“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white”.
Yes, it’s the story of the transfiguration – my least favourite Gospel story.
When I realised the transfiguration was scheduled for this week, I tried to get out of it. I thought about other people I could ask to preach … but I couldn’t come up with anybody.
Then I remembered that the transfiguration readings were one of two sets of readings that could be used this week, and I found that the alternate set included a Gospel reading where Jesus speaks of “loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us” – powerful stuff! This seemed far better.
Then I asked myself, “why am I shying away from the transfiguration”?
Well … because I find it hard to relate to. Because it does nothing for me. Indeed, I must admit that I find it somewhat alienating. The Jesus of the transfiguration is not the Jesus I am used to. The Jesus of the transfiguration appears to be something like a character out of a ‘close encounters’type of movie – a strange, glowing figure, who moves around in clouds and dialogues with long-dead figures from the past. This is not the Jesus I am familiar with. I don’t feel particularlycomfortable with the transfigured Jesus.
Then it occurred to me that if what was putting me off the story of the transfiguration was that I didn’t feel comfortable with its depiction of Jesus, then maybe I had become a little too comfortable with Him.
If you’re familiar with the church growth movement, and with the whole way our Anglican diocese is going, a great deal of effort nowadays is being poured into presenting the church as a more user-friendly environment.
The big push to get rid of clerical robes and traditional church architecture has its roots in the idea that mainstream religion is alienating for modern people. If only the church could look more like your living room! If only the music sounded more like what people are used to. If only the preacher looked more like your dad.
I must admit that I was somewhat surprised last week, attending the funeral service of a friend and fellow priest, to find both our bishop and Archbishop leading the service in suit and tie! I suppose it was really more of a memorial service than a funeral as such, as the body of our beloved friend was not present. Even so, it was a stunning reminder of how far our church has gone in attempting to blend in with the current culture, even if the suit and tie is more the uniform of corporate Australia than it is of any culture I identify with.
At any rate, we recognise that the goal is to blend in. We don’t want the priest looking like some creature from another planet. Indeed, we don’t want him looking like a priest at all. Let’s give him more the look of your friendly classroom teacher, and let’s give the building more of a coffee shop atmosphere. And let’s do our best to present Jesus as a true-blue Aussie bloke (albeit, with a well-tailored suit) moving around the offices authoritatively, with a gentle smile and a firm handshake.
I’m conscious of the fact that the people who built our church building here were not thinking along the lines of trying to blend in. Our church building does not look like your living room because it was never intended to. Our organ belts out tunes that sound nothing like what you hear on your stereo. These pews on which we sit were, as we all know, not designed for comfort!
What was it that the people who constructed this building were thinking of? They seemed to have a sense of space, didn’t they. Our church ceiling must be at least ten times the height of the average ceiling. People who meet in this building are evidently on about something big!
And look a the windows that let the light in, in multi-coloured streams! They are constructed as pictures of great figures from the past. They speak of a history to which we are connected – a colourful and dramatic history, full of figures we won’t necessarily recognise, erected in memory of persons we no longer know.
And look at the way the church architecture is designed to have everybody focused up the front. If we were doing it nowadays, according to the current trend, we might use lounge chairs set at odd angles, or most likely arranged in a circle where we could more easily engage with one another. This was not what our forefathers and foremothers had in mind, was it?
The pattern we have in our church building is one where everybody is being directed towards something that’s going on up the front. Even the person leading the service is off to one side. Where we are being directed is rather to this book here – the Bible – and to this table, where we break bread and pour out wine!
If someone walked in off the street, truly with no idea of what the this building was used for, I think that they would nonetheless recognise that something pretty weird must go on here!
This building is out of the ordinary. My robes are out of the ordinary. Our music is not the stuff we sing in the pub or listen to in the elevator. And I do believe that the reason for this, and the reason why our forefathers and foremothers have passed down to us the tradition of worshipping like this is because they acknowledged that the God we worship is really very strange!
Is that the right word, ‘strange’? ‘Special’ perhaps? ‘Unique’, ‘weird’, ‘awesome’, ‘incomprehensible’, … ‘big’ perhaps?
Whatever terms we use, the basic insight is that to speak of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, and to celebrate our faith together in Christian fellowship is to take a step out of the ordinary and everyday into something with eternal dimensions
This God who we worship is not easy to understand, not simple to come to terms with. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. And this Jesus, who we read of in the Gospels – yes, He looks like us and He dwells with us and He is indeed one of us and yet … he walks on water, He heals the sick, He raises the dead, He bleeds for those He loves, He forgives those who betray Him and at times He glows in a way that is quite bizarre!
I don’t understand this glowing, transfigured Jesus! That’s OK. The disciples didn’t understand Him either! Look at Peter’s dumb-ass response: “Let’s set up a couple of tents”, says Peter – “one for you, Lord, one for Moses and one for Elijah”.
