Transfiguration, Transformation, Hope

My deepest thanks to D. Mark Davis and the Rev. Dr. Delmar Chilton for their insights and scholarship in writing this week’s sermon.

Photo Credit: Cubster Photography

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then 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.” While 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Six days later…” Sometimes the Lectionary Fairies seem to drop us into the middle of a conversation with these readings, and sometimes they seem to cut off important events and information that follow. We can’t blame them, really; especially with this Transfiguration Sunday reading, if we included everything in this reading, we’d be spending a good portion of the day reading, and still not get to everything.

Six days earlier, the Pharisees had demanded a sign from Jesus, and he’d refused: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Later, Jesus had turned to his disciples and asked what people were saying about him. There had been predictable answers: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when he challenged them, “Who do you say that I am,” one guy got it right — without the signs that the Pharisees demanded, based just on his experience with Jesus, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus praised Peter for knowing this — and yes, when Peter later tries to correct Jesus when he talks of his coming suffering and death, he has to turn around and call Peter “Satan,” but still, he knew who Jesus was even while not understanding all that meant.

So six days later, Jesus leads Peter and James and John up a mountain, and they are witness to the Transfiguration. Jesus is changed before their eyes — his face changes, he shines with dazzling light like the sun, and Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with him!

It’s difficult to convey how singular and overwhelming the experience of the Transfiguration was to those three disciples. We live in a world where CGI and PhotoShop can make miracles with a few clicks of the mouse, where creative video editing can make people say things they never intended, and after all, don’t we hear the account of the Transfiguration every year right before Lent starts?

But what’s happening here is the ultimate statement of who Jesus is — He glows with the glory of God, the light of who he really is. In conversing with Moses and Elijah, he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17. And the voice of God the Father confirms that Jesus is in fact His beloved and delightful Son.

That’s what it is — but what do we do with it?

I don’t mean, “how do we interpret it;” that’s fun, and it would more than fill out a sermon, but I mean, “how does this event compel us to deepen our relationship with the living God and thus interact with God’s creation in our day to day lives?”

What do we do with it?

We can put it on a special pedestal, make it a ritual — like having a day called “Transfiguration Sunday” in the liturgical calendar, oops? OK, nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, and it’s a normal reaction. That’s what Peter wanted to do when he spoke up, “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.” He wanted to preserve the event, to somehow convey how singular and wonderful the experience of this vision was.

But that wasn’t enough. It isn’t a mistake, or for comic timing, that Matthew’s Gospel has the very voice of God interrupting Peter in mid sentence: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that seeing Jesus glow with holy, blinding light doesn’t floor the disciples, but the voice from the cloud does? Malachi 3:2 says, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” But I digress.

There’s an interesting use of words in the Greek here: Where we read words like “appeared” and “saw,” it’s the word “horáō.” It literally means “see,” but it has a metaphorical use, “to see with the mind,” to “spiritually see” or to perceive with inward spiritual perception. That’s the word used throughout when Peter and James and John see Jesus shine, when they see Moses and Elijah, when they see the bright cloud that brings the voice of God… It is “horáō,” a vision, a theophany, an appearance of God.

and “horáō” is also the word that Matthew uses when all the light fades, when Moses and Elijah and the voice of God are gone, and Jesus touches the terrified, prostrate disciples. They look up and horáō, see, Jesus alone.

Jesus himself said “The Father and I are one,” and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” What the disciples see when they lift their eyes is Jesus, the very appearance of God. When we look to Jesus, we, too, see God.

What do we do with it?

Another interpretation of the Greek word for “transfiguration” is “transformation,” and it’s used in a couple more places in the New Testament: Romans 12:2, where we read “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” and also 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

If we take the time to reflect, most of us can find ways we have been changed, transfigured, by the presence of the holy in our lives. For most of us,  it’s not been a dramatic change – at least not as dramatic as Jesus shining as bright as the sun, or even Peter’s change from cowardly denier of Jesus on the night of his trial to brave preacher of Christ on the day of Pentecost; but we have all changed.

Yes we have been “transfigured,” by having Christ in our lives. We are less selfish and more generous than we used to be. Less judgmental and more tolerant, less anxious and more trusting, we do fewer bad things and more good things. If we look back at the long story of our personal relationship with God, we will find that we have been “transfigured” by God; smoothed out, reshaped, and formed more and more into the image of Christ.

What do we do with it?

