God’s Kingdom

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany – February 15, 2015
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Interim Associate Rector

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. – Mark 2:2-9

 O Father, with the eternal Son,
and Holy Spirit, ever One,
vouchsafe to bring us by thy grace
to see thy glory face to face.[1]

 There is an old Indian fable about six blind men and an elephant. Various versions of the story exist, but the details are similar in each.

Six blind men encounter an elephant. They want to understand more about what it is.

The first man walks up to the elephant. He stumbles and falls against the elephant’s side. He proclaims that the elephant is like a wall.

The second man goes up to the elephant and grabs its round, smooth tusk; he announces that the elephant is like a spear.

When the third man gets to the elephant, he holds onto its trunk, which squirms in the man’s hands; he declares that the elephant is like a snake.

Upon his approach to the elephant, the fourth man reaches out and touches the elephant’s knee; he says that the elephant is like a tree.

My favorite is the fifth man, who brushes up against the elephant’s ear and thinks that the elephant must be like a fan. Can you imagine describing an elephant as a fan? Yet it makes sense if a wafting ear is all that you perceive…

And, finally, the sixth man walks up and grabs the elephant by its swinging tail. To him, the elephant is like a rope.

Each man jumps to the conclusion that the elephant is like he himself describes it, and, of course, each man is partly right. But when each insists that his partial perceptions are the total truth about what an elephant is, it keeps all of them from understanding more about the real truth. And none of them will know what an elephant is like until he realizes that it is much more than he perceives.

Peter reminds me of the blind men. Faithful as he is, he often seems to jump to conclusions based on limited understanding. He is the one who rebukes Jesus when Jesus says that he will be killed.2] He is the one who denies that he will desert Jesus and then denies him three times.[3]

In today’s gospel, Peter, along with James and John, has accompanied Jesus up a high mountain when Jesus is suddenly transfigured before them. He literally becomes something else in front of their very eyes, with clothes more dazzling white than any one on earth could bleach them, as he talks with Moses and Elijah, the twin pillars of the Jewish faith, the representatives of the Law and the Prophets. Based on what Peter, a faithful Jew, already knows about Moses and Elijah and what he sees in front of him, he apparently makes up his mind that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are equals and that all three belong in dwellings on the mountain top. What Peter fails to apprehend is the uniqueness of what he is seeing. His previous knowledge and experience are informative, but they do not give him the whole story. Something else is going on.

None other than God makes the point quite dramatically. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” – words that echo those that Jesus heard himself when he was baptized. Jesus is not just another good and faithful servant, he is the Son of God. As St. Paul proclaims to the Corinthians in today’s reading, Jesus is Lord, the very image of God, the one in whose face we can see the glory of God. Literally with God’s help, Peter, James, and John experience the ultimate epiphany: the knowledge that Jesus embodied something greater than had ever before been revealed, that he was God’s son. “Listen to him,” God said.

Peter’s story hits home for me. Certainly, in matters of faith, it is all too easy to rely on things as we have always understood them. Throughout history, for example, people have interpreted God’s word to limit access to God’s kingdom. Slaves, the sick, women, those who eat the wrong food or wear the wrong clothes, the uncircumcised, and Gentiles, just to name a few on a list of many. The arc of Jesus’s ministry was to bring more and more people healing and knowledge of God’s love. Yet even Jesus was inclined not to heal a demon-possessed Gentile girl until her mother reminded him that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[4] We all tend to make judgments based on what we’ve always known and believed…or based on what we’ve always known and wanted to believe. To see only a part of the elephant, as it were.

And yet throughout history, people have come to realize that God’s kingdom is infinitely more expansive than it is exclusive. As spectacular as the parting of the waters and the chariots of fire and Elijah’s ascension in a whirlwind were, what Elisha witnessed points to a far bigger truth; God can and will amaze us, but God is not just a magician. Moses and Elijah are pillars of our faith, but there is far more to God’s kingdom than the Ten Commandments and all the prophecies combined. Jesus was a teacher and a healer and a prophet, but he was more than any one of those and more than all of them together. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians in an earlier letter, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”[5]

The astonishing thing is that when we begin to be open ourselves to the possibility of God’s presence in all people and all lives, we are inclined to become more aware of God  in all aspects of our own lives. The kingdom of God is not just available at a later date; it is present and infinite in its scope. If you think that sounds impossibly cheerful, let me remind you that we are about to enter the season of Lent, which brings us up against some of the harder truths – the heartbreak even – of our existence. And yet if we encounter Lent as an opportunity to seek God’s presence within the hard truths of our own lives and the lives of others, I promise you that the reality of Easter will take root in you as never before.

Whether it is the holy communion that we will all share in a few minutes, the everyday moments of our lives, or the momentous aspects of those lives that thrill or haunt us, it is all too easy to encounter a situation where what is  familiar about it causes us to miss what is truly transformative. Let us be aware of our blindness, and then let this Lent be a revelation to all of us, individually and as a community of faith, of the here and now presence of the kingdom of God in all our lives.


[1] Hymn 137, “O wondrous type! O vision fair,” Carlisle.

[2] See Mark 8:31-32.

[3] See Mark 14:29, 66-72.

[4] Mark 7:24-30.

[5] 1 Corinthians 13:12a.