What’s the point?
That’s the question I kept asking myself as I thought about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Because, you know, I’ve heard this story many times. Preached on it even more than that. And, I’ve never really understood what exactly is the difference between Transfiguration and Transformation?
Well, armed with those questions I took another look at this gospel, but this time I looked beyond the shiny face of Jesus, past my fascination about the symbolism of Moses and Elijah, and into the bewildered faces of Peter, James and John.
And that’s when I realized that, lo these past 36 years of preaching, I have had it all wrong. I cannot tell you how many times I have wagged a sermonic finger at Peter and his wanting to build three booths for Jesus, Elijah and Moses as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all bassakwards.
Well, it’s not my fault, really! How many sermons have you listen to when this is exactly what the preacher told you? Well, I’ve sat through at least the same number. As a preacher, I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.
From there, the traditional arc of a sermon on the Transfiguration can go one of two ways. I can hear the nuns and priests of my youth reminding me that being a disciple isn’t about preserving spiritual mountaintop experiences.
No, we’re supposed to get our sassy selves down off the mountain, into the nitty gritty of everyday life, and feed the hungry and clothed the poor and do everything that upwardly mobile and middleclass Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.
The other way a semon could go is to project all our human stuff onto Peter and provide ourselves with some measure of comfort in saying that Peter is just like you and me, and we are just like Peter – a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and us) and builds his church on him – Simon, the Rock.
That’s how I’ve learned to preach this text: go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’ Or, look at Peter—he’s just like you.
Well, after all these years of preaching one of those sermons, I had to ask myself, ‘What’s the point?’ What significance does the Transfiguration have if it doesn’t end in Transformation?
And, I’m not just talking about the change to being ‘nice’ and doing ‘good’ things for others. I’m talking about the Transformation that makes you such a follower of Jesus that helping others in need is simply second nature. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s what you do.
So, I took another look at the text, fixing my eyes on the disciples – especially Peter – and all of a sudden, I realized something. Do you see it? Jesus didn’t scold or correct Peter. Or, in the language of scripture, he wasn’t ‘rebuked’.
When Peter professes, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” why doesn’t Jesus correct him?
Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’ Why doesn’t Jesus gently scold Peter? “Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve.”
If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ So, I wonder: Was Peter right – more or less?
I mean, what did Peter see when he looked into the Transfigured face of Jesus that Transformed him into the disciple who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down?
What ‘flash of insight’ did Peter have when the flash of the Transfiguring light of God hit the face of Jesus, just as it had Moses before him?
Here’s what I think: I think Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus absolutely saturated with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become more like God.
Teillard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Eventually, our mortal flesh will fall away and we will fly home to God as the spiritual beings we are and have been since God first created us.
So the point of the Transfiguration IS our Transformation. That’s the point. That’s the mystery of our faith that we are going to explore starting Wednesday, which is also known as Ash Wednesday.
That’s the day when I’ll be over at the Circle in front of Charlie Koskey’s Jewelry Store at 7 AM and here in this church at noon and 7 PM, smudging ashes on the foreheads of everyone and saying over and over and over again, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Remember that you are human. Remember that you are mortal. Remember that your time on this earth, in this earthly frame is limited. So, what are you going to do with your one, wild, precious life? What difference will your life make?
It is humbling to realize that for all those years, I had it wrong and Peter had it right. It’s not about going back down the mountain. The entire Christian life is an uphill climb, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured and transformed ourselves.
As Richard Rohr says, "Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about humanity. Jesus came to change humanity’s mind about God."
You know when newborn babies make those faces and smile people always say "Oh, that's just gas!" My grandmother would shake her head and say, "That baby is smiling because she's getting last minute instructions from the angels."
If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than it has always been. And, what’s the point in that?
There is something Peter gets wrong, however. What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build three tabernacles.
Well, Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.
The flesh of Jesus, his very humanity, is the tabernacle.