In the name of One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Sunday where we remember the Transfiguration of our Lord, and if I’m honest, it’s not always an easy story for me to appreciate. I often find myself most drawn to the stories of Christ that emphasize his humanity. I feel connected to that Jesus. The Jesus who grew tired after a long journey and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water is relatable. The Jesus who wept with grief at his friend Lazarus’s tomb is relatable.
Even the Jesus that seeks time away from the pressure of his ministry and the crush of the crowds by hiking up a mountain with three of his closest friends is pretty relatable. But the Jesus who becomes transfigured, whose clothes become dazzling white while the voice of God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved! Listen to him!”….that Jesus is the one that feels other, that feels divine.
The word that we translated as “transfigure” is the Greek word “metamorpho-oo”, and you can probably guess the meaning of it, based on our modern English word “metamorphosis.” And this Greek word means: “to change one’s external form” much like the caterpillar changes to a butterfly. This connotation indicates that there was more happening on that mountain top that Jesus taking on a glow and his clothes gleaming white– there was a change so physical that it terrified Peter, James, and John! It’s hard for me to even imagine what that might have been, what details of the change could frighten Jesus’s inner circle of friends so much. It is unfathomable!
And the unfathomable stories about God are the ones that are sometimes hardest for our logical minds to make sense of. This story, like the story of Moses going up to Mount Sinai, covered in a cloud of devouring flame, to receive the tablets of the law, brings us face to face to the unbelievable, the far-from-normal, the unexplainable, unimaginable other. And that other-ness of Jesus’s transfiguration completely terrifies his friends, and on top of that, ancient prophets Moses and Elijah appear with him. But despite the terror, Peter starts babbling about how it is good to be there and how they should build something– a tabernacle, tent, a dwelling, a shelter– it’s not entirely clear what he was suggesting– but Peter’s babbling makes me think he wanted to stay there with the transfigured Christ, Moses, and Elijah. He wanted to stay with Jesus, his teacher and friend, despite being afraid.
Fear has been our constant companion for the past several years, hasn’t it? Fear from the pandemic and the trauma it left behind; fear of social unrest and economic instability; fear that ancient injustices will never heal, that that long moral arc of the universe will not bend to justice in our lifetimes. And sometimes, we the church–both as the little c church of St. Luke’s and the big C Church of Christendom around the world–fear what the future might bring. We at St. Luke’s are planning for our own journey into the wilderness when construction begins in our development project to create affordable housing and a new church space right here. The Big C church around the world sometimes fears a future of irrelevance. And of course, there are the fears that touch us all at some point in our lives.. the fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of helplessness, fear of whatever comes next when this life ends. I know that I’ve at times been tired of feeling afraid.
Yet, the hospital chaplain in me knows that feeling fear, feeling afraid doesn’t make us weak. Fear is just an emotion, a morally neutral feeling that our brain creates in order to warn us about danger and keep us safe. It’s okay to be afraid, okay to admit it. There is no shame in feeling fear. What we do with that fear is up to us.
In fact fear tends to be an emotion often associated with a close encounter with the Divine. Angels always seem to say “Do not be afraid” as soon as they show up, so that makes me think the cute porcelain statues might have gotten the angels wrong. In the scriptures, “Do not be afraid” is the most repeated command, and when Jesus does something amazing, like walking on water, he says, “Fear not!” And yet, coming so close to God is often scary. When the presence of God covered Mount Sinai in a cloud of devouring flame, the Israelites were terrified, and I’m willing to bet Moses was too. “God reigns” says the Psalmist, “let the people tremble.” There is an aspect of God in the Holy Scriptures that is so different from us, so other, as to be frightening. We fear, don’t we, what we do not understand. On that mountain top when Jesus became transfigured, Peter, James, and John were terrified. But Peter, babbling away in fear, suggested building a shelter to stay there forever. Peter wanted to remain. Peter wanted to stay right there in the midst of that awesome, inexplicable presence. That’s the lesson I always take from the Transfiguration of Christ when fear catches up to me. I remember that Peter felt afraid of the Transfigured Christ and yet still wanted to stay.
When we seek to follow in the ways of Christ, we are seeking not only to follow the teachings of a wise man or to model our behavior after a gentle yet fiercely good human. We are also seeking to follow the Jesus who became wholly other on that mountain top, the Christ who makes the impossible, possible. The One whose goodness is greater than any evil humankind can think up, whose justice never fails even when our justice does. The One who brings good news to the poor, gives sight to the blind, release to the captives, and lets the oppressed go free. The One who was with God at the creation of the world, the One who died yet lived again, the One who reaches his hands out to us to say, “There is more to life than this,” to say, “Come and See….Come to me and I will give you rest….come be with me and I will show you everlasting life.”
And I don’t know about you, but sometimes, this is the Jesus I need, the one who points me to God when God feels hard to find, the one who gives hope when hope feels just beyond my reach, the One who shows me how to love just when I think I have no more love to give. I need that Jesus. Maybe you do too.
And so the good news for you and for me today is that we do not have to climb a mountain top to find the transfigured Christ. He is already, always close to us. So, just like Peter suggested, even if it feels scary, build a place in your mind and heart for Christ to stay, always close. Unfathomable though the transfigured Christ may be at times, it’s like one of my patients once told me: “He is just a whisper away.” Amen.