Wait, isn’t that enough? We’re changed, we’re better people, we are nicer! Everyone lives happily ever after!

Is that enough? Well, was that enough for Jesus? Was the Transfiguration the end of his journey?

I know, “duh.” But this is an important point, because whenever we have “mountaintop experiences,” the tendency is always to try and preserve that moment, to hold ourselves in that moment. But God always has more for us — there is always a reason to move on from the mountaintop.

We move from this time of Epiphany, from this Transfiguration, into the season of Lent. Not may days after Jesus glows with holy light on this mountaintop, he will struggle up the hill of Golgatha. Clothes that shone with the glory of God will be objects that soldiers gamble for. Rather than being joined by two great heroes from ancient history, Jesus’ companions on the cross will be two common criminals. In place of the three male disciples on the mountain, three women will witness Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The dazzling light of Transfiguration will be replaced with a darkness that falls over the whole land. The one who basked in God’s presence will cry out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ And while on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved,’ at the Cross it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’

And yes, thank God, three days later Jesus was raised from the dead. The point is that the mountaintop, the glory, wasn’t all there is to the story; Jesus had a purpose in this world and he immediately went forth from the mountaintop to fulfill that purpose.

In fact, when we read on from this passage in Matthew, we find this:

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

You see? I skipped the part where he was teaching Peter, James and John even as they walked down the mountain, the point is that Jesus went right back to doing what he came to do: seek and save the lost.

That’s what he did with it.

Jesus was transfigured by the love of his Father, who delighted in him, and he was transfigured for a purpose. We are transformed through the love of God in the risen Christ, through the renewing of the Holy Spirit, for a purpose.

That purpose is, first, To grow in relationship with our loving Creator, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, to be transformed from glory to glory into the image of Jesus Christ. Then as transformed ambassadors for Christ, residents of the now-and coming Kingdom of God, we are to work to transform the world.

That’s what we do with it.

Poverty is still rampant. Government is rife with corruption. People the world over die every day from a lack of food and clean water, people die of easily preventable diseases, and even more despicable, far more shameful: children in our own city go to bed hungry, and far too many without a roof over their heads, every night. Thirty-one percent of Birmingham’s residents live in poverty, that’s nearly one in three!

I know I talk about that a lot, I’ve probably said that Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation a dozen times in sermons, but that’s because it is important. We cannot tell people that God loves them without also showing them that God loves them. We cannot speak the words of God without speaking words of justice and mercy and truth to the powers of this world. Without action, without love, we are clanging bells and tinkling cymbals.

Maybe I can’t feed a hundred people. Maybe I can feed just one. That’s OK. That’s what I do with it.

That’s what we do with it.

Living More Deeply

This is a rehash an updated version of a sermon I gave in 2011. I hope you enjoy it.


Photo Credit – Katie Johnston

Matthew 5:38-48

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

And, let’s admit it, it’s a whopper of a word. This passage, along with the one we read last week, is part of what scholars have called the “antitheses” of Jesus. The idea is that Jesus is placing ideas over against each other: “You have heard it said…” on one hand, versus “But I say to you…” on the other hand. Which is a good conversation starter, I suppose. But if Jesus is indeed not replacing, but fulfilling the Law, these aren’t over-and-against teachings. Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners, which no doubt included Pharisees and scribes, to a more personal and authentic interpretation of the Law, a deeper way of living.

And it’s important to emphasize the word “personal.” Today’s reading has a long and shameful history of being used as a hammer to beat people into submission — forcing oppressed people to continue in their suffering, forcing abused spouses to remain in marriage and abused children to remain silent against their abusers. I think anytime we use Scripture as a lens through which we view others, without first having used it to thoroughly and unflinchingly examine ourselves, we become no better than the worst of the Pharisees and religious elite that Jesus denounced in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. I’ve mentioned that passage three weeks in a row, now, because, alongside these readings from the Sermon on the Mount, it is such an important tool of self-examination for we American Christians in this day and age.

So yes, these verses are, first and foremost, personal. I am not to resist, I am to turn the other cheek, I am to give my cloak also, I am to give and to lend without respect. I am to love, I am to pray, I am to greet. I am to be complete, just like my Creator. If this is my focus, then this whole business of deciding how someone else should act in the face of evil and oppression — especially evil and oppression that benefits me either directly or indirectly — falls by the wayside, because who has that kind of time? Taking care of my own shortcomings in these areas is a full-time, lifelong task.

