“And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)
Yes, it’s the Feast of the Transfiguration, where we remember once again that bizarre occasion upon which Jesus’ face changed and His clothes became dazzling white – ‘whiter than any fuller could bleach them’ adds St Mark in Mark 9:3 (in the words of the old King James Version).
It is a bizarre and unique story in the Gospels, recounting an event that I’ve always found to be rather impenetrable. Perhaps you had to be there at the time to truly understand what happened.
There was a time when I felt very uncomfortable with this story, to the extent that I looked for ways to avoid preaching on it. I think the problem for me has always been that I can’t think of the transfiguration without thinking of some of those classic (and very Catholic) artworks that try to reconstruct the event for us. Jesus, who is always depicted in such art as a white man anyway, is even more white than usual! The scene is bathed in light, and there is the cloud, and inevitably there is an expression on Jesus’ face reflecting the fact that He is not really of this world!
When I see images like this I can’t help but feel that this is not the Jesus I know, or at least that this is not a Jesus I feel comfortable with, and it makes me question whether anything like this could ever really have happened. Maybe everyone believed in people who shone back in the day when every village still had a fuller. The fuller has long since become the laundromat and people just don’t shine anymore!
As I say, there was a time when I felt very uncomfortable with this story, and that time was last week when I realised that I was going to have to preach on this text! Of course I did the obvious thing and looked up the alternate readings for today but both of the other readings deal with the transfiguration of Moses, which is something I feel even less comfortable with!
And then it occurred to me that perhaps the reason this story seems so weird is not because people nowadays are never transfigured. Perhaps the problem is the opposite – that we are all too familiar with people being transfigured!
Coca-Cola are probably the chief culprits, bombarding us with images of happy, shiny people drinking Coke – girls who smile and reveal an array of teeth whiter than any fuller could bleach them!
In truth, we are awash in a sea of images of transfigured people. They adorn our billboards and confront us daily from the covers of women’s magazines, let alone men’s magazines! The problem isn’t that we don’t see shiny people any more. The problem is that it’s hard to distinguish the genuinely transfigured from that which is manufactured, and it is hard!
Women I’ve known have always been critical of the images of the female form that turn up in Playboy magazine and its ilk. I’m not sure how much of this genre still exists in print form, but the criticism is always that ‘Real women don’t look like that!’
My reply to this is always the same – that when you’re passionately in love with a woman she always looks like that! She shines! She looks perfect! And I’d say to anyone here that if you’ve never seen your partner shine, you’ve never been in love!
People shine! Of course they do. I’ve seen my children shine. I hold in my memory various wonderful shining moments with my children. We try to hold on to these moments through photographs, of course, but even the best digital image rarely captures the reality of transfiguration.
I look back over the last few years and I realise that I’ve seen quite a few transfigured people. The thing that I find confronting when I reflect on this is that not many of them have been Christians!
I think I’ve probably told just about everyone who’s been willing to listen about my first meeting with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun, back in 2013. That first encounter was quite a bizarre religious experience for me! The man seemed to genuinely have an aura about him that I found almost overwhelming!
At the time that experience was for me as inexplicable as it was unexpected! I had known that there was going to be a meeting with the Mufti and I can tell you that my expectations were low! The appointment came at the end of a long and intense week and I had considered giving the meeting a miss, for in truth I always have low expectations of religious officials, and the higher up the ladder of officialdom they get, the lower my expectations become. I don’t expect much from our bishops generally, let alone from those who hold similar ranks in other religions!
And yet I felt impacted from the moment this man walked into the room, and then most especially when he started to speak about how his son had been killed by the rebels and yet how he forgave those who killed his boy and wanted no vengeance but only peace. I had at that point an overwhelming sense of the presence of God in the man. He seemed to glow with the presence of the Spirit of God, which is exactly how transfiguration works of course. It’s when people glow with the presence of the Spirit of God!
That was the experience of Moses that we read about in Exodus 34. The glow on his face was a reflection of his proximity to the Spirit of God. And this is indeed what the disciples perceive on the mountain-top in this moment of transfiguration. The veil is drawn back for a moment, so to speak, and they see in Jesus the glowing presence of the Spirit of God, and it’s all rather overwhelming.
They want to capture the moment. They don’t have cameras, of course, so Peter starts babbling about setting up booths or some such, which is his way of trying to preserve the moment (Luke 9:33). Of course the experience cannot be preserved. It is momentary and fleeting. No sooner do we begin to grasp what is going on than it’s all over and we’re wondering what happened! And yet something of the glow of these experiences linger!
