February 26, 2017
Last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday
EXODUS 24:12-18; 2 PETER 1:16-21; MATTHEW 17:1-9
We have reached the end of the Epiphany season for this year. Today marks a turning point
The Transfiguration is a transition in all these ways.
1. Liturgically, today marks the transition between the Sundays after the Epiphany and the beginning of Lent.
In the weeks of Epiphany season, we have been “unpacking” the meaning and significance of who Jesus is. We began the season with the revelation of the infant Jesus to the Magi, gentiles, and we came to understand a bit more that he is God’s Promised One for all people. We moved to the celebration of his baptism, and we heard again the divine voice saying, “This is my Son.” We heard again the call of the first disciples. And for the last three weeks, we have been reading portions of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the core of what it means actually to respond to Jesus and to be a disciple. Now we are on the Mount of Transfiguration, and we hear again the voice, “This is my Son.” The beginning and end of the season are kind of bracketed with these words identifying Jesus as God’s agent, chosen and beloved, through whom God will make the world new and bring about the reign of justice, love, mercy, and peace. To mark this change liturgically, you will see before the altar last year’s palms, ready for burning to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday, so that we may turn and journey with Jesus toward the cross.
2. Scripturally, the Transfiguration marks the transition between Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and his journey to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there.
Why is this story placed where it is? In response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter has just made his confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus has assured Peter that he is the rock on which the church will be built. Then Jesus introduces what he knows lies ahead. Matthew tells us, “From this time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” The disciples can’t handle this. Peter especially is vehement in his protests that this shall not happen. And three days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.
Many commentaries on the Transfiguration focus on the dramatic visual elements – and they are dramatic indeed. Jesus’s face shining, his clothes dazzling white, Moses and Elijah, the cloud of God’s presence. Not so much attention is paid to the sounds. It’s interesting to me that the writer of the second letter of Peter says he was an eyewitness, but focuses on the words. There are very few of them. I imagine a kind of holy silence descending on the mountain, much like the silence that came over Elijah on the mountain of God. Only two things are said. The divine voice proclaims, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him.” Peter is
compelled to hear what he wishes to avoid. Indeed, the revelation is so terrifying and overwhelming that Peter, James, and John do the only reasonable thing: they fall prostrate on the ground before the presence of God and the truth of who Jesus is. And the second voice they hear is the voice of Jesus, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The word used for “Get up” is literally “Be raised” – the same phrase that is used of Jesus’ resurrection. If the disciples truly listen and follow Jesus, they will suffer and be rejected as he will be, and they will also be raised with him.
3. And theologically, the Transfiguration is a transition because the disciples see him in a whole new way.
Notice that Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what they have witnessed “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”. The ministry of Jesus – all his teaching and healing – only make sense when seen in the light of the resurrection. The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the glorified Son of Man as he will be at the end of the age, when he is revealed as God’s Chosen One to bring about the reign of God on earth.
However, it is only a glimpse. We do not yet possess that future. Why, then, is the Transfiguration so important? Because it’s about us, and it’s about our transfiguration, and it’s about change. Change is a fact of life. We have experienced massive changes in our lifetime, in technology, in politics, in environmental concerns, in the economy, and yes – in the church too. This is in many ways a transitional year for St. Peter’s, as we move intentionally into an even more collaborative model of ministry and leadership. It can be and sometimes is frightening. It can be and sometimes is sad, because we have to let go of familiar and comfortable ways. It can be an hopefully is sometimes exciting. Sometimes the change happens before the new thing is fully in place. I suspect that’s what happened to Peter – caught between wanting things to stay the same and knowing that change is coming. Instead of judging Peter for his impulse to build shelters, maybe we should recognize the same impulse in ourselves.
At its core, the Transfiguration insists that change is hard, but necessary. So we build tents. Not permanent structures, but structures nonetheless, to give some kind of shape to what is happening, to help us hang on, not forever, but long enough to hold onto something that, deep down, we know cannot be held onto. To capture, even if briefly, a moment that will sustain us through what is yet to come. The Transfiguration is a threshold moment between what was and what is coming. We get a glimpse of what could be, when actually it was there all along. Jesus did become someone different at the moment of Transfiguration; it was the disciples’ vision and understanding that changed. Much of the time, that’s how change works for us too. It’s not like we didn’t see the change coming, or even recognize what it might look like. We just wonder if we’re ready, if we can handle it. We erect temporary structures as a way of holding on, but also to capture a memory to cope with what is to come. Yes, Peter wants to stay, and he wants Jesus to stay. But Peter also wants the memory to stay – the glory, the promise, the declaration – because he will need it later on.
