Today’s Transfiguration sermon comes from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-10 & 2 Kings 2:1-12.
Who do you say that Jesus is? The Transfiguration occurs six days after Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” After Peter names Jesus as the Christ, Jesus began to teach that “the Christ” must “suffer many things”. God Suffering? Even today, the notion that God allows good people to suffer or be crucified shocks our sensibilities. Jesus’ crucifixion ends any flirting with the prosperity gospel or Christian nationalism. The cross is tragic, ugly, and unjust. The cross reminds us of the horrors of state sponsored killing. It signals that Church leaders and Bible experts often align with politicians to kill prophetic speech. It seems blasphemous to wave the cross as a sign for any nation, war, or political party. The cross signifies non-violent resistance, sacrificial suffering, forgiveness of enemies, love for strangers, and an almost incomprehensible divine empathy. Such jarring grace is deeply counter-cultural. So when Jesus begins to teach us about the cross, we recoil in shock.
How can anyone gaze upon Love Crucified and not recoil in sadness or horror? Grasping the horror, Peter grabbed Jesus and scolded him saying, “No, Lord, not you! You of all people should not suffer!” Peter is right; the cross is ugly, unfair, and tragic. Jesus’ answer shocks us, “All who want to come after me must say ‘no’ to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for the kin-dom of God, you will save your soul!”
“Six days later”, three of the twelve disciples joined Jesus on a pilgrimage. They travel to the top of a very high mountain where they can be alone in prayer. Despite the glorious miracle that occurred there, none of the Gospel writers tell us which mountain was the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus rejects the idea of a Transfiguration shrine or Moses monument! Maybe God always resists our desire to package up and reheat spiritual moments. But, we love to enshrine a glorious past. Without a Jesus shrine, God can meet us anywhere. I have made pilgrimages to the Tennessee mountains, Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, my father’s hospital room, and a yoga pillow in my living room. God will meet us everywhere, if we learn to be alone in prayer.
Only three of the twelve disciples join Jesus on the pilgrimage. Alone in prayer, the three pilgrims surely wrestle with Jesus’ new teaching that all who want to follow Jesus must say ‘no’ to themselves, take up the cross, and do the things Jesus did! Solitude is not an escape from life. Alone in prayer, we face the world’s needs. Alone in prayer, Jesus asks us, “Who will you be?” Solitude is the deepest possible engagement with real life. Next Wednesday we begin our Lenten pilgrimage. Let us ask the deeper questions of prayer.
Alone and together in prayer, the three pilgrims see Jesus transformed in front of them. Christ’s clothes become “amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white.” Most people owned and wore the same outer garments every day- so “bleached clothing” is a fitting cultural descriptor. Elijah and Moses appear and talk with Jesus. Did they speak of Moses’ liberation movement or Elijah’s fear of King Ahab? The Holy moment was blinding, then gone in a flash. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark tells us that Peter “said this because he didn’t know how to respond. “
How do you hold Holy moments? What words explain a moment when Love came around you like a cloud or you seemed to speak with the ancestors? If Peter could have pulled up a phone and taken a video, what would we see today? Why does Jesus tell the pilgrims not to talk about such a glorious moment until after Easter? How do we respond to Holy moments? Do we want to enshrine the place, the moment, the details? How high was the mountain, what time of day did Elijah appear, what was Moses wearing, and what hymn did they sing? Why do we try to box in a Living God? Church or personal growth gurus invite us to reheat holy moments with spiritual “how to” manuals. Churches try to recapture the glorious past by getting a hipper preacher, repackaging worship services, sprucing up our websites, addressing felt needs, or getting back to old time orthodoxy. We will not encounter the Holy with such second-hand experiences. God can’t be conjured by even sincere formulas. Jesus said, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3) “Christ in us” shatters our preconceptions and handbooks. Indeed, “All who want to follow Jesus must say ‘no’ to themselves, take up their cross, and follow. If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for the kin-dom of God, you will find your soul!” Peter “didn’t know how to respond!” There are no one-size fits all manuals to dying to self, taking up your cross, and finding life. A Living Faith can’t be reduced to formulas.