We experience moments of transfiguration. I think we all do. They are our moments of encounter with the Divine, and I think the transfiguration story is a helpful archetype when it comes to knowing how to handle our religious experiences.
One thing the transfiguration reminds us of, I think, is that we do generally have our experience of God through other people.
I’m not wanting to deny that we can meet God in prayer and in dreams and in any way that God deems fit to meet us but the regular experience is that we encounter God through other people.
The disciples experience God through the person of Jesus. Similarly, the disciples of Moses had their experience of the presence of God through the person of Moses. The religious experience of Moses was evidently more direct, and Jesus’ very direct experience of the presence of God is something that we cannot enter into ourselves, but we experience God through Jesus, and we experience the Spirit of God (and the Spirit of Jesus) through one another.
This, it seems, is the way God normally chooses to meet us and so we should not balk at this. We should expect to encounter God through one another and we should expect others to encounter the spirit of God through us!
In April 2014 I was in Tehran, and we had our first big meeting of the group that was heading to Syria on a peace mission in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. I sensed during that meeting that there was a young, bearded Sheikh on the opposite side of the lobby who kept staring at me. After the meeting he came up to me and said “I really want to meet you. I sense that you are someone very special”.
I said to him, “No, brother. I am not special. It is simply the spirit of God in you recognising the spirit of God in me.” From that point on, Mohammad Reva and I became good friends and worked closely together, both in Iran and in Syria, and I have a picture of the two of us together standing with refugees from Yarmouk. I haven’t communicated with the man since 2014, mind you, but something of the glow of that transfiguring experience still lingers.
We should expect to encounter the Spirit of God in one another, and we should not be surprised when others encounter the Spirit of God in us.
The corollary to this, mind you, which is also reflected in the transfiguration account, is that such encounters with the Spirit of God can be quite scary experiences!
Moses, we are told, had to veil his face to conceal the glow as was freaking everybody out! Likewise, as I’ve said, I’ve found my own experiences of encounter with the Spirit of God to be quite overwhelming at times, and I think this is what we see reflected throughout the Scriptures – that it can indeed be “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” (Hebrews 10:31)
Encountering God can be scary! We feel unworthy. We feel fearful. We feel exposed. And yet we need to embrace these experiences of the numinous and the holy that God gives us – that’s the mount of transfiguration model! Expect an experience of the Spirit of God and embrace it!
And the third thing that I think the story of the transfiguration reminds us of is something that I’ve already mentioned – namely, that these intense experiences of the presence of the Spirit of God are transitory. They do not last and they cannot be preserved. They grace us only for a moment and then are lost!
Why then, we might ask, does God give us these experiences? I think the answer to that is that God gives us these experiences to keep us going!
It’s worth taking a look at the context of the story of the Transfiguration. It’s given to us in the middle of the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke. The account is immediately preceded by a description of an intense and difficult conversation Jesus had with His disciples where He warned them that they were following Him down a path that led to certain suffering and death!
That’s on one side of the Transfiguration account and on the other side is a story of how these same disciples fail completely in their attempts to heal a young boy who is possessed! Jesus eventually deals with the situation Himself but not before roundly rebuking the disciples for their lack of faith!
And so it is in between these two portrayals of failure and foreboding that these men have this intense religious experience! Perhaps it was just coincidence that the transfiguration came at such a time, but my experience has been that it is almost always when you’re in the middle of a crisis – when you’re feeling completely deflated by your failures or paralysed with fears about the future (or both) – that transfiguration happens.
I suspect that many of you will have heard of the remarks made by John Wesley on the death of his contemporary, George Whitfield. Both men were highly influential church leaders in their day but they held sharply differing views on certain theological issues to the point where some evidently doubted whether Wesley would mourn Whitfield’s passing.
After Whitfield’s death though a woman who had been a fan of both men apparently asked Wesley very tentatively whether he expected to see Mr Whitfield in heaven. After a lengthy pause Wesley replied with great seriousness, ‘No, madam.’ He then went on to add “George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God’s glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him.”
It’s a beautiful story, not only for the way it depicts the Spirit of God at work in John Wesley but also for the way it captures a vision of that coming day when all the saints of God will shine like stars, radiating the presence of the Spirit of God to the point where we may find it hard to look at one another!
Sometimes that day seems like it is a long way off. Ours is a world dominated not by visions of glory but by wars and by rumours of wars. Even so, as we trudge our way through this life, complete with all its failures and forebodings, transfiguration happens! Let us expect it and embrace it!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 7th of February, 2016.