March 2, 2014 (Transfiguration Sunday)
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Today is a special day in the church year called Transfiguration Sunday. It celebrates an event in the life of Jesus that is surrounded by mystery, and it seeks to explain something about the nature of who Jesus is and what we are called to do and to be in light of that knowledge. All the Gospel writers have one goal – that is to explain Jesus’ identity – to tell the good news of his life and his message. They do that by shaping and interpreting key events in his life, such as, the circumstances of his miraculous birth that set him apart of the very beginning, his baptism with the parting of the heavens and God blessing him, his temptation in the wilderness where he debates his life’s purpose with none other than the great Adversary himself; the instances of healing, not to mention the miraculous walks on water and feeding multitudes with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish. By the time we getr to today’s story, it is pretty clear who the gospel writers know Jesus to be. He is the Son of god. But just in case someone has missed the point, or have not caught on yet that this Jesus isn’t just any carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher and faith healer, there is this mystical revelatory event.
Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain. For Matthew’s audience, that would have been an immediate signal that something significant was about to happen because for them the mountain was a place where the flat world could reach up to touch the great dome of the heavens, a place where the holy and the earthly met.
And sure enough, at the top of that mountain with Jesus, a wonderful thing happened. Peter, James, and John began to see Jesus in a new way. They got a completely new insight into who he was, and he was much more than they’d ever imagined. A few days before this event, Peter had affirmed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” but he had never imagined anything like this. Jesus was changed. His face glows with a radiant light and his clothes shine sparkling white.
Not only that, he is suddenly and unexpectedly in the presence of heroes of the faith: Moses, who led his people out of oppression, who spoke to God on their behalf, and who brought God’s laws to them, and Elijah, the great prophet, whom King Ahab had called “that trouble of Israel,” because he had condemned the people’s betrayal of their loyalty to God[i] and whose return was supposed to signal the immanent coming of the Messiah.
Peter, James, and John probably thought they were called away from the world, up the high mountain, for quiet time alone with Jesus. Maybe they were thinking how lucky they were to have Jesus all to themselves with no one else around to vie for his attention. But then they see Jesus changed before their eyes, reflecting the glory of God clearly for them to see. And Peter just kind of lost it when he saw Moses and Elijah as well. He wants to hold on to that moment, he wants to say forever in that holy place, so he rambles on, “it’s good to be here; I’ll make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But before he and the others could get completely lost in that lovely prospect of building shrines, the disciples are surrounded by a bright cloud, out of which God interrupts Peter and says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” And the disciples fall down in fear. And when they look up again, it is Jesus’ voice they hear; it is Jesus touching them; and it is Jesus leading them back down the mountain side. Jesus alone.
Sometimes people think the mountain top experience is the most valuable, the most real, the most legitimate, the most “God-like” of spiritual experiences, and they want to stay there and repeat that experience over and over again. And yet Jesus tells the disciples to follow him back to the town, away from their private and privileged visions, to meet the people and situations that need them most and there they meet a man whose son is possessed by a demon. The disciples have to turn their attention outward to the hurting people, the indifferent officials, the ineffective institutions, and away from their personal experiences.
Sister Joan Chittister calls this the story of the perennial struggle between the religion for show and the religion for real.[ii] Real religion, this story seems to be saying, is not about staying on the mountain top, building temples, and keeping shrines. It’s not about finding “a nice, comfortable religious cloud,” or “floating above the fray.” It’s about being transformed by those experiences to go out and make a difference in the world.
Real religion is about healing hurts, speaking for and being with the poor, the helpless, those without a voice, the forgotten one at the bottom of the pecking order in all aspects of human life, both in society and in the church. This is one of the things that have made Pope Francis such a joy to watch. He is all about speaking for and being with the poor. And he is giving his Bishops and others in the church hierarchy fits for their worldly ways, their love of pomp and circumstance, their concern for their own upward mobility within the structure of the church. He has said they are supposed to be shepherds, but they no longer have the smell of the sheep about them!
But real religion is not just for the religious “professionals,” the popes, and bishops, and clergy. It’s for all of us. Every day we are called to leave behind religion for show, and to demonstrate the real thing — to risk greatly, to step out in faith, and to perform works of mercy, to do miracles for those in need, to share the love of God, seek the justice of God, and ensure the peace of God, not counting the cost. Real religion is about transfiguration, about changing ourselves so that we can change the world.
It is so disappointing in today’s world to see so many who profess to be Christians, who proudly claim the United States as a Christian nation, and yet do nothing to assist those most in need, but instead seem to think that the greatest virtue is self-protection, accumulation of material goods, and forceful and often violent action against anyone or anything perceived to be a threat to their self-centered way of life. We saw yet another example of that this week when Congress failed to act on legislation that would have provided educational, health, and job training benefits to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Somehow it was OK in their minds to spend billions of dollars fighting those wars, but it wasn’t financially feasible to care for the very people who fought it. And yet these same individuals, most of them, probably go to church on Sunday, and call on the name of Jesus without any awareness of the contradiction in their words and their actions.
But then, it is human nature to be more inclined to a religion that comforts and protects us than challenges us, and to a savior who helps us escape rather than walks with us through the difficulties of life. But the purpose of faith, our scripture tells us today, is not to protect us from the world safe on the mountain top, but to prepare us for the world, to change the way we live in the world, and not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.[iii] It is so easy to miss or to ignore this point, but as we move into the season of Lent, as Jesus walks to Jerusalem and to the cross, it becomes evident that this truth is the bedrock of our Christian life.
It takes a long time to learn this lesson; that’s why we tell the story over and over again, year in and year out. It takes a long time to learn that we cannot expect to follow Jesus and stay on top of the mountain. We have to follow him back down the mountain and into the world. Sister Joan says in a discomfortingly clear way, “It is one thing to be devout. It’s relatively easy, in fact, to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of pious practices. It is another thing entirely to live a life worthy of a follower of Jesus,”[iv] the Christ. It’s time for us to get real.
[i] Sister Joan Chittister, “The Role of Religion in Today’s Society,” Chicago Sunday Evening Club, November 24, 1991.
[ii] Sister Joan Chittister, “Transfiguration Story: to take holiness, insights into the groaning cities – meditation on the second Sunday of Lent,” National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001.
[iii] Chittister, “The Role of Religion in Today’s Society”
[iv] Chittister, “Transfiguration Story”