For the last decade, I’ve approached this Sunday’s lection with respect for a scriptural interpretation and liturgical tradition from the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Remember, the Orthodox hold that they maintain the oldest Tradition of Christ’s Church, that even the Catholics made changes to what was handed on to them.) In their liturgy, the Orthodox share that it isn’t Jesus who is changed in this moment, but the disciples. Their eyes were open.
This morning, I’m reflecting that Transfiguration Sunday perhaps reveals as much to us about us as it does about God. So as we mark this Transfiguration Sunday, and before we move into the season of Lent, I want to share a story:
The Satan had challenged God’s understanding of humanity before – most notoriously in relation to that Job character – and was by now long since gone. (There was still some uncertainty amongst some members of the heavenly council about whether in the moment he had stormed out, all flash and anger directed at God, God had given up on him or was still patiently waiting for his return. Even though She told stories that had echoes of that encounter in it, God played that relationship pretty close to the vest, so to speak.)
Even in the Satan’s absence, though, some of his words haunted God. “You don’t really know these people,” he had said, accusingly. “Your perfect holiness blinds you to what they are. They are rebellious and evil. There is no good in them.”
So God took a walkabout, stepping away from the council, putting on the fullness of a human being, and lived among them as a man named Jesus. He experienced their compassion and hatred, love and apathy, first hand. He ate and drank, used latrines, worked with his hands, laughed until his side hurt, and walked desert highways until his feet bled. In Jesus, God felt and saw how the human heart expands to take in others; but also how it can harden itself to others out of fear to protect what is held dear. And while walking with us, God saw what it was like to look at other humans, and all of creation, with the beautiful spiritual yearning but limited sight that characterizes a human being.
Humans see so dimly. One of the apostles that came after God’s walkabout, Paul, reflected on this in his own life and wisely wrote to other Christians: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12, NIV)
Despite the restlessness they know inside themselves, a sense of longing that is only fulfilled through relationship with God, human beings are very good at overlooking things. So preoccupied with the past or future, they often lose sight of the present moment. The small band of disciples that gathered around Jesus suffered from the same dilemma. They would wander the roads and postulate about the future, wondering who might sit at the right hand of God in the heavenly kingdom. Or they’d listen to His story about a man scattering seed, and ask to have it deciphered for them. They wanted to be “in the know,” even if they were often ignoring the reality around them.
Except this one time, when Jesus took a few of them aside and up Mt. Hermon. Or maybe it was Mt. Tabor. It was one of the tall ones, and it took them a while to hike up. Jesus took his three best buds: John, James, and Simon Peter. Simon; love him or hate him, the poor man could be dumb as a rock. But Jesus saw potential in him.
Just a few days before, Jesus had asked the disciples who people thought he was. They hemmed and hawed…
“Some say John the Baptist; other say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” And it was Peter who answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16:13-16)
Simon Peter, sometimes dumb as a rock, but in that moment showing his potential. Jesus had praised him. In fact, that was when he gave him his new name of Peter, because on insight such as that he knew the church would be built and the gates of hell could not overcome it.
But moments later, Peter was back to form. With amazing foresight of what was to happen in the near future, Jesus warned them that he was going to be taken to court, and suffer, and be crucified. And Peter, perhaps still brimming with pride after being re-named, pulled him aside and began to rebuke him!
“Never, Lord,” Peter had said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human ones.” (Matt 16:22-23)
Humans see so dimly, confused and blinded by their cares, concerns, and even relationships. Jesus couldn’t hold it against dear Peter, and suspected his friend might still stumble along the path. But Jesus was not going to allow even some of the closest of his dim-sighted disciples to stand in his way. But maybe he should help them see.
So while they are on the mountain, for this moment, things change. Maybe it was just being away from the other disciples. Maybe it was because they were all focused on the present moment with Jesus. Or maybe Jesus gave them some kind of divine nudge, lifting a veil they couldn’t see. However it happened, for a few moments, the three disciples saw Jesus in all his holiness, fully human and yet also fully divine. It was miraculous. Jesus shone like the sun around them, and they even saw some of the great cloud of witnesses, Elijah and Moses, standing beside him.
And true to form, Peter speaks up. “Hey, uh, maybe we should, uh, stay here, Lord. Set up a couple tents and, uh, a tabernacle. Or something. I mean, this is significant, right, guys?” And the other two just kind of nodded.
Jesus had a grin, and looked like he was about to reply, but then a voice from heaven spoke and everyone listened. Because, when a voice from heaven speaks, that’s what you do. Listen.
What would Jesus have said? The look on his face suggested not a rebuke, as when Peter had intentionally sought to stand in his way. Perhaps a word of grace. Perhaps a word that acknowledged the glory and miracle they had all borne witness to.
But the voice from heaven spoke, and they all listened. And then the voice was gone, and the light was gone, and Moses and Elijah were gone, and it was just Jesus standing there. Just Jesus, in his dusty tunic and worn sandals. Just Jesus and the three other disciples blinking up at him. Just Jesus, with a kind look in his eyes as he gazed down at Peter. He motioned to them and they started their way down.
“Perhaps best not to tell others about this,” Jesus mentioned as they walked, and they nodded again. They mumbled to themselves a bit, but kept the encounter to themselves until after they encountered Jesus on another mountain, days after seeing him laid in a tomb.
Something about the encounter on the mountain seemed to invigorate Jesus. Perhaps it was the recognition that even if the moment had been fleeting, the disciples had now seen and understood a little bit more of God then the morning before. Perhaps they still only saw dimly, but they had seen something more, and Jesus felt that enough. It would sustain them. They came down from the mountain, and Jesus was resolute from that moment on in leading them toward Jerusalem, where there would be trouble.
Having experienced the fullness of everything humans do, Jesus naturally came into conflict with the religious elite. Teaching that the depth of God’s love and forgiveness were greater than they thought was problematic enough, it threatened the Pharisee’s hold on the church through the traditions they maintained were clearly of God because they were written in the Torah. Seeing Jesus actually claiming to be God, but hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, was worse; this crazy rabbi was giving hope to people who were clearly not part of God’s plan for salvation. But the final straw for them was the fact that he challenged them. He overturned the tables in the holy sanctuary, which were provided as a service to ensure worshipped could fulfill their duty! And he chastised them, the Pharisees and scribes!
So Jesus found himself being executed as a result of their hard-heartedness. And in Jesus’ last words, God seemed to speak to himself. At the end of his incarnational walkabout, where God had experienced first hand thirty some years of the joys and sorrows of a human life, Jesus cries out to the heavens, across time and space, across history.
Perhaps Jesus uttered his statement as both request and promise, lest in God’s holiness he forget the experience of being human, the experience of seeing the wonders of Creation so dimly.
Perhaps Jesus remembered both Peter’s confusion and potential, and uttered his final words as a reminder of the grace he wanted to extend to those caught up in the confusion of human life.
Jesus looked down upon those who had called for his death, those who were even then jeering and cheering as they saw a man they saw as a threat hanging on a cross:
“Forgive them, they don’t understand what they’re doing.”