Scripture: 2 Peter 1:16-21
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
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."
Happy Transfiguration Sunday! Were you ready for it? I wasn't. In our Church calendar we celebrate the Transfiguration on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday before the season of Lent begins. The Feast of the Transfiguration is actually in August and this year will fall on a Sunday, so we get to celebrate the Transfiguration twice this year. The Transfiguration is clearly important in the life of the church. We heard that in our second reading from the Second Letter of Peter, which emphasizes the importance of the Transfiguration. We celebrate the appearance of God and of God's glory and the repetition of God's claim of Jesus as the beloved Son, with the addition "listen to him!"
This is a very important event in the life of Jesus, but also the life of the Church and of the generations of people who have followed Christ as the embodiment of God and God's love for the world. Part of why I think the Church has positioned Transfiguration Sunday in advance of Lent is because we need the reminder of the glory of God working through Christ despite the events that happen leading to the cross. Today we remind ourselves of God's glory and God's active claiming of Christ and Christ's message. A message that comes directly from God, a message of God's love for the world, despite the world's betrayal and rejection. Despite the violence of God's creation against one another, time and again, God continues to claim Jesus and to claim us through Christ as beloved children, as those who are meant to live a better way with one another.
Even though we have jumped 12 chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount to today in Chapter 17, we remember that Chapter 16 includes Jesus' question to his disciples "Who do they say that I am?" Jesus lived in a collectivist society not an individualistic one. You couldn't just grab a soapbox and make a claim for who you were. Your identity always needed to be affirmed by the broader community. And even though the community couldn't quite tell if Jesus was Elijah come again or another prophet, his immediate followers recognize him as the Messiah, as the beloved Son of God. And then he tells them for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew about the path that he will walk. A path that he invites them into. Jesus has realized that his message of love has not been accepted by those who are in power and that he will be rejected by those with power who are so threatened by a different way of living, one with another. Jesus tells his disciples not only of the suffering that he will face, and his death, but also of resurrection. These events go hand in hand. It's the opportunity for his immediate three disciples to see Jesus amid God's glory that gives them strength and courage to try to face the days ahead.
I'd like to offer some words from Michael Ramsey. He was an Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-twentieth century, serving from 1961-1974. He also served as a visitor to an international religious community who lived a rule of life together, lay and ordained. This piece comes from a retreat he led for that community. Archbishop Ramsey offers an important way of considering the Transfiguration not as some sort of celestial event that feels far removed but as a way of conceiving and considering our own lives, lives we live both with suffering and with joy.
Archbishop Ramsey writes:
"Transfiguration is one of the true and legitimate descriptions of the Gospel entrusted to us and of the Christian life which we called to be living and leading others into the living of. There is a striking passage in Toynbee's work on the interpretation of history, in which Toynbee describes the various attitudes possible in what he calls a declining and frustrated civilisation. Toynee says that the possible attitudes are these. The first he calls archaism, and by that he means an attempt to put the clock back and to reconstruct some state of affairs which had previously existed. Another attitude he calls futurism, and by that he means to despair of the existing world order and to try to force our way forward to some totally new order unrelated to it, so unrelated to it, that it can only be brought about by violence. The third attitude he calls detachment, but as there is a kind of detachment quite different from what he means, he would have done better to have called it escapism, for by this attitude, he means despairing of the world order and retreating from it into a kind of zone of spirituality apart from the world and its troubles. Rejecting these three attitudes as unsatisfactory, archaism, futurism and detachment, Toynbee says the true attitude that makes sense is transfiguration, and he describes transfiguration thus: 'To accept the situation just as it is and to carry it into a larger context which makes sense of it and gives the power to grapple with it.' And that is striking language for one who is writing not as a theologian, but as a historical analyst and commentator. What exactly he meant, thought he meant, may be rather hard to grasp, but I think the words have immense suggestiveness for us Christians. Transfiguration is to accept the situation as it is, and to carry it into some larger context which makes some sense of it and gives the power to grapple with it. That larger context is Jesus crucified and risen, and we are called, again and again, to be lifting human situations into that context and finding that in that context new and exciting things begin to happen to the situations, and to us who are confronting them.
"Recall just a few ways in which this Gospel of transfiguration is for us a great reality. Suffering is transfigured. That is something that every priest has the joy of seeing, again and again, in the lives of people he [or she] meets. People who suffer greatly, and yet through their nearness to Christ, something different happens. They suffer still, but yet there is a sympathy, a gentleness, a sweetness, a power of love, a power of prayer that makes all the difference to them and to those who know them. Suffering transfigured."
Archbishop Ramsey goes on to discuss situations transfigured as well as the ways in which we look for transformation in our own lives. And the possible contradiction that when we feel we are becoming Christlike we are likely not becoming Christlike. He continues by saying that it is for us...
"... putting ourselves in Christ's hands, to be forgetting ourselves altogether, but entrusting ourselves into Christ's hands, we know by faith that the power of Christ can and does work in us, and we can leave it at that, by faith, and not by sight. This is summed up by Saint Paul. I finish with just a glance at Saint Paul. It is at the end of II Corinthians 3; Saint Paul describes how the Apostles gaze at the Glory of Christ as reflected in a mirror and while gazing at the Glory of Christ as in a mirror, they are themselves being transformed into Christ's own likeness, from glory to glory by the power of the Spirit Who is Lord."
I invite us to consider in our own lives situations that may be baffling, situations that may be full of sorrow or suffering. To consider them in the broader Christian context of Christ crucified and risen. And in the context of our identity as members of the Body of Christ, beloved children of God. Children of a God who is not only with us but for us. A God who picks up his broken Son and makes him whole and does the same for each of us through small gestures. Through blessings that we often find we need to be open to notice, so that we can take the risk of a step forward.
It is an amazing path that early Christians embarked on. To follow a savior who not only communicated from God, but instead of their expected outcome of overthrowing those in power, was willing to walk with those on the margins. Willing to see them as God's beloved children, as those who should be brought into the center, and who are worth dying for. As we head into the season of Lent, let's fix in our minds a picture of Christ's glory. It may be something very personal to you or it may be the mountaintop images we heard today. You may think of one of the moments of blessing in your own life that has come in the midst of pain or question or suffering. With Transfiguration fixed in our minds and hearts, we give thanks for that glory that carries us into Holy Week and to the cross, remembering that resurrection is always present as well. Amen.
Michael Ramsey, Retreat Addresses given to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, Clewer, 1972, pp. 6-7, found in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, editors. Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 670-671.