It’s not clear what Peter had in mind. It’s not clear that Peter really knew what he had in mind. If he wanted to make everybody comfortable, why didn’t think in terms of one big tent, rather than three small ones, so that the threesome could go on talking comfortably. The Gospel writer, of course, offers his own opinion – that Peter really ‘didn’t know what he was talking about’.
I don’t know what happened at the transfiguration. Was it some kind of common dream? Were those ancient characters really there in the flesh? Was that shining aura emanating from Jesus the way the light of the cloud was bouncing off him or was it that strange glow emanating from within? I don’t have a clue, and I don’t think the disciples really had a clue either, as the only thing they seem to agree upon after the experience is that they won’t tell anybody else about it.
Who can blame them? Mind you, they evidently revised their decision further down the track, I presume in the light of everything else that happened. For indeed, by the time you’ve come to terms with the way Jesus died and rose again and ascended, you’re not going to be surprised to hear that on occasions He also moved through clouds, talked with Moses and glowed with a divine light!
The disciples were eventually able to take all this on board, but it took a good deal of time. For the most part, during the earthly ministry of Jesus, the disciples struggled to keep pace with where He was moving and what He was doing.
Indeed, being part of Jesus’ original team was hard work, wasn’t it, and not only because of the arduous physical conditions, but because listening to Jesus forced you to keep re-evaluating everything you thought you knew about God and religion!
This is indeed the broader context of this strange occurrence of the transfiguration. Jesus is telling the disciples about what it means for Him to be Messiah and what it means for them to be His disciples.
Jesus talks to them of ‘Messiahship’ in terms of suffering and death, and then turns to the crowd and says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) – thus promising suffering and death to His followers as well.
We allow these words to wash over us, I think, but when we look at them plainly, we must acknowledge that these statements fly in the face of every solid religious intuition that we have.
What is religion all about? Ask any modern person. It’s about becoming more spiritual. It’s about nurturing the spiritual-intuitive side of your personality. It’s about following a more enlightened path so that you can walk in rhythm with God and with creation and do well with your life. In short, it’s a form of self-improvement!
What does Jesus say following Him is all about? Self-sacrifice, suffering, and death!
We must not try to dilute the crazy nature of some of Jesus’ statements, or the way in which they totally contradict our basic religious intuitions, even that most fundamental of all religious intuitions – our sense of justice.
Emmanuel Kant, at any rate, believed that this was the fundamental religious intuition that every human being had, and which also thereby proved the existence of God!
Everybody knows that good should be rewarded and wickedness punished. We all know that, even though our experience of the world is that this does not happen. Therefore, says Kant, our knowledge must have come to us via a direct experience of the noumenal world – the world of God in this case, who will one day see that our sense of justice finds satisfaction.
Not so, according to Jesus! In Jesus’ world, the first come last and the last come first. Wicked people are forgiven and the poor are blessed, while the rich, the happy, and the healthy get the other end of the stick from a God who makes his rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust!
Jesus does not affirm our simple sense of justice any more than He fits our simple predefined role of what God on earth is supposed to do. We look for a Messiah who will bring justice and peace and give security to the people of God from their many enemies. Instead we get Jesus, who forgives and bleeds and dies and rises and ascends … and who glows!
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t know anything about Jesus. We know plenty about Jesus. But there is plenty about Jesus too that we do not know and will never know (this side of eternity at least). And between now and then there is plenty that we are likely to get wrong too, so we must stay humble.
The transfiguration is difficult to understand, yet that’s not to say that it is difficult to understand why it happened. That much, I think, is clear. It happened for the benefit of the disciples, to affirm and encourage them that, despite the strange things Jesus was saying and doing, He nonetheless was the one they were supposed to follow and listen to – “This is my Son, my chosen one, listen to Him!”
The disciples are struggling when they have this experience. People are thronging around them, opposition is building towards them, and Jesus is become increasingly difficult to understand. After the experience is over, the struggle continues. People continue to throng, opposition continues to build and Jesus continues to be difficult to keep up with. Nothing has changed. Yetthey have changed. They have glimpsed for a moment something of the strange and wonderful nature of Jesus, and so they have been strengthened to carry on their work.
This is something that we can grab hold of too. Indeed, perhaps it is the very essence of the life of faith.
We struggle. We are weary. There is much we do not understand. And yet every now and then we catch a glimpse of the strange and glorious nature of Jesus, and it gives us the strength to keep going.
Following Jesus is a tough call. We don’t always know where He is taking us. We generally have no idea of what lies next around the corner. We know that following Him is going to cause us problems, make us enemies, cause us to bleed. And yet we have seen enough of the magnificence of Jesus to know that if we are following Him, we are heading in the right direction!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2007.