Year A, Transfiguration Sunday
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration is one of those words that you mostly hear in church, and even in church you probably only hear it on Transfiguration Sunday. A word that might be easier to understand is transform. We could call this Transformation Sunday, but some might worry that sounds a little too new agey…maybe a little too much like Joel Osteen and not enough like Richard Hooker, a famous Anglican theologian…at least as famous as Anglican theologians get. But for our purposes, transfigure and transforms are pretty much the same. It’s about a profound change. Some people prefer transfigure because it indicates a change that happens as a result of God’s presence in our lives, as opposed to some special exercise program we have started to transform our bodies.
This is one of those stories that just doesn’t read well. It’s so otherworldly, almost unfathomable. I bet it was hard to believe even if you were there. This is how I imagine Peter telling the story. “We hiked up a mountain with Jesus. We figured he was going to share more of his teachings or perhaps take some time alone to pray. Suddenly, Jesus started to glow and his face was like the sun and somehow his clothes were so white they were blinding. And if that was not enough all of a sudden two people appeared out of nowhere…and you would not believe who they were. It was Moses and Elijah! I know, they are supposed to be dead, but they were there, I swear. Jesus started talking to both of them and a cloud came over them…but it was a bright cloud, not like any we have ever seen. Then a voice came from the cloud. Of course we all just fell on the ground and covered our eyes because by then it had just gotten weird. When we finally got up it was all gone.” While the people following Jesus had experienced some pretty amazing things at this point, nothing could compare to this.
I wonder if the disciples were even able to believe it. Let’s consider the reactions of these three disciples. After Jesus had been transfigured and started talking to two men who were supposed to be dead, Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to build some tents so the man who was glowing like the sun and the two great prophets who were supposed to be dead could have shelter overnight. It sounds a little crazy in retrospect, but I am sure it made sense to Peter at the time. He was trying to be helpful. Perhaps he wanted to be sure that what he was seeing was real.
Yet before Peter could even finish his sentence, a voice came from the cloud declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” It was this voice, this statement that caused the three disciples to throw themselves on the ground because they were so terrified. After that Jesus touched them and told them to get up and not be afraid. They looked up and saw that there was no one there except Jesus. The next verse has them walking down the mountain with Jesus. This is all we know of the actions of the disciples.
I find myself a little perplexed by the fact that it was the voice from the cloud that really scared them. It wasn’t Jesus transforming before their eyes. It wasn’t the two great prophets who had died appearing before them. Those were not the things that terrified them. It was the voice of God…or maybe it was what God said. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” That doesn’t sound so scary. Peter had just proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God. He had said it himself. Also, if you will recall Jesus’s baptism, God spoke from the clouds and said that very thing….well almost the same thing. The only difference is that this time, God adds on, “Listen to him!” No one fell on the ground at Jesus’ baptism. God’s words created no such reaction then. So what was so scary this time?
It might be helpful to look at what happened before they ascended the mountain. Right after Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, Jesus started talking about his death. He told his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem so that he could suffer and die. This horrified them. Peter had such a strong response that Jesus had to reprimand him. Jesus went on to tell his disciples that anyone who wanted to follow him would have to take up the cross and deny himself. It’s not like Jesus had only been sharing warm and fuzzy things before this, but this was the first time he was so direct about his own death and the way that his disciples too might die. I am sure it was scary to hear these words from Jesus. Right after they had heard these difficult words from Jesus, God said to them from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Listen to him. Dear God, he’s serious…that’s what I would have been thinking. I can’t help but wonder if it was at that moment when it all fell into place for them. If that was the case, then falling on the ground in fear was appropriate because this man who they loved, who they had come to believe in and worship was about to die a horrific death.
Did they believe what they were seeing? Probably…but it was nothing compared with what they were hearing, and with what they were about to see, Jesus beaten, killed, sacrificed. They were terrified and they had every reason to be. Jesus had called them as disciples long before this moment, but this might have been the moment when they really understood what that call meant. It was more than just walking around with a man who showed compassion, performed some miracles and told amazing stories. Being called by Jesus is about really listening to him…not listening for what you want to hear, but what God wants you to hear. Listen to him. So yes, they fell on the ground in terror.
But that was not the end of the story, was it? Because after Moses and Elijah vanished…after the cloud was gone and the voice was quiet, Jesus touched them. He said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” In the Gospels, the only time Jesus touches people is when he is healing people. He knew what they were feeling. He was probably feeling some of the same things, if not more so. His voice and his touch was a reminder that they would not go through this alone. They walked up the mountain together and they would go down the mountain together. But first, they had to get up. They had to face their fear and keep moving forward.
On Transfiguration Sunday, we tend to focus on the way Jesus was transfigured because that is a lot flashier; but the disciples were transfigured as well. They had experienced the glory of God, but more importantly, they had experienced the bareness of God, the austerity of God. Because when the light show was over and Moses and Elijah had left, they looked up, and there was Jesus. As Christians, there will be very few light shows and sometimes we will yearn for the glory, the grandeur of God. And that’s there, but what we find most often in our day to day life is the Jesus who touches us after we have fallen on our face and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” That is the Jesus who we can believe in.