Epiphany, as you know, is about light and recognition and revelation. It began with a sparkling star in the Bethlehem sky, drawing the Magi to visit the infant Jesus. A week later we accompanied Jesus, then grown up, into the Jordan where he was baptized, heard God’s voice, and saw the Spirit descend on him, the same Spirit that immediately afterwards drove him to temptation and testing in the wilderness. After passing that test Jesus called his disciples—Peter, James, and John (as well as Peter’s brother Andrew) to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people. Jesus also began his ministry of teaching and healing. In a way, all of these events lead up to the peak of the mountain and this transfiguration moment, when the disciples and we along with them are able to see Jesus filled with the power, the radiance, and the glory of God.
In fact, in the Transfiguration we get to see Jesus as God sees him. We even hear God’s voice echoing from the heavens, announcing that this radiant, glorious Jesus is none other than God’s own Son—using the exact same words as at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” If the disciples, or we, have any questions, any doubts whatsoever, about whom Jesus is, today’s mountain top transfiguration experience should put them to rest.
Now, as fantastic as all this sounds, and as much as we might like to believe the gospel story exactly as written, and exactly as it’s present with us here at Emmanuel every Sunday—since the Transfiguration is the story depicted in the three stained glass windows above the high altar, with Elijah on one side, Moses on the other, and the glorious Jesus in the middle, with the disciples at Jesus’ feet below—as much as we might want to believe that all of this really happened exactly as described, we can’t actually, truly, really know what the experience on that mountaintop was.
What we do know, though, is that within the gospel narrative, within the arc of the story of Jesus’ life, this Transfiguration event is a sort of like a fantastic half-time show, complete with special effects that would probably impress George Lucas. It’s a reminder or reinforcement to the disciples, and to us, the later disciples, of who Jesus really is, of who God thinks he is, to sustain them and us once we climb down from the mountain and make our way to Jerusalem and all that the coming journey will mean—betrayal and denial, arrest, crucifixion, and death. If we are expected to follow him to these dark and difficult places, at least we know that he’s the real thing.
Now, I imagine that like me, when you’ve heard this gospel passage before you’ve assumed that the meaning in the story was really all about Jesus and what happened to him. I must have preached on the transfiguration at least 10 times and that was always my approach. But this week, as I read it yet again and after a little study and research, something stood out that hadn’t before. What if it’s not only Jesus that was transfigured, but Peter and James and John as well?
Here’s a little context for my thinking: Following this morning’s Old Testament reading from Exodus, after Moses climbed the mountain and entered into God’s glory, he eventually had to go down again to deliver the law to the Israelites in the wilderness. And we read that after being in God’s presence Moses’ face was so bright, shining, radiating even, that he had to be covered with a veil. His skin was blinding and people couldn’t stand to look at him. Moses’ was essentially transfigured himself. Only he didn’t know it until others saw him. That was never depicted by Charleton Heston in his Ten Commandments movie, but it’s what the Bible says.
Well, remembering that story about Moses made me wonder if the same might have happened to Peter and James and John as well when they were on the mountain, in God’s presence, hearing God’s voice, even being touched by God’s Son. Only, maybe they didn’t know it or couldn’t see it—in part perhaps because they were blinded by Jesus’ glory, and the vision of Moses and Elijah, but also because, as you know, you can never really see yourself. Unless you are looking in a mirror you don’t know what you look like. And even then, you don’t see your full self, in the way that others see you, and certainly not in the way that God sees you. Maybe Peter, James, and John didn’t know what God had done for them either, how their encounter with God had changed them, transformed them even, so that they, too shone with God’s grace, God’s glory, and God’s light, if not literally, physically, then at least in an inward spiritual way.
Here’s what makes me think so, besides the fact that Moses is right there with them. Tucked into this gospel passage, kind of hidden away, are some familiar words that always mean something glorious, amazing, miraculous even, has happened. Do you remember from the reading how, after all of this stuff with Jesus lighting up and Moses and Elijah appearing, the disciples are cowering in fear on the ground, and Jesus physically touches his friends? And right after he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” “Get up and do not be afraid.”