Because what is at work is Peter’s own transfiguration – or transformation – and ours. We are constantly in movement in our lives as we navigate changes – in our relationships, in our work, as we witness and participate in changes and transitions of graduation, marriage, children and grandchildren, retirement, as we experience losses and eventually as we come to terms with our own mortality. Change is a fact of life. Change means at once holding onto what was and looking toward the hope of what can be. That is why it’s so hard. Change insists that you be in a place you don’t want to be. Change insists that you stay for a while in a place of resolution that is not yet fully apparent. Change creates a sense of grief for what was and excitement for what is coming. So let’s not blame each other, or Peter, or ourselves for our fear of change. Let’s not pretend that we know better than Peter.
Instead, let’s listen to the voice. “This is my Son, listen to him.” Really listen. You know when you say to your child, “Listen to me!” It means, “This is important! You need to do what I tell you!” The voice interrupts all Peter’s plots and plans and announces that this Jesus is none other than God’s beloved Son, and the most important thing Peter can do is simply to listen. And then let’s listen to the other message, “Be raised, and don’t be afraid.” Peter needs to be pulled to his feet, perhaps wondering, “Did what I think just happened really happen? Or did I just imagine it?” And on the way down the mountain, Jesus will again tell them of his impending death. Peter will struggle to understand, to accept, to follow, to be faithful. In fact, he will do more than struggle. He will fail and he will fall. And Jesus will reach out again, raise him up, restore him and send him out. I wonder if, each time Peter failed, he recalled those words, “Be raised, and don’t be afraid.”
This is the beginning of Peter’s transfiguration – when he fails, falls, is raised up, and realizes that above and beyond everything else, he is called to listen to Jesus. It is the pattern of the Christian life. We, too, try our best. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail and fall. We, too, have moments of insight and moments of denial. We, too, fall down in fear, and are lifted up and sent out. We, too, are called to listen, to discern God’s way in the world, to partner with God in making that way happen, and so to be transformed. I think that’s what Paul was saying when he wrote, “All of us...seeing the glory of the Lord...are being transformed into his likeness, from glory to glory” – words that are echoed in today’s Collect. He also wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Being renewed in our mind, listening to God in Jesus – this is about each one of us as disciples. Parents and grandparents, employers and employees, students and seniors, doctors and janitors, Scout leaders and soccer coaches – we too are called. Can we recognize it? Can we believe that we, too, are called to listen and be raised? Can we imagine that this story about Jesus and Peter is also about us? Can we recognize that we have a part in God’s ongoing plan to bless, care for and save the world? That’s what it means to be a disciple.
So, if this calling thing is going to work, we need to listen. We need to learn to recognize when God is speaking to us, in the voice of another person, in the events of our lives and the events of our world, in our inmost hearts. And we need to make time and space to let God’s voice fill us. In our liturgies, we allow moments of silence. It’s a start. As we move into Lent, we can try, if at all possible, to cultivate times of silence so we can hear God, sense God’s presence in the depths of our being and let God speak.
And we need to listen to each other. If change is at times difficult and challenging and scary and sad and exciting and promising, it sure helps to have the listening ears and hearts of our fellow pilgrims. And so, as we move into Lent, we are going to try making time to listen to each other. Beginning in the second week in Lent, our mid-week Lenten study and our weekly sermons will include time and space for us to hear each other as we grapple with what God is offering us, where and how we might resist that offering, and what we might need to risk or renounce in order to accept what Jesus is offering. We hope that we might recognize that God is calling us to listen, might affirm when we have listened and responded, and might celebrate that when we fall in fear or failure, Jesus is there to pick us up and set us on the path again.
Transfiguration – transition – transformation. We move from Epiphany season into Lent, from palms to ashes, from Galilee to Jerusalem, from glory to glory. In this journey, we will find that the glory does not all lie in the future. Certainly, the end of the journey is wholeness and holiness. But as we go, we will find that the journey itself is holy. The way of the cross is for us the way of life. The struggle, the growth, the change – all are holy because it is in the journey that we meet Christ, who walks with us and before us. It is in the journey that hope is given and glory is revealed. The first letter of John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” We are being changed into his likeness, from glory to glory.
Get up, and don’t be afraid. Let us journey together. Amen.