--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
When I was still teaching as my primary vocation, I knew that, despite what politicians and test-making companies might say, my job was not simply to pour facts into students’ heads. Instead my primary job was teaching them to perceive patterns and connections, to question critically, to analyze. In short, my job was to teach my students how to learn on their own once they departed from my classroom no matter what they studied (hopefully having learned a few facts along the way). Here is the reality: the disciple can only grow toward mastery once they depart from the teacher and toward maturity and independence. But crossing that threshold can be scary—filled with wonder, yes, but also trepidation and sometimes even anxiety.
In our readings today, we see this truth borne out. Elijah, in his farewell tour, visits the holiest places in Israel with his student Elisha firmly clinging to his spiritual father. At each place Elijah tries to get Elisha to stay with the company of prophets there—and each time Elisha uses traditional vow language to refuse. But in a Moses-like moment, Elijah parts the Jordan with his mantle, and is taken bodily up into heaven in a whirlwind—a common Bible description for the presence of God. God actually becomes symbolically visible and carries Elijah to heaven, and Elisha forces himself to watch the entire, dazzling sight. Elisha is then forced to evolve into his own prophetic work.
Likewise, Jesus’s closest disciples accompany him at his invitation to a high, remote mountain. Once again we experience a theophany—a revealing of the presence of God—both in the form of Jesus’s transfiguration and in the cloud that proclaims Jesus God’s own son. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, flank Jesus. Peter, perceiving that there is a threshold approaching, babbles about staying there forever. But just like that, the experience winks out, and the disciples are left trying to understand what happened, yes, but also with the unsettling feeling that Jesus’s ministry with them is about to change.
There is no doubt that the leaving of the teacher can bring about grief. In the Phaedo, the story is recounted of the great philosopher Socrates’s execution by the Greek authoritarian regime for trumped-up charges of atheism (not believing in the gods of the state) and corrupting the youth of Athens by his teaching. Even though innocent of the charges, Socrates IS guilty of teaching his pupils to question everything, and of course that creates a problem for those who do not want their authority questioned. In his dignity, Socrates accepts the judgment—he is to drink a cup of hemlock, a poison. Xanthippe, his wife, was so overcome by grief that Socrates sends her away before he starts his discussion.
As a great teacher, Socrates spends his final day teaching—in particular, on the nature of the soul. Socrates claims that each person has an immortal soul, and that suicide is wrong since men are the property of the gods and do not belong to themselves. Philosophers seek to free the soul from the body as much as possible, since the Greeks believed that the body, especially the fallible senses, is an impediment to truth. Greek philosophers sought to free themselves of the body’s natural limitations through the power of the mind, not through suicide. To drive home his claim, Socrates then gives four proofs or arguments for the immortality of the soul.
After having this last debate with his students and friends, Socrates is ready, and cheerfully calls for the cup of poison and drinks from it. All present begin to weep, and his student Apollodorus is so overcome he too is sent away, as Socrates calls for silence.
Socrates walks around to speed the poison’s efficacy, until his legs begin to fail him. He then lays down, and the executioner then tests as sensation leaves first his feet, then his legs, then his groin. As he gets cold Socrates covers himself up. After his lower extremities are affected, he uncovers to ask his friend Crito to pay off a debt he owed, then covers himself up and a few moments later dies. And in dying he proves that he was NOT a heretic or an atheist—and he spends his last minutes making sure his students are able to continue with their learning without him.
The student is changed by the teacher—but the teacher is also changed by the student. Both Elisha and Peter want to cling to their teachers—but both of our stories are not about destinations. They are about threshholds. They are about taking up our own ministry and living into what we have learned for the sake of the world. In other words, they are about the disciple’s responsibility to carry on and spread the teacher’s work through the dedication their lives.
The Transfiguration is a turning point, a threshold, midway between Jesus’s baptism and his death. It is, like all of our experiences during the season after Epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus really is, calling us to respond with wonder and awe. Now Jesus will turn his face toward the cross. On the cross, we will see a Transfiguration-like scene repeated, but in mockery by Rome. Jesus will be executed for his teaching just as Socrates was. Jesus will again be between two figures—the two criminals who were crucified with him. On the cross, his claim to be God’s son will be inscribed over his head as a form of mockery, for surely the true Son of God would not be hanging on a cross. While he is on the cross, the crowds will wait around to see if Elijah will come to save Jesus.
When we experience a liminal space like Elisha and Peter and James and John did, when we encounter a turning point, a transformative threshold in our experience, we are present for a transfiguration of all that dances before our eyes, urging us forward across a river that separates our old way of knowing from our new way of perception. It is this kind of seeing we all experience when we encounter an epiphany like the disciples’ experience with Jesus on that mountain. One last flash of wondrous light, and the season of Epiphany, of Jesus revealing who he is, comes to an end.
From this point on we turn our faces toward the journey through Lent and the shadows that lie on the road to the cross. But we also turn our faces toward Jesus empowering us, despite our own thoughts of being ordinary and unprepared, as his very Body, his only visible presence in the world. We turn our faces toward the joy of the resurrection and ascension, and our call to taking up the mantle and our discipleship. And for that we can say, for the last time for the next 7 weeks- Alleluia!