At the end of the little passage we heard read from St. Mark’s Gospel today comes the only commandment of Jesus’ that every Episcopalian loves to follow. Jesus is coming down the mountain with Peter and James and John. He has just been transfigured before them – his entire being glowing with light. The great figures of the faith have appeared with him. A voice from heaven has declared Jesus to be the Beloved Son of God. The three disciples are terrified. And as they are making their way down the mountainside, Jesus gives them the one, singular commandment that is dear to every faithful, church-going Episcopalian’s heart: Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen.”
Tell no one! Oh how we have internalized this sacred teaching, and clutched it close to our bosom. No one could ever accuse Episcopalians of being uninterested in the scriptures and following their precepts to judge by our adherence to this order. This instruction to keep silent about the truth of Jesus is a particular and recurrent feature in the Gospel of Mark – our patron here in this parish – so we, of all Episcopalians should delight to live into it with a practiced and sacred silence. Keep our mouths shut about Jesus? You don’t have to tell us twice. Mum’s the word! Wouldn’t dream about spilling the beans about any possible relationship we might have with Jesus – especially if it involves the suggestion that he is kind of special – even the Son of God! Tell no one? You got it, Jesus! We’re on your side! We have turned the lock and thrown away the key! Just try to get us to talk about you, or to mention your glory! We have nothing to say!
Tell no one! Was ever another commandment so obeyed?!?
St. Mark tells us that it was not difficult for Peter, James, and John to obey this commandment either, at least for a while. There are instance in the Gospels when Jesus instructs people to tell no one about him and they immediately start blabbing, but in the very next verse that follows the passage we heard today the evangelist says that the three disciples “kept the matter to themselves.” How grateful we must be for their example. For, when it comes to Jesus and his church, there is hardly a matter that we are not eager to keep to ourselves.
Perhaps the reasons Peter, James, and John, kept silent about the transfiguration of Jesus and told no one are the same reasons we so consistently keep silent about him. Perhaps we, like them, are embarrassed.
The vision they saw, after all, was hard to believe, and even harder to understand. How could it be? What does it mean? Were their eyes playing tricks on them? Were they a little ashamed that they felt so terrified? Peter had tried to take control and impose some meaning and order on the scene, but in the way it all unfolded, his efforts to do so are remembered as naïve and silly.
Who wants to be thought of as naïve and silly? And who wants to build their faith on the stories of ancient visions the implications of which are obscure and imprecise? How in the 21st century are we to be taken seriously if we open a conversation with our friends about what we heard in church today? Let me tell you about the day Jesus started glowing…! This is at least a little embarrassing. In fact, in our own day it is even more embarrassing than it was for Peter, James, and John. Just going to church is a bit of an embarrassment these days. It raises all kinds of questions about what world you think you are living in. Because we do not live in a world where people glow on mountaintops, and in which voices are heard emanating from clouds. In our world if you hear voices telling you to listen to someone, then you need to see a shrink, not a priest, because you are probably a little dangerous.
There are more reasons to be embarrassed by Jesus and his church in the current moment than I can possibly list or explain from this pulpit this morning. Whether it’s because religion and religious observance just seem outmoded these days, or because so many people think of the church (and religion in general) as fundamentally hypocritical, or because the long, historical catalog of the sins of the church and her leaders is so well known. There are ample reasons to tell no one that for an hour or so each week – or maybe more – you come to a place where most of what we do is talk, and sing, and think, and pray about Jesus.
Scholars have reached no consensus about why Jesus so frequently instructed people to tell no one about him. It certainly goes against the grain of our own conventional wisdom. How could he possibly accomplish anything if he wasn’t well known? How could he save the world if he couldn’t spread the word?
If you look closely at the text of today’s Gospel reading you will see that Jesus’ instruction to “tell no one” is qualified: “he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
Let us suppose that Peter and James and John took this instruction seriously. And let us suppose that some time not long after the resurrection the three of those disciples got together and started remembering together the episode on the mountaintop with the cloud and the voice, and Elijah and Moses, and their rabbi glowing with light. I imagine they compared notes, and maybe they had to prompt one another to recall precisely what it was that the voice said as it tumbled down to them from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
What an unusual divine command this seems to be. The voice does not compel the three disciples to “do as he says.” It does not provoke them to “follow wherever he goes.” The voice does not lay out a plan for world domination, nor does it promise rewards in heaven to martyrs of the faith. It only gives the somewhat benign instruction to “listen.” But, oh, how hard it is to listen. Harder in our own day and age, I suspect, than ever before. And if it was obvious to Peter and James and John what it meant to listen to Jesus; it is by no means obvious in our own time what that might mean.
And yet, that is one of the chief purposes for our gathering in Christ’s name: to listen to him. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that our purpose is to listen for Jesus. We gather together to train our ears like a compound listening device to identify the silent sounds of Jesus. The church, we hope, will function like some kind of giant seashell that echoes with a distant sound that can’t possibly be contained within it, yet still makes the sound plausible, present, and deeply suggestive of the truth.
Listen to him. Listen to him. Listen to him.
Perhaps the reason we are still so embarrassed to talk about Jesus is because we have not spent enough real time listening to him.
Here we are poised on the edge of Lent – a time of the church year when we know we are supposed to do something, but we are not always sure what we are supposed to do. I wonder if we should allow for the possibility that we are just supposed to listen. Maybe there is a voice encouraging us to listen during these weeks of Lent that lie ahead of us.
Maybe if we listen, we will begin to hear the songs of peace that Jesus wants to teach us, maybe he will help us to find ways to feed the hungry, help the poor, care for the planet, and be the better versions of ourselves that we sometimes want to be.
Maybe we have to listen, just sit and listen for Jesus before we’ll ever be able to listen to Jesus.
What would be wrong with spending five weeks or so just listening in church? This was God’s prescription for Peter and James and John after the embarrassment of the transfiguration, when the three of them – singled out by Jesus to be his inner circle – proved to be naïve and silly, and easily embarrassed, if you ask me. God’s command (if you want to call it that) in the face of such embarrassment was to listen. This is his Son, the Beloved; listen to him.
Let us help each other listen for Jesus in hopes that listening for him will allow us to listen to him.
And weeks from now, when the winter has warmed, and the ice has thawed, and the tulips are opening, and the Cross has been erected, bled upon, and taken down again, and the empty tomb is shown again to be just as empty as it always has been. Then, if we have been listening, maybe we’ll be brave enough – having listened carefully, prayerfully, and hopefully - maybe then we’ll be brave enough and eager enough to want to tell someone about it!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 February 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia