Glory & Suffering & other themes.... Transfiguration
Every year it comes around - just like Christmas and Easter.
And each year in the three-year cycle we read the Transfiguration story - one from Matthew, once from Mark, and this year - from Luke. When I was in interim ministry and only staying in a congregation for one or two or three years - I would be speaking from a reading the congregation had never heard me comment upon before. But we looked at this reading in 2007 when I was here - and if I just used the same reflection - someone might remember. And I spoke on this same reading in 2016. And I have considered this story each year that I have been here.
So – a challenge to find something new, and I was worried when I saw this date coming up on the calendar.
But then when I started to look at the reading, and I started to consider the input of some of my resources, and as I heard the reading read and discussed at our own study group.... it was clear: there is still more to say, there are still points to be made.
First, let’s put this in context. The reading starts of with “Eight days after sharing these sayings....” Let’s go back and figure out what “these sayings” were -
As we look at the ninth chapter of this particular gospel, we see Jesus sending out the twelve disciples on a missionary journey to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. The disciples returned, and then we saw Jesus teaching so many people in an out-of-the-way spot - and they got hungry, and Jesus made sure the 5000 were fed.
But these things are not the sayings that the writer refers to.
No, next we hear Jesus talking to the disciples about his own identity, and then Peter breaks through with his affirmation: that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ.
And then, truly, some sayings -
He challenges to his followers to deny themselves and to follow him.
And he predicts his death and resurrection, clearly situating these upcoming events in Jerusalem - though the city is not named, but with all the reference to the religious leadership it seems clear..
And then the reading for today begins: Eight days later.
Jesus has just told his disciples that he’s going to be killed. And rise again.
I want to know - what were they doing in the eight days between that and today’s reading? What were they talking about?
This trek to Jerusalem that was about to begin, and the events that were going to unfold there.... this was becoming THE central focus.
What were they doing.... and talking about for those eight days?
Luke, who has so many words and so many details to share with us about other things, tells us nothing.
We just move ahead to the transfiguration experience - up on the mountain with Peter, James, John.... Jesus praying, and then transfigured. The vision of Moses and Elijah appearing with him.
And the voice speaking: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
Now, let’s look at a couple of details.
First: Moses and Elijah. Why Moses and Elijah?
Moses - - we heard about Moses in the reading from Exodus this morning. He was coming down from a mountain - not the same mountain Jesus was on, but still, a mountain - He was coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets of the Commandments.
Moses represents the totality of the Law. The Law that, supplemented by rules and regulations, was so very central to the Jewish faith.
By his appearing in the vision - the message for us is that there is a continuity. Jesus is not a break from the Law, from the ten commandments, but he builds upon that foundation.
And Elijah - - one of the key prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.
By his appearing in the vision - the message for us is that there is a continuity. Jesus is not a break from the prophets, from the words of correction, challenge, justice and faith, but he builds upon that foundation.
The transfiguration vision and experience clearly link the mission and ministry of Jesus to the whole of the Law and the Prophets – and so it is that we do well when we keep the Hebrew scriptures in mind even as we seek to understand the gospels and the word of Jesus.
- - - - -
Now, we don’t know what Jesus and his disciples were talking about for those eight days after his bombshell notice that he was going to be killed.
But we do know what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about.
This is one of those details that I had not noticed before - one of those details that makes it possible to go back to these readings time and time again
and, in so doing, gain something new each time,
going back to the scripture readings like going back to a deep, abundant well.
I’m guessing that no one noticed what they were talking about.... it just flows on by.
To quote today’s reading: “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
They spoke about his departure.
Isn’t that a nice way to say “they spoke about his arrest, sham trial and his subsequent tortuous death upon the cross that was going to be completed in Jerusalem.”
If that’s what had been written down, we would have paid more attention. But that`s exactly what they were talking about - Jesus, Moses, Elijah.
Not a very happy or jovial discussion.
But it is a reminder that this is that time where he is about to truly turn to travel to Jerusalem to face what is to come, including his arrest, show-trial and painful death.
We think of the transfiguration as a moment when we encounter the glory of God revealed in that event.
And rightly so. It is about the glory of God, and the glory reflected in and through Jesus.
The transfiguration becomes one step in the journey toward the heart-rending, life-draining events to come.
The glory of God. The horror of the torturous death.
The two do not conflict: the two are tied inextricably together.
Perhaps that is why some of the most painful and grief-filled moments in our lives can sometimes be the most holy moments,
and can be, sometimes, the moments when there seems to be a “thin place” with very little separating us from the Eternal One, the Loving One.
One more thing for today:
We heard two stories today about experiences on the mountain-top.
I find a couple of interesting differences.
To focus on one: in the case of the Exodus reading, who is on the mountain? One individual, seen as very special - Moses himself. Moses, the one who had a direct relationship with God, who carried God’s word to the people. He is the one, the only one, to go up on the mountain.
And then, in the case of the transfiguration - Jesus goes up. If he had gone alone, it would have been a clear parallel to Moses. But it is not only Jesus, but also Peter, James and John. Now, we tend to revere these folk, the disciples, perhaps those one might consider the inner circle of the disciples.
But remember who these folk are.
Peter: fisherman, follower of Jesus for three years.
James: fisherman, follower of Jesus, also for three years.
John: brother of James, same qualifications.
YOUR qualifications are surely quite similar to theirs. Can you make the same sentence with your name, your occupation, and the number of years you have sought to follow Jesus?
And just as Peter, James and John’s occupations were irrelevant, so is yours.
Your qualification, like theirs, is “follower of Jesus”.
Could have been you up their with Jesus!
And there is the big difference between the Moses story and the Jesus story:
We do not need Moses in between us and the God-experience.
The God-experience was for Peter, James and John directly.
The God-experience is for us directly - we can relate to God through prayer, through worship, through study, through meditation.... we can relate directly, any one of us. Jesus brought Peter, James and John into direct relation with the God-experience:
Jesus also brings us into directly relationship with the God-experience,
into direct relationship with God.
Jesus - building on the foundation of the Law and the Prophets.
The moment of glory, and the moment of suffering - God is there. In both.
And somehow the two are not always so separate.
Jesus brings us into direct relationship with the God experience.... and with God.