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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on February 26, 2017 (Last Sunday after Epiphany/Tranfiguration Sunday)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
– Matthew 17:1-9
The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, known as Ash Wednesday. I hope you will join us for a soup supper and simple worship service that evening as we begin our journeys through Lent – to the cross and the empty tomb.
But that means that today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany – the season after Christmas. The traditional gospel text for this Sunday is the story we just read from Matthew, or the slightly different versions in Mark or Luke – the story of what is known as the “transfiguration” of Jesus. Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, and there he is transfigured – he begins to shine with a divine light.
This is a strange story. I personally think this is not record of an actual event, but rather a story that was told about Jesus to suggest who the storyteller believed Jesus was. Biblical scholars and commentators and preachers have offered many different ideas about what it means. There are all kinds of biblical symbolism here. There are echoes of the story of Moses from Exodus – it takes place on a mountain, and Jesus shines in the gospel story like the glory of the Lord in Exodus. Moses and Elijah show up and have a conversation with Jesus. Moses and Elijah were two of the “superstars” of Jewish tradition who lived hundreds of years before the time of Jesus: Moses was the great lawgiver who met with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the commandments; Elijah was a great prophet who once heard God on a mountain speak in a “still, small voice,” and who, according to tradition, never died, but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. Many Jews believed that Elijah would return before the Messiah came.
After Peter offers to erect dwellings (tents, tabernacles) for the three, a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” This seems to be the same voice and words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism. But then another statement is added: “Listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground with fear – a response appropriate for hearing God’s voice or being in the presence of the Holy One. And then, there was only Jesus.
What’s it all mean? I can only offer some suggestions. For one, the transfiguration suggests that Jesus’ true identity and nature are revealed. The disciples see his “true colors shining through.” For context, this story of the transfiguration takes place right after Peter has confessed his faith that Jesus was the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the Living God. And right after that, Jesus began to talk about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed – something that wouldn’t be expected for God’s Chosen One. And he told his disciples that they, too, must follow his pattern – to take up their own cross and follow him. This is the true source of Jesus’ glory – not just that he was a great teacher and miracle worker, but that he was willing to suffer as a result of his love for God and for all people. How many famous and powerful people are willing to do that?
I think the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is meant to suggest that Jesus stands fully within Jewish tradition: He was a successor to, and even the fulfillment of all Moses and Elijah had lived for.
After the vision was over, Jesus said to the disciples, “Do not be afraid.” He was there to calm their fears.
It’s still a strange story, and I have often puzzled over what this is supposed to mean for us.
A few weeks ago, six of us traveled to Denver for the Congregations Alive! event organized by our Rocky Mountain Conference. We shared some of our learnings from that experience a few Sundays ago. One of the keynote speakers was Rev. John Dorhauer, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. He talked with great passion at that event about how the UCC is partnering with other religious groups – Muslims, Reformed Jews, Unitarians, and others – to work together toward “a just world for all.” That partnership is exciting in these days when there has been – for centuries – such misunderstanding and mistreatment of other religions by Christians, which unfortunately continue today.
Progressive Christians are challenging the traditional Christian belief that only believers in Jesus will be saved from eternal punishment after death and able to find eternal life in heaven. We are finally learning that all great religious traditions have wisdom to offer. As Peter Mayer sang in one of his songs on Friday night, what if we got to heaven and discovered all kinds of other people were there?
But I asked John Dorhauer what, if anything, uniquely important Christianity has to offer in its story of Jesus who suffered and died on a cross (a Roman instrument of execution and torture), and was raised from death. This is a question I have been wrestling with in my own theology.
I’m not sure if the biblical writers knew much about Buddhism or Hinduism, even though they were flourishing in other parts of the world at the time. Islam was born about six centuries after the time of Jesus. But I have wondered what kind of vision of transfiguration we might see if we could see Jesus appearing not only with Moses and Elijah, but also with the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him), and with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and maybe a few other important religious teachers (perhaps Joseph Smith?). And what about if some of our greatest political leaders and celebrities were seen there with him: Donald Trump, or Beyonce’. Would Jesus still shine as brightly? Would he still remain after the others were gone? Or would he be just one among equals?
John Dorhauer had (I believe) a great answer. Jesus did not escape suffering; he entered into it. That was unique. And so no matter what kind of suffering you might experience in your life, Jesus has shared it with you. Have you known grief and loss? Abuse and scorn? A sense of failure? Facing death? Jesus has been there. We are not alone in this beautiful, terrifying journey through life.
And Jesus – somehow – rose from the dead. Which means that death is never the last word – never the end. That is not an invitation to get this life over to see what comes next. Rather, it is the assurance that even if life for now seems miserable and unendurable, there is hope. Are you grieving the death of loved ones, or the loss of a career, and wondering if you will ever know joy again? Made to feel like you are useless at school or at work? Being treated like a non-person? Worried about the future of our nation and our world? Depressed, and feeling no reason to go on? Jesus offers hope for something new. Death is not the end.
And Jesus did not just accept and maintain the status quo; he revealed injustice and provided an alternative vision for life together.
That is what John Dorhauer preached a few weeks ago. That is where I am, theologically and Christologically, these days. As Martin Luther is reported to have said almost five centuries ago, when he was warned to recant all of his teachings and writings against the Roman Church of his time or face excommunication, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
The Transfiguration is an important story for this church, and other progressive Christian churches in our time. As we critically reexamine old church doctrines about the superiority of Christianity over other religions that have caused great harm over the centuries; as we seek to grow in understanding and partnership with other great religious traditions; as we work to be welcoming and inclusive of people from many different religious backgrounds, and invite serious questioning and dialogue – is there still something uniquely beautiful and powerful about Jesus that we can claim and hold on to and proclaim to the world and teach to future generations? I think it is vital for us to do that – to be the United Church of Christ.
There is an old hymn (17th century German) appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday: “Fairest Lord Jesus.” The final verse says,
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
And all the twinkling, starry host:
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels heaven can boast. Amen.
Robert J. von Trebra