Our passage from Matthew is the report of Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus has reached that point in his ministry where he needs to know just where his disciples stand on his teachings and on him himself. He has been debating the Pharisees and Sadducees for much of his ministry about the nature of the Kingdom of God. He has been challenging the ordinary people to start living in the Kingdom of God. During all of this time, he has especially counted on his disciples … people close to him … to understand deeply about the Kingdom.
Prior to the transfiguration, he put them to the test. He asked them who they thought he was. The disciples said, John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah returned. But Peter knew; he was the Messiah. Jesus was pleased with this reply. But was it just Peter’s excitement. Did he really understand?
Shortly after this Jesus began to warn the disciples that they must go to Jerusalem and there he would be crucified and rise on the third day. Peter, though, couldn’t accept this scenario. He took Jesus aside and complained that this can not happen! And Jesus, disappointed, accuses Peter of being in league with the devil. Jesus warned the disciples that if they want to follow him, they must lose their lives in order to gain their lives.
But did Jesus really think this was the right and appropriate way to fulfill his ministry? He probably had much anguish and doubt over the direction he was taking. After all it was a deeply radical and almost desperate plan: to have so much faith in the Kingdom of God on earth that he could slay death itself.
Jesus needed to think. So he took Peter, James and John … his inner circle … to a mountain to think and pray. During their meditations, Jesus was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared to them and spoke with Jesus. Peter was so taken that he did not want it to end and asked to build places for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But a bright cloud overshadowed them and from it a voice spoke: “This is my Son, the Beloved: with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples were frightened.
Then it was all over: Moses, Elijah and the cloud was gone. Jesus was just Jesus and he reassured them that all was well.
So what really happen on that mountain side? Something indescribable happened. The reporters had to resort to metaphor to describe the indescribable. In some amazing way Jesus understood that his past and the past of his people were converging on him now and that his desperate plan to go to Jerusalem and challenge the powers and principalities was in fact the right thing to do. It was a revelation for him and an affirmation of his ministry. But it wasn’t just a dream or a quiet thought. It was fantastic:
Jesus’ faced shone like Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the Commandments. That shining was the presence of God in Jesus (and Moses). It was the shekhinah of God: God’s glory. And his white clothes announced his own purity of action. And Moses was the law-giver and Elijah was the greatest prophet. Both the law and prophecy were with Jesus, pointing to Jesus. And the cloud was the presence of God … just as God in the form of a cloud led the Hebrews out of slavery, so God now reassures Jesus that he is on the right track to freeing humanity.
Jesus’ transfiguration was reality shift. He was no longer a wandering teacher and prophet to become unknown or, if he were fortunate, remembered in some scripture. Now he was the Messiah set to turn the world upside down.
But the time had come for Jesus, Peter, James and John to come down off the mountain and re-join the ordinary. Jesus was now transfigured and determined to fulfill his ministry. But for Peter, James and John, they were still fallible to the world around them. Indeed Peter would betray Jesus on Good Friday. And the disciples, except John, Mary Magdalene and a few other women would abandon him.
Their transfiguration would come on Easter…
What Jesus experienced, I suggest, was a paradigm shift: a shift in his way of thinking; a revelation of the significance and meaning of the path that he was on. Before the transfiguration, Jesus was working to guide his followers to put all their trust in God, so that they would have the courage to make the changes Jesus proclaimed in their lives and in the life of the world around them. But that wasn’t happening. His followers would go only so far. When he pushed them they backed off.
Even his disciples were not certain, constantly questioning what he was doing. They were finding it far too much to break with the world.
So on that mountain, Jesus’ idea of going the distance was confirmed. Something had to be done … something had to happen … that would finally convince his followers to have the enormous and powerful faith that he had. No longer would he work through the world around him. Now he was working through the Kingdom of God.
So what does all of this do for us? I don’t think we are necessarily called to walk that very dangerous path that Jesus took in his last days. No doubt, some are. Some are called to dangerous places. Some are called to dangerous acts … we see that now in North Africa and the Mid East. We hear about folks who put themselves in harms way to help people, such as Mortenson who sets up schools for girls in Afghanistan.
But we are ordinary. We have homes and families and jobs. So can we experience transfiguration? I suggest that at times we can and probably do.
For example, I’ve seen a number of people who work with the elderly and how they slowly move towards a new way of looking at the world and life, often experiencing that break through moment of understanding.
Bob is a hospice volunteer. He works in an investment firm during the day. He has helped a lot of folks with their retirement funds. But recently he is not finding meaning in what he does for a living. It’s a good job and he does help people. But he feels a certain shallowness about his relationships.
So he volunteered to be a hospice companion. He was trained by the hospice to understand what it meant to work with a dying person. He was taught some ways to interact with them.
Now Bob had a spiritual side. He was brought up in a church and though he doesn’t regularly attend, he considered himself spiritual. He had found a measure of sustenance in Eastern meditation and spiritual exercises.
As he worked with his assigned patients he grew to understand that a conversation with them wasn’t a conversation as he understood. He learned to listen more than anything else. He learned to be present, sometimes silently. He learned patience. And he found that he was relying on his spiritual side more and more.
Sometimes his patients would talk about deceased loved ones as if they were alive or that they were going home, but clearly not on this earth. He found that his sense of the afterlife and the spiritual was heightened. Also he realized how important religion was for people at the end of life …
He’d return to work with a sense of meaning in his life. He found that he was more attuned to his older clients. Yet he wanted to do more. He was asked at one point by a friend to join her at a food pantry where they offered a Thanksgiving meal to impoverished and homeless people. He helped to serve. One client took the time to just talk to him, like he was a friend.
He came back a number of times. After serving he would often sit with the families and just listen … as he learned in his hospice volunteering. He learned a lot not only of the families but of the social conditions they faced.
He returned to work. He still helped the elderly. But he also helped parents set up education funds. Still he wasn’t satisfied.
One day he was sitting with a hospice patient. She told him a beautiful story of how she married after she was liberated from a concentration camp. She admitted they married just to find normalcy in a new family. She hardly knew the man. But they lived together happily for 60 years…
Then as he listened, he felt or sense a shift in his thinking of whom he was. He was good at investing, but he did not feel like an investor… not anymore. As he left the room he committed himself to his ministry to the elderly, the homeless, and just people in general. This is where he found meaning … and now, he realized a calling.
Bob stayed with his investment firm just long enough to go back to school and qualify as a social worker. Once he had his license, he found a position with a non-profit that worked within the inner city to help folks and to struggle for systemic changes. His pay was less for longer hours … sometimes dangerous hours. But now Bob, transfigured, was on the path that he had longed for.
You need to be in tune with God and the spiritual, as Bob had become. Transfiguration leaves you with a strong sense of God’s constant presence with you. You see your life and the world around you through God’s eyes. Your vision broadens to include not just your small portion of the world, but the whole world. Saying that all humans are our brothers and sisters is no longer just a statement, it is a reality. You can no longer ignore a stranger’s needs. You can see through the idolatries of the age: that nations, constitutions, jobs, celebrities are all transient and can never assure us of our lives … only God whom we cannot see or touch, can do that… and that is how you live day by day.
Ash Wednesday comes this week. We once again begin our journey to Golgotha, the tomb and at last the resurrection. That magnificent story lies between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection when the world was turned upside down. Again we have a chance to live a transfigured life weighing our lives and our actions and our relationships by our faith in God and God alone.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …