Sermon for Last Epiphany 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to introduce you to a technical term this morning that is used in rhetoric, but has a special meaning in theology. Your word for the day is prolepsis. It’s from a Greek root pro-lambanein which means anticipation. In rhetoric it means the anticipation of an argument before it’s made, but in theology it means the breaking-in of a reality before it has been accomplished in the time-line as we perceive it.

Prolepsis is not simple foreshadowing. Most of us know what foreshadowing is. Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, here’s an example from Romeo and Juliet. In the famous balcony scene, after Juliet expresses fear for Romeo’s safety, Romeo replies “life were better ended by their hate/ Than death prorogued wanting of thy love.” This is a foreshadowing of what will actually take place, as (spoiler alert) Romeo dies at the end of the play.

That’s foreshadowing, but prolepsis is something different. The future is not merely hinted at, not merely suggested, but rather it breaks in to the present. As Christians we live proleptically; we allow the sure and certain future of the Kingdom of God to break in to the present. We cannot fully perceive the Kingdom of God, it hasn’t been fully accomplished in our time-line, and yet the Kingdom of the world to come is made real and present at the altar. From our human perspective, the dead have not yet been raised to enjoy eternal life with God, but from the perspective of God, who functions outside of time as much as within it, the faithful departed are already in God’s presence. It can get confusing, but it will suffice to say that the mystery of redemption is beyond our capability to perceive because our minds simply cannot function without positing the passage of time. More about that in a minute.

This morning’s Gospel reading is an example of prolepsis. What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration was in fact an incursion of the future into the present. Specifically, the reality of the Resurrection was not just foreshadowed, but made really present in Christ’s miraculous mountaintop transformation.

Let’s take a closer look at the text. When on the mountain top, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. “His garments became glistening,” Mark wrote, “intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Even somebody whose whole livelihood was to bleach clothes, a fuller, couldn’t have got any clothes this white. This should stir up in our minds the men at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection, whose clothes are described by all of the Gospel writers as being extraordinarily white.

Likewise, we learn from Luke’s account that at the Transfiguration “the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed.” This is what “transfiguration” literally means- to change appearance. Compare this with all of those accounts of the Resurrection, where Jesus is not recognized. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her by name; the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them; the apostles didn’t recognize him until he said “peace be with you.”

All of this is to suggest that though Christ was still on his way to Calvary, though he had not yet even died, he and his disciples experienced a foretaste of the Resurrection that day on the mountain. The Father wasn’t simply foreshadowing what was going to happen after Jesus’ death; rather, God let a little bit of the future, a little bit of the greatest event in human history in fact, impinge upon the present of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had a “little resurrection” that day which was intimately connected to the resurrection as it was to take place several days later. Perhaps it was to give hope to the apostles. Perhaps, it was to give Jesus himself the strength to suffer the agonies of the Cross, knowing that the transforming power of the Resurrection would ultimately triumph.

In any event, we have something to learn from this, too. We still live in a world beset by sin and suffering. We still live in a world where death is a reality. We still need forty days of Lent—that ever looming church season which commences Wednesday—to remind us.

But we can nonetheless experience the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God among these things that are passing away. We acknowledge the “not yet” nature of the Resurrection and the Kingdom. We still have a shift in verbs in the Creed. “We believe in one God” and so forth, while we “look for” or prosdokō to use the original language of the Creed “await” the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They are still future events, but we Christians are proleptic people. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in Baptism. We look for the life of the world to come, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in the Eucharist.

We should be open to experiencing the risen life, but we must also live in the real world, and we can hold these two truths together. Like Peter, we might want to build huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; we may want to remain in the joy we experience in the risen life made so real and present in the Sacraments and in our lives as Christians, but like Jesus and like the disciples, we’ll eventually have to go back down the mountain. We shall all have to go back out into the world to love and serve the Lord, and humbly walk the way of the Cross. The mountain-top experiences are fleeting, but like Jesus and the disciples they give us strength. They give us the strength to do God’s work in a broken world, to live lives of sacrifice, knowing that some day we shall experience the risen life, the life of the Kingdom uninterrupted and in perpetuity. May we hold on to that blessed hope, and thus be strengthened to live in love and do God’s work with even more resolve.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.