Saturday, February 9, 2013

Transfiguration, Transformation, Hope...

Thanks this week to the writing of Wayne Brouwer, Scott Shauf, and Kathryn Matthews Huey. Next time, I really want to explore the reaction of the crowd to the healing of the boy, and its similarity to the reaction of the disciples when the cloud enveloped them.

Visible miracles, palpable encounters with the living God, all of these bring fear and amazement, all of these are examples of life on the mountaintop, in the thin places betwixt Creator and created. I'd love to experience a fraction of that kind of wonder when I see one of those mundane, run-of-the-mill, daily miracles, the little hints God gives us that we are not alone, that there is hope - a tree, a smile, a really good cup of coffee...

Luke 9:28-43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the strange by-products of taking our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is that, sometimes, the text seems to be starting off in mid-thought, or leaving something important out of the story. “Now about eight days after these sayings…” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Eight days after what sayings?”

Today’s reading takes place immediately following the familiar account of Jesus asking the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the the Christ of God ,” which signals a turning point in their understanding of Jesus. No longer merely “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Man from God,” “Maybe/possibly ‘The One Who Is To Come,’” but the Messiah, Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus warns them to silence, then says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life... If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So eight days after these challenging, these explosive words, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop.

So it’s no wonder that some people wonder if this passage is factual, or if it’s some kind of holy myth that developed later and was inserted into the Gospel, or a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow got misplaced and re-located, back in the middle of Jesus’ ministry instead of right at the end. Neither of these, of course, is my opinion. I think, rather, that the event takes place at the perfect point in the narrative. Jesus has said some very hard things to the disciples. Though they would repeatedly misunderstand and somehow ignore what he was telling them, Jesus has told them how he would die – and challenged them to join them in that death sentence.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of The Theological Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions, wrote this elsewhere: “When Christ calls a man to come and follow, he bids him come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death which is crucifixion.

So when Jesus goes to the mountaintop, perhaps it is a point in time where the disciples need to see who Jesus really is, why he’s really here, and what really lies beyond the cross.

Wayne Brouwer calls the Transfiguration “one of the most impressive Christological moments, when the fullness of deity becomes obviously human and the fullness of humanity becomes unquestionably divine.” This moment on the mountaintop is the confirmation of who Peter confessed Jesus to be: not just another itinerant Rabbi, not a man with really compelling ideas and a knack for helping hurting people get back on their feet again, but the Christ.

Or maybe Jesus took Peter, James and John up there to pray, because that’s what Jesus did, he prayed. Most of the time, it seems, when Jesus goes off to pray what he gets is interrupted: “hey, people are looking for you…” so it wouldn’t, in my mind, be much of a stretch to think that the events of the Transfiguration were as big a surprise to Jesus as it was to the rest of them. Maybe Jesus needed to be reminded of who he really is, why he was really here, and what really lay beyond the cross.

The three disciples were, it seems, eavesdropping on a private conversation, where Moses and Elijah were speaking very pointedly to Jesus about “his departure.” N.T. Wright points out that the word for “departure” is exodus. Moses was the leader of an exodus which freed God’s people from slavery to the Egyptians, and into the Promised Land. “In the new Exodus,” he writes, “Jesus will lead all God's people out of the slavery of sin and death, and home to their promised inheritance – the new creation in which the whole world will be redeemed.”

I imagine the scene kind of like this: Jesus is praying, and the disciples are trying to pray, too, but it’s late, and it’s dark, and sleep is fighting to take its rightful place within them… then something happens. Maybe suddenly, or perhaps they notice that the moonlight isn’t casting its gentle shadow anymore… it’s being overtaken by a brighter light, from a different direction, a light that gets brighter until it is painful to look directly at, a light unlike the moon’s, which is merely a reflection of the Sun’s rays, but light from a Source – and that source is Jesus! It hurts to look, but look they must, frozen, gape-mouthed, forgetting to breathe.

Maybe the radiance diminishes as Moses and Elijah get ready to go, I don’t know, but something signals that this glorious event is nearing an end… and of course, who would want it to end? So Peter does what Peter does, which is to be the extrovert, trying to be helpful, but just jumping out in front of everything, making himself the focus of attention even though he really isn’t wanting to do that, talking before he thinks, or, as our reading puts it, “not knowing what he said.”

I don’t want to think that God was shushing Peter when the cloud came down, but there is no mistaking what God is saying: “Guys, focus. This is important. This is my Son. This is the Chosen One. Listen to him.”

The Revised Common Lectionary, which is the source our denomination uses for our weekly Scripture readings, puts the section following the Transfiguration in brackets, meaning that it is optional. I don’t think so; rather, I see the mountaintop experience and what follows as two halves of a whole, for a couple of different reasons.

