Wow! Can we believe it? What an incredible story: Jesus’ face and clothing aglow, Moses and Elijah appearing from somewhere beyond, and the booming voice of God endorsing his son and his mission. It sounded just a bit like God announcing that Jesus—like Jim and me—was an official MID: Member in Discernment. That was quite an announcement!
Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to a lonely spot on a mountain. It’s been less than a week since he told them he was going to be murdered. Clearly, he is not the king who will take over the country from the Roman rule and save the Jewish people. I wonder if the apostles’ commitment might be wavering at this point. Is their faith in the messianic drama waning? If we had been there, would we also have been disheartened, disillusioned, and scared. What would we have made of Jesus’ commitment to carrying out the will of his Father, knowing he was soon to be killed? From the age of 12, Jesus proclaimed that his role was to carry out God’s will. No wonder Jesus cried out “If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!” But that’s not today’s part of the journey.
We have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story, but even knowing that, the Transfiguration is an incredible narrative. Some among us—like Dick Hawkins, for example—would say that it’s a metaphor. But what if it’s not?
What if Peter, James, and John actually saw Jesus in an almost beatific vision? And what was the effect of seeing Moses and Elijah there and talking to these ancient figures of their faith?
The closest thing I have ever experienced to this, was seeing Mother Teresa in Milwaukee in the early ’80’s. I was one of thousands in attendance at the Milwaukee arena, but I can tell you that I was incredibly and inexplicably moved by the experience. Seeing Mother Teresa was for me—and I suspect for countless others—a truly spiritual experience. I could feel her presence, and I knew I was in the presence of a holy person. I can’t really explain this, and I presume Peter, James, and John couldn’t explain their experience either.
The apostles knew the stories of Moses and Elijah—Moses being called into the cloud where he encountered God and received the Ten Commandments that told the Jewish people how to live together in harmony, and Elijah being the prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. And here these holy men were, talking to the apostles and to Jesus. Might that have been reassuring to the apostles, fearing the pending death of their leader? Might it have fortified their faith?
According to today’s Scripture, the apostles were not fortified; they were terrified and fell on their faces, “overcome with fear.” Here is the part of the story that speaks most directly to me. Seeing their obvious distress, Jesus came up and touched them, saying, “Stand up, do not be afraid.” Even the glory of God can fill me with terror, so I cherish Jesus’ act of compassion and his mantra that is repeated throughout the gospels: BE NOT AFRAID.
When the apostles arose, they saw only Jesus. What else do we need to see in this world besides the face of Jesus? When we can see the face of Christ in everyone we encounter, we will not be afraid of whatever lies before us.
This calls to mind the words found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 35 to 39.
Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked. As scripture promised: For your sake we are being massacred daily and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter (Psalm 44:11). These are the trials through which we triumph, by the power of him who loved us.
For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Can we believe this? It isn’t just a nice passage to be read at funerals and memorial services. It’s God’s promise to us that can sustain us in times of trouble and can shape the way we live out our lives as Christians.
If Donna was able to do her magic with the bulletin cover, we have a picture of a beautiful, heart-shaped cloud. I like to think that this is what the cloud in today’s Transfiguration story looked like. God, to me, would appear in a heart-shaped cloud so there could be no doubt of God’s love for us. There would be an implied directive, too, that we spread this love freely and completely—a life long task to be sure.
Peter wanted to erect tents to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but Jesus told them instead to “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” I suspect these words left them even more baffled, yet they had to live silently with their confusion. Peter, for one, seems to have had little carry-over from this experience. It would not be long before Jesus would be betrayed and arrested and Peter would deny even knowing Jesus three times.
I find that rather comforting, which probably sounds a bit weird. Betrayal and denial of Jesus isn’t comforting, but struggling with my faithfulness to God seems more human when I see even Peter shrinking from upholding his faith.
So, when we, too, find life confusing and our discerning and following of God’s will difficult, it might help to remember that the apostles struggled with this too, even after encountering a transfigured Christ, two venerable prophets, and the voice of God. And I remember, too, that Jesus said to the apostles and says to us, “Be not afraid.”
I guess the Transfiguration is a mystery to be cherished, rather than an encounter to be feared. By embracing this experience as shared in Matthew’ gospel, perhaps we, too, can in some way be transformed into better, holier, and happier Christians.
In the name of the one who overcame death and challenged us to not be afraid, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture Reading for February 23, 2020 Matthew 17:17:1-9
Six days [after telling his disciples how he would be crucified and resurrected] Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light.
Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. “Lord,” he said, “it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.” When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them. “Stand up,” he said, “do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.