapter, Peter a member of this inner circle has just been questioned by Jesus as to who do people say I am. This is followed by who do you say I am, where Peter confesses him as Christ and in behavior true to form for Peter, promptly is strongly rebuked to get behind me Satan when he seems to forget who Jesus is within just a few verses.
We see in this passage the transcendent Jesus in his glory to use OT terms. This is a theophany, meaning it is an in breaking of God into our worldly existence. It pretty clearly involves a vision that is shared by all on the mountain. This is a classic glimpse into the kingdom in true apocalyptic tradition. Apocalyptic in terms of being a vision of what is to come, a revealing of knowledge about the nature of God.
In your bulletin is a copy of the icon that I have on the altar today. This icon depicts three parts of the scene. The group is shown going up the mountain with Jesus in the lead. Then the focus is on the transfiguration however the icon also shows them then going down off the mountain. The entire journey is shown on this icon. The flow seems to be, come, see who I am, follow. Then the transfiguration occurs, but that is not the end. Finally, it is time to come down out of the vision, off the mountain and get back to work. All three of these pieces are important.
Jesus is the focal point, always at the center of this icon, which is of key importance. Jesus as Messiah is the focus of Matthew’s message, so the artist has placed Christ at the center in all three portions.
Moses and Elijah appear and for Matthew they represent the law and the prophets. He changes the language from Mark’s version to make this point. The mountain brings back memories of Moses and the commandments. God speaks from a cloud as with the commandments. Moses in this icon has what looks like a book or tablet in his hand. This is a fairly modern icon done in the last century so it could be the Torah. Finally we remember that when Moses came off the mountain his face shown so brightly that he had to place a veil over his face so people could look at him. So this story has linked Moses, Elijah and King David with Jesus. This was very important to Matthew’s audience.
In the icon both Moses and Elijah are pointing towards Christ and bowing slightly to show he is the greater. The Greek translated listen to him also implies obey him. This echoes the voice that is present in Matthew’s baptism scene where we hear “This is my son the beloved in whom I am well pleased.” In the baptism it isn’t exactly clear who hears this voice, but here it is clear that the disciples hear the voice and fall to the ground in terror.
When I started working on this sermon, I was thinking the listen/obey him was the important message. Just like the disciples sometimes God has a surprise in store. Tuesday morning, we started looking at this passage using what some call the African bible study method or Indaba method. There are many variations but always involves three readings
Yet in the next moment, the cloud is gone, the voice is over and the very human Jesus touches them. This is unique to Matthew. Jesus touches them. This is the only version of this story in the gospels where he touches them. What is that about, why does Matthew include this when neither Mark or Luke mentions this detail.
Matthew is focused in his gospel on proving to his mostly Jewish audience and followers that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is more than transcendent and this very human action of touching someone brings a very human touch to this mostly transcendent experience. Matthew speaks of this as a vision an inbreaking of God into our world, but then everything changes in that simple act.
Think for a moment of all the times we hear of Jesus touching someone. Much of the time that touch is one that heals sometimes instantly. The blind man where he mixes the mud and puts it on his eyes. The young man who is being carried out to be buried. So many of those stories.
I speak of two images of Jesus one transcendent, the up there on the throne in heaven and the imminent Jesus, down here in the dirt with us. Sharing our pain, soothing our pain with us in the struggle. Only Matthew offers both images in his story. This is Jesus fully divine and fully human.
Stop for a moment and imagine what it would be like to have Jesus touch you on the shoulder. What would that feel like? Now imagine that touch and his voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” I invite you to sit with that this week.
Then it is time to come down from the mountain. Hopefully we all get to experience some sort of mountaintop experience. Jesus went up there to pray to be with God and we all need to do that in some way or the other. That is in part what Lent is all about. A season that asks us to spend time with God. I believe that is more important than any fasting that we might do. I encourage as we move towards Ash Wednesday and Lent to take time for some sort of prayer discipline. I have resources on the website and in the Epistle. I will offer more during our adult Christian formation time. On your way out is a page that I downloaded from the Society of St. John the Evangelist that has a simple daily activity based on the Way of Love that I will be teaching about during Lent. Pick it up, even if you do not come to Sunday school and just follow this simple discipline. Pick up a copy of the Living Well Through Lent 2020 book from Living Compass. Do something this Lent to strengthen your prayer life and your relationship to God. Let Jesus reach out and touch you, change you, give you new life. For as Bishop Curry says often, Jesus is loving, liberating and life-giving. May you feel all of that this Lent.