Exodus 24:12-18 ; Matthew 16:21 – 17:9
Two months after Christmas, we stand on the cusp of Lent. At Christmas and through Epiphany, we celebrated Jesus’ identity with us, and indeed, with all humanity. And we must continue to affirm this: All humanity is saved in Jesus; all are upheld by God and united with God. By Christmas candlelight, we basked in that glow, without having any special claim to it ourselves. We were in no position to feel more ‘Christian’ than the C&E Christians (that’s people who come to church only on Christmas and Easter); indeed, no one among our fellow human beings was excluded that night. We enjoyed a communion that was absolutely open to everyone. And even the animals were there at the manger! Jesus unites the whole cosmos in his person with God—so the Christmas mystery of the incarnation goes.
But after Epiphany, things began to change. We’ve thought a lot about what it means to be called by Jesus as disciples. It began with the call to be baptized into Christ—remember that? And as I saw it, we are baptized so to live no longer for ourselves, becoming citizens of the New Israel in Christ. (I was your John, remember?) And then we observed Jesus calling his disciples one by one, or two by two—and we wondered what nets we would have to leave behind if we were Peter, or James, or John. And then we sat at Jesus’ feet as he preached the Sermon on the Mount. He began not with commandments for us to fulfill, but blessings—the blessings to the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted. These are the blessings that announce the upside-down shape of God’s Kingdom to come. And then Jesus gave us bizarre commands—telling us to cut off or pluck out body parts. Surely the righteousness of which he speaks is strange and beyond the scope of our little deeds. Jesus shows us the absolute holiness of God which, apart from grace, condemns our world in every way. (That absolute, holy God perhaps puts in another appearance in today’s reading.) But finally, we considered his commands to turn the other cheek and love our enemy. These are principles of the Kingdom of God, which begins by acknowledging the dignity that God gives to all humanity. As astounding and counter-cultural as Jesus’ way is, we can do these things. We can refuse to be baited into returning evil for evil; and we can uphold the humanity of those who mistreat us—our enemies. As we saw, this love and respect for humanity was the very basis for the incarnation and the Christmas that began the whole thing.
We should see our fellow human beings as recipients of God’s love and grace, see them all in the light of God’s embrace of humanity in Jesus. But we—you and I—are not just humanity. We are particular individuals with our own stories who have ended up here in church, by the grace of God. But so far, we haven’t been talking about ourselves as we really are. We’ve been picturing ourselves as the disciples in the gospel story. They were real people with distinct identities whom we watch be transformed by following Jesus. We can’t read the gospel stories here in church and not feel ourselves called to be like them.
And that’s what we’ve been doing: reading ourselves into the gospel story. That’s about to change. We are going to take an inward turn in Lent. Finally, we are going to take a long, hard look at ourselves, as we really are. Because no one else can repent for you. We are united to God in Jesus, but you still have to deal with who you are. You still have to take a long, hard look at your own story. And that Lenten journey begins this Wednesday when the call to repent really hits us. It begins when we acknowledge our own mortality: “From dust you come and to dust you shall return.” If we want to talk about what is truly my own, what I have all to myself, it comes down to that: my mortality. If we want to talk about our own story, that’s where it ends.
But I promise you that Lent will not be a pessimistic downer. I don’t do guilt, remember? And sin is lot bigger than you or I. We talked about that last year. Lent can be a good time to deal with your own issues, but you don’t have to feel like you personally are a miserable sinner during Lent. You can also consider how screwed up the world is—which shouldn’t be a big stretch for anyone; no one seems to believe any longer that life is a bowl of cherries—and how we are all caught up in that screwed up world in one way or another. But my plan is to have us focus on being observant and mindful about our daily practices, and about how we can concretely turn to God and to our neighbor in love in our daily acts and practices. Lent doesn’t have to be about giving up chocolate or eating fish on Fridays. It can be about applying discipleship to your very own daily life, here and now. (Then, after Pentecost, we’ll focus more on being the church together.) So Lent is going to be positive, constructive—there’ll be little cards to take with you for the week with things to try. You’ll love it…. Well, you’ll like it.
But we’re not quite there yet. Today we celebrate this fascinating story about what is called the transfiguration of Jesus. And we get to eat pancakes for lunch! The story of Jesus becoming glorified on the mountain in the presence of the disciples is found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and so we read about it every year. I take it as a final reminder of the glory that Jesus bears, a capstone appearance of the divinity that marks him. Christmas was all about that. But before we turn inward to our own murky humanity—right now, midway between Christmas and Easter—we get this wonderful reminder, but also foretaste, of Jesus’ sharing in God’s glory. And then, as this manifestation of glory ends, we are left alone with Jesus, looking again like one of us. It is as if we are ready for our time of trial together.
