Fr. Bill Carroll – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2023
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As I was telling the children, Jesus is our friend. He is the best friend that we will ever have. And yet, he is never just our buddy or pal.
Because the relationship is so intimate—and because our culture has lost its sense of reverence—we may have difficulty connecting with what theologians call God’s “transcendence.” A great theologian, Karl Barth, used to speak about God as “wholly other.” In so doing, he was echoing the prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other. There is no other god besides me.”
As many of you know, my wife is a gratefully recovering alcoholic. Tracey might put it this way: “God is God. And you are not.” I have come to believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is a powerful form of implicit Christian discipleship. AA is all about God’s grace changing lives through trust, honesty, and accountability.
Often, people come to the program with baggage from the religions of their childhood. And so, the language of a “Higher Power” is used to talk about what we would call “God” in a less threatening way. AA literature also speaks of the “God of our understanding.” A Higher Power is “wholly other.” It can be anything, so long as it isn’t us.
We catch sight of God’s “wholly otherness” in our lesson from Exodus today, where Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Law: “Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain,” we read.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is an outbreak of God’s glory in the world. Jesus brings his most intimate circle of friends with him to the mountaintop. And then, his “face shines like the sun” and his “clothing becomes dazzling white.” It’s as if we can see Jesus in the glory he has in heaven, before he joins us in our flesh (and after he returns home). But we see his glory in our flesh, changing us into his likeness.
On Sinai, Moses goes up alone and converses with God for forty days and forty nights. The Mountain is a place of divine-human encounter, where boundaries need to be set to protect us from God’s glory. No one else ascends the Mountain. Even the animals are not allowed so much as to graze upon the lower parts of the slope. Other than Moses, any who approach the Mountain in the story are put to death.
Faced with an outbreak of God’s glory, we realize how frail and mortal we are. We also recognize our sicknesses and our sins. God is “wholly other” in both power and goodness. There is no comparison between God and us. He is totally beyond our comprehension or control. To quote from the prophet Isaiah again, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” In today’s Gospel, despite Peter’s initial attempts to control what’s going on, the outbreak of God’s glory can’t be managed or contained. And so, the disciples fall to the ground, terrified. But then, Jesus—who is our friend, as well as our Lord and Savior—touches them and tells them not to be afraid.
The sacraments and the fellowship of the Church, like the Incarnation itself, are places where God reaches out and touches us. God desires an intimate fellowship with us creatures. God made us to share the divine life. And, when we chose instead the ways of sin and death, God sent us prophets and sages to reveal the way of love and to teach us how to walk in it. Again and again, we break God’s Covenant. But, out of God’s great love, he takes the initiative to restore our fellowship with God and other people.
And so, as frail, imperfect people, we fall down at the sight of the glory of God. But Jesus touches us. And he tells us to get up and not to be afraid. Because from his perspective (from God’s perspective), we are God’s beloved children, who need God’s help. And rather than sending us just another prophet or teacher, God chose to send us his own Son. In Jesus, God joins us down here in the mess we have made of our lives. The Word becomes flesh for us and for our salvation. God does this, because he loves us. And he wants to restore us to wholeness and sanity. To quote from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “[We became convinced that] God could and would [help us] if he were sought.”
The touch of Jesus might come to us, as it often does, through the words and stories in the Bible It might come to us through sacraments and ministries of the Church–or the faith-sharing and simple goodness of our friends. As we laid Martha Joseph to rest on Friday, I was reminded of the difference that one person’s love can make in so many other lives.
Jesus is not just our buddy or pal. We need more than that to save us from the ways of sin death. We need Jesus, our merciful Lord and Savior, who lives and dies for us all. We need him to touch us. We need him to meet us where we are—and to show us his great love for us. And then, we need to look into his face—and be changed by the almighty love we see there.