The Rev. Robert D. Hughes, III, Ph.D.
Norma and Olan Mills Professor of Divinity
Professor of Systematic Theology
School of Theology
University of the South
World Mission Sunday 2003
The major lectionary theme of the last Sunday of the Epiphany season is the Christological mystery of the Transfiguration. The connection to World Mission Sunday may not seem obvious at first, but the Standing Commission on World Mission deliberately recommended this Sunday for a vote at General Convention because of the connections it saw.
The hermeneutical notes which follow may be of use in preparing a sermon for World Mission Sunday this year. By the way, it is worth noting that while at one time critics thought the story of the Transfiguration was a misplaced post-resurrection appearance, most now do not see it that way. The fact that Mark (and Matthew and Luke follow him in this), carefully dates the event after the Confession of Peter clearly indicates he viewed the event as historical and located at precisely this point in Jesus' ministry. In year B this is underlined by the insistence of the author of 2 Peter on the historical character of the event.
Jesus as Fulfillment and Mediator
First, we should note the symbolic references to the Older Covenant in the transfiguration story -- the presence of Moses, the beginning of the Covenant, and of Elijah, its greatest prophet and the symbol of its eschatological fulfillment. Both are present to testify to Jesus as the fulfillment (not the abrogation) of the Law and the Prophets. The connection is even clearer if Michael Ramsey is correct that the Mount of the Transfiguration is more likely Horeb than Tabor, as identified in later tradition.
The Year B reading from I Kings, with the story of the appearance of God to Elijah on Mt. Horeb in the still small voice, underlines this connection. First point: The great Missio Dei, the mission of the Trinitarian God, overflowing the inner Trinitarian life into Creation and Covenant, finds its climax or crux in Jesus. This is fully underlined by the voice of God, declaring that "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." The Missio Dei or Mission of God reaches its peak in the Missio Christi, the mission of Christ as the chosen mediator of the new Covenant, which shall be with all people.
Mission as Witness and Action
Second, in all three accounts of the Transfiguration, three disciples are present to be witnesses -- again a mission theme. Peter wants to build three booths, which, far from being stupid, is the absolutely correct religious response, given the symbolic overtones of the Feast of Booths in the event. But this is not to be.
Mission may require a glorious Gospel vision of God's glory and salvation at its heart, but we are not allowed to remain in contemplation on the mountain. In the valley are an epileptic boy who needs healing and a father (not to mention a crowd of disciples), who need to have their faith strengthened. Similarly, Elijah was commissioned to go back down the mountain and anoint three new leaders who would play decisive roles in the history of the Covenant People. Here we see the fulfillment of the Missio Christi in a union of service and evangelism
The specific theme for World Mission Sunday 2003 is reconciliation. It is God, reconciling the world to himself in Christ Jesus, whose glory is manifest throughout all the mysteries of Epiphany, most particularly here at the Transfiguration. The fundamental text on reconciliation, 2 Cor 5:18-20, although not in the lectionary, is highlighted on the World Mission Sunday poster.
Because we have been reconciled, we are to become reconcilers in turn; the message has been entrusted to us, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. Having been given this message, we are commissioned as ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making this appeal for reconciliation through us. This is the very heart of the Gospel mission. The disciples who are present on the Mountain of the Transfiguration are prepared to recognize this reconciliation in the coming death and resurrection by this foretaste of God's glory in Christ.
Reconciliation -- Not An Option
Krister Stendahl, Professor of New Testament and Dean at Harvard Divinity School and Bishop in the Church of Sweden, often pointed out that this reconciliation with God was meant to be reflected in mutual forgiveness as the fundamental structure of the common life of the people of God. As we learn in the Lord's Prayer, we are to forgive even as we are forgiven. Indeed, our refusal to forgive makes it impossible for there to be room in our hearts for God's forgiveness of us. Everywhere in the New Testament where instruction is given about praying powerfully, somewhere nearby will also be found instructions about mutual forgiveness.
Reconciliation is not an option; it is the fundamental requirement of Christian corporate existence. That is why we find the exchange of the peace at the transition to the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist, why we are to confess our sins to one another before praying for healing for the sick in James 5. It is the task of the community of those reconciled with God to be reconciled to one another, so that they may in word, sacrament, and deed offer that reconciliation to the world as ambassadors of Christ, that the world may show forth God's glory in the face of Christ. In the meantime, "You will do well to be attentive to this as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."