First, “do not be afraid.” When and where have we heard that before? It’s actually a long list, in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, as many as 70 times in the Bible we hear angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say: “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, to Joshua and Ruth, David and Solomon, to Isaiah and Jeremiah. And finally, to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds in their fields and to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.
Perhaps even more significantly Jesus says: “get up.” Now, that sounds ordinary enough, since they were cowering on the ground. Until you realize that what Jesus really says, in the Greek, is not so much the terse sounding “get up” but “be raised.” In fact, it’s the very same word used here that the angels use after they tell the women at the tomb not to be afraid. Remember? “Jesus who was crucified is not here. He has been raised.” And now here, Jesus tells his friends the same thing: to get up, to arise, to be raised. Be raised in the same way that Jesus will be raised on Easter. Be raised, be resurrected, here and now, today and always. You have seen God face to face. In fact, you have been touched by God. So, do not be afraid. Live that glowing, glorious, resurrected life. Know that nothing can harm you. Not really. Because nothing can take this grace, this glory, this life from you. Ever. No power. No fear. No death.
Well, as I said, I’ve read and preached on this story countless times and I was never aware of all that is packed into that one sentence, just waiting to be discovered, until I read a commentary on it this week. And this discovery (which I’m sure is known to biblical scholars, but not so much to us ordinary Christians), has the potential to be so “transfigurative,” if you will, in understanding not only what this story is all about, but in understanding what the whole of our Christian faith are all about, that we may very never be the same. Or at least I hope we will never be the same.
Because when you think about it, everything we read about in these ancient biblical stories is not only just about things that happened to Jesus and his friends 2000 years ago, or to Moses some 3000 years ago. If they were just that we wouldn’t probably read anymore them today. But they are also about us, and how we are called to live—unafraid, empowered, transfigured, resurrected. Not merely waiting for the promise of life after death, but embracing, living, and radiating that resurrection life even now, even today.
You know, the last few weeks in our gospel readings and on Wednesday nights, we’ve been struggling with how we are supposed to meet the rigorous demands of life and discipleship that Jesus calls us to. Last week he even said “be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect.” It sounds impossible, because it is impossible. Unless and until we understand that sin and death, division and despair are not our destiny, our calling, or our purpose. Rather, life is. Transformed life. Transfigured life. Resurrected life. Easter life. That’s what Jesus tells us, over and over again, all the time, really. We just have such difficulty believing him. We become so much like the disciples in today’s gospel, cowering and weighed down by our sense difference, by our sense of un-worth, of not feeling good enough, or sometimes, of being afraid of what we might be able to do, and how we might change, if we really grasped the power that God has given us.
But that’s not what God wants of us. That’s not who we are meant to be, or how we are meant to live. As long as go as 1846, my favorite theologian, F. D. Maurice wrote:
“Men are told that they are made in the image of God: how could it be that they knew it not. Here is God’s express image, not shown in the heavens above, nor in the earth beneath, but in a man…. In [Christ] we find how humanity has been a holy thing, though each man felt himself to be unholy…. In [Christ] it is proved how humanity is meant to have a dwelling with God.”
Because, of course, the purpose of Jesus coming to dwell among us, and in us, is not to do something for God. It’s not for God to show off his fantastic ability at special effects. God is not George Lucas making a science fiction movie (much as I love George Lucas movies, as you well know). Rather, it is so that we live in the very same way that Jesus lived. So that we will accomplish the same things that Jesus accomplished. So that we know that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, too, in whom God is also well pleased, and who have the power, the grace, and the ability to be transformed and transfigured ourselves. So that when we climb down from the mountain, with Jesus and like Jesus, we will help God transform and transfigure the world.
To his friends, both 2000 years ago, and especially today, Jesus says, as always: Do not be afraid. But be raised and be alive. Really, truly, wonderfully, alive. So, that God’s light may shine through you and transfigure the world.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.