Bible Study: Last Sunday After Epiphany (B)

February 15, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“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.’” (Mark 9:2-5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2:1-12

There are two stories in this beautiful passage from Second Kings. One is the dramatic story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven, rich with imagery of God in the whirlwind, of chariots of fire and waters parting. It is a tale of prophets that connects Elijah with Moses and precipitates speculation about the nature of Elijah and his eventual return. The story within the story is Elisha’s grief: his desire to accompany Elijah on his final journey, even though he knows how the journey will end. Elisha’s determination to stay in the moment with his beloved teacher, against the counsel of the company of prophets who insist that the moment is passing, and his desire to inherit a double share of his teacher’s spirit are both touching and also prophetic. The ecstatic vision of the chariot of fire and the whirlwind subside; the passage ends with Elisha losing sight of Elijah and tearing his clothes in grief.

Many of us have taken or will take this final journey with a loved parent or mentor, or know someone who has. In what ways is the story of Elisha’s companioning Elijah to his ascent to heaven like a scene from hospice care? Consider the characters and their reaction to the situation. Elijah, Elisha, the company of prophets, God in the whirlwind, all have a part to play in the drama.

The prophet Elijah has been associated with the Messiah in both Jewish and Christian traditions. How does the concept of Messiah differ between Jews and Christians? How does Elijah relate to your conception of the Messiah?

Psalm 50:1-6

In these lines from Psalm 50, we hear an image of God as creator and judge. There is a way of thinking about God called “apophatic theology.” Sometimes called “negative theology,” this thinking holds that all of our names for God are inadequate. Since we can never name the unknowable and unnamable, the only way to describe God is by what God is not. Images or names such as Lord, Judge, Shepherd, Comforter or Slayer of the Wicked are all inadequate, only part of the vast greatness of God. The consuming flame and the raging storm in this passage are reminiscent of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3. These images, along with the whirlwind in today’s passage from Second Kings, are considered apophatic images of God.

With your Bible study group, make a list of all of the names and images of God that you can think of from scripture. Add as many names and images as you can from your experience or imagination. In what ways do these names describe God? In what ways do they fail to describe God? Which of your images are concrete (called “cataphatic” in theological terminology)? Which of your images are apophatic?

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul is defending his authority as an apostle and leader of the church in Corinth against a new group of missionaries who have led some church members to reject Paul’s leadership and message. When Paul describes the gospel as “veiled,” he is referring to the veil that covered Moses’ radiant face when he brought the covenant from God to the people of Israel in Exodus 34:33. Earlier in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul has spoken of his boldness as a proclaimer of God’s word, contrasting himself with Moses who veiled his face. Paul asserts his strong message and style of leadership as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. Using images of light, Paul is direct and unequivocal in his assertion that the glory of God shines through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In what ways is the image of light as a metaphor for God’s teaching like the images of the whirlwind, the consuming flame and the raging storm in today’s lesson from 2 Kings and Psalm 50?

Does Paul connect Jesus with Moses and Elijah? How? Does he connect himself with the line of prophets?

What “god of this world” might blind us from seeing the Good News of Jesus Christ as preached by the apostle Paul?

Mark 9:2-9

In the story of the Transfiguration, Mark describes a mystical experience. Imagine the terror of Peter, James and John as they try to make sense of an experience that is unknowable and unexplainable. Mark clearly links Jesus with Moses and Elijah, those prophets who stand in God’s presence and can communicate God’s word. It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Mark does not include an appearance of Jesus after the tomb is discovered to be empty, so that some scholars consider the Transfiguration to be a resurrection appearance. The voice of God from the cloud and the injunction to “Tell No One” about what they have seen echoes the Elijah’s Ascent-to-Heaven passage from Second Kings that we heard earlier today. God’s faithfulness is a theme of the story; God has never left God’s people without a prophet to lead them, without help or hope.

Have you ever had a mystical experience when you felt that you were in God’s presence? Can you describe the experience? Were you afraid? Did you think of any biblical stories, prophets or images? Or was your experience beyond description?

One interpretation of the Transfiguration is that it is a glimpse of the end time, a promise of a kind of life that we cannot imagine, that is not visible to our earth-bound eyes. How do you imagine the Kingdom of God? What glimpses have you had of the ways in which the Kingdom of God is not comparable to anything in our human experience? What characteristics of the Kingdom of God can translate to earthly life? How?

The experience of the Transfiguration reminds the disciples of the transcendent glory of God. The voice from the cloud bids the disciples to listen to God’s beloved Son, Jesus. How might the apostle Paul have preached on this passage? How does it speak to you?

How does this passage mark a turning point from the liturgical season of Epiphany, with its emphasis on miracles and the Good News of God’s kingdom, and the season of Lent, with its emphasis on Jesus’ journey to suffering and the cross?

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