The story of the transfiguration follows immediately after the whiplash blessing and cursing of Peter. Right before our reading, when Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter rightly answers “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses him, saying that flesh and blood did not teach him this, but God in heaven. (This is the same God before whom Peter will cower on the mountain.) But then, for the first time, Jesus teaches his disciples about his coming arrest, death, and resurrection. Peter now goes 1 for 2…seeming to correct Jesus, however well motivated. And Jesus rebukes him, associating Peter’s misjudgment both with Satan and with “human things.” In one fell swoop Peter has gone from a wisdom “not of flesh and blood but of my Father” to the exact opposite mindset, based on Satan and lowly flesh and blood.
All of this forms the important context for the epiphany on the mountain. Jesus takes this same Peter—along with James and John. These three are now clearly identified as the inner disciples, the ones to whom a secret is about to be revealed, leaving the other disciples in the dark. This united humanity that Jesus joins in himself with God turns out to have more and more parts. There are the crowds of mostly poor, ill, possessed, and disenfranchised folk whom Jesus minister to, blesses, promises the Kingdom to, and heals. Then there are the opponents and enemies—the Pharisees, scribes, and so on. And the disciples—both women and men, but the gospels emphasize the 12 who symbolize the new Israel that we’ve talked about. And now there are the three inner disciples. Jesus came for them all. But what is the meaning of these distinctions, these different groups? And to which group do we belong? Are we the crowds, the disciples, the enemies, or the inner disciples? (I left out whether we are Jesus, of course—but we are the Body of Christ, don’t forget.) We UCC Congregationalists are quick to demur about all these distinctions—“all are welcome, all are ministers.” What are we to make of them? We’ll come back to that.
Jesus takes them up a high mountain, and begins to glow. In Greek, unlike Hebrew, the glory of God is associated with shining and light. So this is clearly a symbol of Jesus’ divinity now showing forth from his humanity. And Moses and Elijah also appear. In Bible study Tuesday, Dick Brown asked, “How did they know it was Moses and Elijah? It’s not like they had pictures back then.” (Now I never thought about that. See what you’re missing?) This little story has all the marks of what is called a vision, with its almost dream-like qualities. And since my wife is an expert in visionary literature (at least in the Medieval period), I will refer all difficult questions to her.
But in my imagination, Moses and Elijah are glowing also. They are not so much as real characters as symbols, standing in for the Law and the Prophets. Recall that Jesus said that not one letter of the Law and the prophets would be abolished. But they are realistic enough that Jesus is having a conversation with them. This is really interesting. Jesus is not the only human figure reflecting God’s glory; he is not the only personal embodiment of God’s purposes. Indeed, he is also linked to Moses and Elijah by the unusual ways that their lives end. Moses is buried in the wilderness in an unknown grave, unique among the patriarchs and matriarchs. Elijah never died but was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Jesus, resembling parts of both of them in this regard, dies but leaves an empty and unknown grave, ascending to God. They all suggest to us that it is possible for some to be so much a part of God’s purposes in history that their death loses all finality. Moses and Elijah also had personal encounters with God on mountains: Moses on Mount Sinai, as our Exodus reading recounts; and Elijah in First Kings experienced God’s presence on the same mountain in the “sound of sheer silence.”
But notice that Jesus in this story is not primarily encountering God. He does not talk with God on the mountain. In fact, we never see Jesus just chatting with God. He prays to God (which complicates the fact that we say Jesus is divine), but we are not told that he hears God talk back. God does make two pronouncements from heaven in the gospels, saying the same thing at both Jesus’ baptism as he does here: This is my son. With him I am well pleased. Now God adds, speaking to the disciples, “Listen to him.” So the idea of having talks with God as if with a close friend is lovely, but don’t feel bad if that’s not part of your spiritual life. It doesn’t seem to have been part of Jesus’ either. Instead, he is talking here with Moses and Elijah, with the Law and the prophets, as we also continue to read and dialogue with the Law and prophets. We are not told what they talked about—perhaps they shared together in the wonder of the totality of God’s purposes so differently manifested to each figure. Or perhaps they were commiserating about the burden of personally embodying God’s eternal purposes in mortal flesh among foolish and fallible human beings.