The Apostle Paul describes faith saying, “We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake. The same God who said, ‘Let the light shine out of the darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.” How do you write a theological formula to explain that? What rules measure if the Creator’s light has shone within someone’s heart? How do we box in a faith so mysterious and beautiful? When I went through the Board of Ministry, no one asked if I had seen God’s glory in the face of Jesus? They asked me to explain the Trinity! We professional Christians struggle with mystery, we want to pin down with words and rules. If a church captures spiritual lighting in a bottle, we want to write in a book and try to remanufacture the ingredients across the denomination. We prefer the Bible, theology and how-to-manuels to nebulous Spiritual adventures like “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus.”
The Monk Thomas Merton wrote, “too often our notion of faith is rendered false by our emphasis on the statements about God. We forget that faith is communion with God. Our statements about faith are simply media through which we pass to reach God. Faith terminates not in a statement, formula, or words, but in God. If we mistake theological formulas for (living) faith we will fall into anxious hairsplitting arguments, controversy, perplexity and ultimately into hatred and division. Theology is not the final object of faith. Faith goes beyond words. Faith brings us the light of God: God’s very presence. We must make every effort to believe the right formulas, but we must not be so obsessed with verbal correctness that we never go beyond our words into the holy reality our words attempt to describe! Above all: faith is the opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with the presence of Divine Light.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)
Oh, friends, the church is in a great war about words and formulas. We are mistaking faith for formulas. We have traded the face of Christ for the Bible. Our love for verbal certainty has led us into division and hate. There is no sure formula to test if anyone saw Jesus’ glorious face on the mountain top, except perhaps the fruit of such strange heart-warming love poured into one’s actions. So perhaps it is better “to judge not”, for in judging we become disconnected from grace. (Matthew 7) Yet, it is not enough to say, you believe what you will, and I will believe what I believe, if what you believe ties up heavy burdens and devalues some of God’s children.(Matthew 23) The issue of clergy worthiness should have been settled, when we allowed Paul to be named an Apostle or at the first church trial when Peter successfully argued, “If God gave them the same gift, that God gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who are we to stand in God’s way?” (Acts 10-11) Some want to isolate, regulate,and legislate the Holy. Others believe that if we see the face of Jesus, even if we can’t explain it, that is enough. It is enough that the Light mysteriously and strangely warms our hearts. Such Holy Light heals us and begins to grow the fruit of God’s kin-dom.
Now, if you have not seen the glorious face of Jesus, I have no one-size-fits all formula for that. Jesus suggests that if you lose yourself in the work of the kingdom, you will find life. Jesus promises to show up when we love others as ourselves, break bread with open hearts, worship in spirit and truth, feed hungry people, give away healthcare, welcome immigrants and forgive anyone. In those moments we may not even realize Jesus is around. (Matthew 25) Maybe we even have to die to our expectations or need to see Jesus? Maybe Jesus in our work long before we know it.
So if you have not seen Elijah’s chariots of fire: Take heart- the Transfiguration happened once. Only three of the twelve disciples came along with Jesus. Maybe one moment, where Love overshadows everything else is enough for a lifetime. Such holy moments can’t be manufactured. Our un-boxed God breaks into our lives: often when we least expect it. A child, ready to go hungry so others might eat, offers their lunch to Jesus and somehow God miraculously feeds 5,000 people. An angry legalistic zealot falls blind along the Damascus Road and seeing holy light becomes the great Apostle for inclusion. Our crucified Lord hangs before the mocking church officials and prays, “Oh, heavenly Father-Mother: forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” … and somehow we all are saved.
Let us not chase the experience. Instead: follow Christ. Spend time alone in prayer. Spend time together with others alone in prayer. Make pilgrimages. Worship in spirit and truth. Die to your self-importance. Lose your need to regulate the Holy. Lose yourself in loving service to others! Build the kin-dom. Face the cross. Do not confuse formulas for faith. And if Moses, Elijah, and Jesus happen to appear. Fall silent in praise of God- words will fail you! Treasure it all in your heart. Do not spend your life trying to reheat that glorious moment. It is gone in a flash! Come down off that mountain. The world needs you! Easter surely deserves a shrine, but the Risen Lord tells the shocked disciples, “I am going ahead of you… I am going ahead of you to Galilee, so get back to building the kin-dom… we will see Christ as we break bread, lose ourselves, feed the hungry and welcome the outcast !” (Matthew 25 & 28, Luke 24) May it be so in us!