That being said, there’s a fascinating way of looking at Jesus’ teachings in their historical context as a primer on nonviolent resistance; teachings which have inspired generations of people (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so on) to stand powerfully in the face of oppression and tyranny. What on their face seem like simply passive actions — turning the cheek, giving coat and cloak — could be seen as powerful ways of robbing the oppressor of their power. Here’s what I mean:

“…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” according to some of the scholars I’ve read, Jesus is describing an act done by masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek, and was not at all an act of random violence or of fighting among friends or enemies. The blow was about asserting status, rank, privilege and power over the other. It had to be done properly, to demonstrate that the master had control of the slave. The slave must obediently stand facing you without external coercion. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand.  If this is correct, then by turning the left cheek, the slave asserts power over the master, rendering him powerless to continue the all-too-properly-executed violence, and does so without lifting a finger.

“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Peasants, which is to sa, the vast majority of people in Roman-ruled Judea, did not sue one another, so this, too is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned – except for your underwear… which, in those days, was a “cloak!” Perhaps the idea is to publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns! So, y’know, give him your underwear, too. Let him explain why you are naked.

“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” Soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a Roman mile. This was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing the chance to be chosen for that day’s labor, and therefore that day’s food for the family. Going that extra mile as a voluntary act took back the initiative from the soldier, not only exposing to the soldier the injustice he was committing, but saving some other poor laborer from missing a day’s work as well.

If I may be so bold as to quote the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”

In any case, for us, I tend to agree with Mark Davis that the central focus of this particular reading is this verse: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” First off, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” as a teaching is not found anywhere in Scripture. Rather, we are taught that whenever we attempt to define who our “neighbor” is, we draw the circle too tightly.

Yes, we are told to love our neighbor, but did you know that, right within the Law of Moses, the Book of Leviticus, there is this command? “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Chapter nineteen, verse thirty-four, if you want to look it up.

It is, after all, in the very nature of God, the very nature of nature, if you will, that the sun rises with no respect to whether one is good or evil; the rain falls with no respect to whether one is just or unjust. Not only does this go against the superstition that God sends natural disasters in order to punish entire countries or communities for the sins of their ancestors, which is something we’ve heard time and again from certain TV preachers, but more importantly it goes against the idea of loving only your neighbor and always hating your enemy, and sets the stage for the following verses: in the same manner that God gives sun and rain indiscriminately, we must give of our love without limit, we must welcome without qualification… and on this basis, the preceding verses come into focus for us: non-retaliation, going the extra mile, and so on.

If I may play off of a quote by C.S. Lewis, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas. Most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual or perceived enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone.

There are very loud and well-known voices which are adept at telling us who our enemies are, at demanding we fear, hate and despise this group or that group, that “those people” are bad and “we” are good.

When we buy into those voices, when we subscribe to the politics of scarcity and fear, then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who never had to face enemies and circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing. No one before has faced enemies as pernicious and cruel as our enemies. They might have turned the other cheek, but we must hit back before we get destroyed. Others may have been loving and forgiving, but we are called on to use the good sense God gave us and be wary and defensive.

Living like this is living small. And that last thing that Jesus says in our reading today, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” that calls us to so much more.

Wait, wait. “Perfect?” I can’t even pour coffee from the pot in the back without dripping, and I’m up here talking about being “perfect?”

That word, “teleios,” could mean complete, as in brought to its end, finished, or wanting nothing necessary to completeness, and it could mean mature, full grown, adult. The good news is that, given the context, the most obvious meaning is the latter, “mature.”

But let’s not set that first idea aside yet. Because what Jesus has been talking about with these so-called “antitheses,” this idea of carrying “you have heard it said” to a more complete and challenging place, is all about living more deeply. Jesus calls us to the maturity that brings depth, but he also calls us to a journey towards perfection, toward God’s perfection. Toward restoration. Yes, restoration between ourselves and our fellow Christians, even ourselves and our fellow human beings, but it cannot end there. That makes Christianity little more than a social activism club.

No, to live more deeply, to walk this faith journey in the footsteps of Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is to live in the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now: to strive to reconcile all of humanity with their loving Creator.

To live more deeply is to love extravagantly – not the emotional, internal, felt “love,” but the difficult, dirty, inconvenient love — love lived as a verb, the feeding, clothing, visiting and welcoming of Matthew 25:31-46. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people we don’t particularly like. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people who kind of scare us.

We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God – eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the peace and flourishing joy of all. This is living more deeply.