Now Peter, the blessed and cursed one, wants to build three dwellings, but the word means temporary tents or structures. In Matthew’s version of this story, he is not yet scared out of his wits. So presumably, he wants to accommodate all three guests, and continue to stay with all of them. But this was not to be. God’s own presence appears and overshadows them in the form of a cloud. It’s a fascinating symbol of the divine presence, seen also in the Exodus reading. Something of God is seen the glowing forth of God’s chosen human embodiments, as Moses’ face elsewhere is said to glow after he descends from meeting God, or as Jesus now glows with light. But beyond these human embodiments, God is more like a cloud—murky, opaque, and by all appearances, confusing and frightful. Peter, James, and John fall on their faces in fear.
We could draw some lessons here. We are told to listen to Jesus, with whom God is well pleased. It’s not that God doesn’t have other messengers. There’s Elijah and Moses, and we might presume now to add Mohammed, Siddhartha Gautama, and others. And these various messengers are associated with other scriptures. God here doesn’t put down the others. He just tells us to listen to Jesus. It’s probably not for us, at least it wasn’t for Peter, to try to build dwellings for them all. (We can leave that to the Unitarian/Universalists.) Jesus is enough for us. And indeed, what could be clearer in this reading than the fact that the inner disciples, the elite, the specially chosen, are nowhere near able to comprehend who just this Jesus is, let alone Moses and Elijah and anyone else.
And secondly, we talk often about and pray for God to be present with us. That’s exactly what the gospel is about—God present in the forms of the Christ and the Spirit. But if we are thinking about the pure, unmediated presence of God, we don’t know what we are asking for, when we ask God to be present. That God shows up only here in the gospel, and is a reminder that the pure, unmediated presence of God is something very frightening. But who among Christians today takes stock of this frightful God—frightening not because the disciples have sinned, but just because they are creatures and God is definitely not, God is nothing we can get a handle on—an overshadowing cloud. Even the inner, elite disciples can’t handle this God who speaks from the burning cloud. Neither are we ready to invite into the room this God, straight, no chaser. And I don’t think this God wants to have to show up on the mountain, nor in this room for that matter. That’s the other point of the succinct command: “Listen to him.” We have our access to God—all of God, because God is one—only through Jesus.
The vision ends suddenly. The terrifying cloud is gone. Moses and Elijah are gone. And Jesus, their very human friend, tends to the frightened, foolish disciples. He touches them. He tells them to get up, and not to be afraid. And he says, keep all this to yourselves. The disciples can’t handle God straight, nor are they yet ready to deal with Jesus as the bearer of God’s eternal and ultimately inscrutable purposes. And they won’t be, until after they have abandoned Jesus to his unique destiny on the cross, and until he rises again, glorified as the Christ forevermore.
And we’re not ready for that either, in this part of our yearly journey of discipleship. It is enough for us to be reminded by this transfiguration story that, as we attempt to grapple with being his disciples, as we, entering Lent, attempt to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him; as we attempt to make sense of our life according to his saying: “Those who seek to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it;” as we are left alone with this stunning path of life that Jesus has taught us, and attempt to take seriously what all this means and to practice it, destined no doubt to fail in our attempt—it is enough for us to be reminded that the one we follow is one with God in a way that is beyond us, and in a way that we now glimpse in a wonderful and frightening vision, but whose kingdom is also yet to come.
But let’s come back, in closing, to the question we posed before: what are we to make of all these different groups? What especially of this inner group of disciples: Peter, James, and John. These three are the ones who see the divine stature of Jesus, who face the terrifying presence of God, but also receive the assuring touch of Jesus. Are you an inner disciple? Am I? Or are we all? Or are none of us? Maybe the inner disciples are found among those, in and beyond churches, ostracized and oppressed by the world—and that’s not us. When I think of who the real Christians are, its people like that I usually think of.
But the inner disciples do not have to be a specially qualified elite. There are blessings of being chosen to be close to Jesus. Imagine what Peter, James and John felt like that evening, treasuring their secret! But when Jesus chooses from among all humanity and among the forlorn crowd a circle of disciples, and among them leaders, he is not awarding privileges and honors. The closer we are to Jesus, the more we share in his unique vocation: to bear the sins of the whole world, and God’s judgment upon it. It means confessing him to be the Christ one minute, and being a tool of Satan’s denial of him the next. So as we continue to draw nearer and nearer to this one who has called us, let us prepare to carry our cross, and to face the trial of bearing the sins of the world.