There, on the mountaintop, Jesus is the Christ of the journey’s end. In the Transfiguration we see not only Christ’s origin, but his destination. Peter and James and John are party to one of those times when the division between heaven and earth grows thin, and the Divine pokes through. It is natural to react as Peter did, to want to build houses there, to stay in that place, because this place, in the very presence of God, this is our home!

Christ came to transform us. He came to transfigure us with the light of God’s grace. What Peter, James and John are witnessing here is not just Christ’s destination, but their own destination too, and ours, yours and mine. We too will shine like the sun.

But we always come down the mountain, of course, we must. And there, in that crowd, and in that desperate father whose young boy is tormented by convulsions, we see a different image of our humanity - not the transfigured humanity that is our destination, but our disfigured humanity. Here in this fearful scene we are closer to the hill of Golgotha than we are to the mountain of transfiguration. This world is the one we are all too familiar with.

It’s a world where lives are preyed on by evil forces. It’s a world where humanity is denied. It’s a world where people’s destiny is a cruel parody of what awaits us when, with Jesus, we are risen.

And when we look around us we see life lived at the foot of the mountain rather than at the top. We see lives that, in the light of Transfiguration, were clearly never meant for us.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets: we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease: we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television: we were not meant for this. Every job lost, every home foreclosed: we were not meant for this. Every flood and earthquake and shooting and scandal: we were not meant for this.

Yes, Jesus performed healings as a sign of who he was, but I wonder if an additional motivation for all of the healings – the healing of the epileptic youngster, and every other poor person he came in contact with, whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice, was a sign for us, of what we are meant to be? Are not healings, in a manner of speaking, transfigurations? Changing what is into what it should be, what it will be?

We are transfigured by the blood of Jesus Christ, from people enslaved to sin and death to a new creation, each of us temples of the Holy Spirit, each of us embarked upon this new Exodus to our promised land, the now-and-coming Kingdom of God. We have been transformed by a God who, in the words of Max Lucado, loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way. This transformation, the transfiguration, is an ongoing process in our spiritual journey.

Jesus came down from the mountaintop because as wonderful as the experience was, as necessary as it was, the journey had to continue.

We are being transformed by Christ for a purpose, and a part of that purpose is to be a source of transformation, a guide to transfiguration, for the world around us.

We see this transformation in the lives of the Apostles. Following Pentecost, Peter and James and John, along with the rest of The Eleven, dedicated their lives to spreading the Gospel, to healing the sick, and ministering to the poor and the forgotten, to telling the world this great Good News! These eleven, who had been cowering, aimless, and silent, were transfigured into bold evangelists, powerful speakers, gifted leaders, fearless martyrs. They spoke truth to power, and cared for the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

They brought something new and wonderful into the lives of people, something unfamiliar to far too many of them: hope.

For most of its early existence, Christianity was considered the religion of slaves. People who had been excluded from fellowship with the Living God, whether because of the place they were born or because of some disease or defect, were being welcomed into relationship, were being transformed and transfigured by the love of God in Jesus Christ. For those who had no hope, who had been told they were not good enough for God, hope was more than restored in Jesus Christ! The doors to the Kingdom of Heaven, to relationship with the Living God, had been, not simply flung open wide, but torn off the hinges and thrown away.

And just imagine: these men and women, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles and slaves and criminals and forgotten human beings, were being brought to the place of response to the Good News by people like Peter and James and John… who had denied Christ, who had hidden in fear in the dark days following the Crucifixion, who even though they had spent years living with and listening to Jesus didn't understand what it was all about, but who had themselves been transformed, changed, renewed and given hope in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

And it still goes on today. Men and women from every walk of life – rich and poor, in boardrooms and prison cells, in high-rise apartments and mud huts, in living rooms and in homeless shelters, in cathedrals and nightclubs – are transformed by the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are brought to that transformation by men and women just like you and me. Not well-known evangelists or powerful speakers, and not by the person in the pulpit, but “regular folks” who have experienced the transfiguring work of the Holy Spirit and are sharing it, in word and in deed, with the world around them.

Where streets of gold replace unpaved streets and reeking alleys, this is what we were meant for. Where death and sickness and poverty are replaced by glory shining like the sun, this is what we were meant for.

This Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the reality of God hanging broken, bleeding, naked, humiliated, and dead on a Roman instrument of torture… that moment is where our journey truly begins. Scripture tells us that the Resurrection is God’s seal of approval over Christ’s finished work on the cross. Moreover, when Christ defeated death, utterly and completely humiliating it, our hope was secured.

There is hope in the daily transformation, there is hope in the work we do to transfigure the world, there is hope in the resurrection, where we will see God face to face.

There is hope.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for always sharing your words with us, John!