As a pastor in Roanoke, Virginia I would take our staff for a day retreat each year. At Peaks of Otter we’d walk the trail up Sharp Top Mountain, absorb the glory of God’s magnificent creation, then descend to the lodge for lunch and conversations. When I hired new clergy, I took them on a “get-acquainted” retreat to the same place. Once a new associate tells me afterwards, he believed he came real close to God on our trek. Unsure what he meant, yet pleased, I said, “Tell me more.” He says, “I will never again go with you on what you call a walk. I got so scared I needed to feel close to God. You dang near killed me walking that up mountain.”
I wonder how Peter, James and John felt about their hike up a mountain with Jesus that day. Like my associate, had they known ahead, they’d probably declined the invitation. The backstory of the transfiguration is key. Just six days before, Jesus asks his disciples who he is. Peter correctly answers – “the Messiah.” Jesus says he will be rejected, suffer, die and rise after three days. Peter rebukes Jesus: “Wait, that’s not in the Messiah playbook.” So Jesus takes them aside – up a mountaintop for a memorable lesson.
There Jesus’ appearance – his clothes – changes. Two dead guys Elijah and Moses appear, and they chat, which prompts another senseless comment from Peter, “Let’s build some monuments – one for each you, rabbi, to commemorate this spectacular moment.” Mark says Peter blurts that out because they’re terrified. Fear or lack of understanding never hinders Peter’s foot from finding his mouth. If two dead people appear and start talking, I’d save my breath to run for my life. Give them credit. They stay put. As they descend, Jesus orders them to say nothing of what’s happened until at least Easter. For now, Jesus transfigures from teacher to the Messiah God certifies: “Get over it. He is who he says he is.”
So how does a story like this apply to us? We weren’t there. Hopefully we haven’t witnessed dead people coming back and talking – or hear startling voices from beyond. Does it even matter if it happened? Probably not – for in this story we encounter a deeper level of truth, apprehending us by a faith only the spirit can open to us. We glimpse God’s kingdom as vastly different than people expected or wanted. I suspect we still struggle with that.
In Jesus we see how God gets business done in this world. What is confirmed on a mountaintop becomes enacted on a hill – a cross erected just outside Jerusalem. There Jesus is again transfigured from victim to savior – God’s glory breaking through human suffering, pain, rejection, and death. None of this makes sense until God raises Jesus from death and we experience God’s glory anew, in the power of love, forgiveness, and new life that seals us into the divine life. No one expected this sort of “saving” from a messiah. Only then can we speak of a new way of seeing and being in this world. These transfigurations happen in and around us continually, if we’ll just stop and pay attention. Western culture, unlike most others, forgets the world has many layers and dimensions. This story lets us peer into them, be startled and changed by them, and eventually trust what really is.
Even then, I still can’t make sense of everything. I sometimes fumble around, “I don’t have the answers. I don’t know. But I’ve experienced God’s love in Jesus – and because of that I trust a larger and eventually loving world holds and guides our lives.” I know that won’t lift the heavy luggage some carry. Maybe that’s where faith takes over.
In the past week or so, two events occurred in Chapel Hill, N.C. where I lived in or near for 14 years. Three Muslim students were senselessly murdered before their young lives, already focused on serving others, ever started. Hate crime – not sure, but evil wins the moment – only a moment though. The other image, concurrently – an image of goodness and faith – both in the same community. A legend died after a long life, whose faith and commitment to justice and human rights eclipsed his basketball fame – Coach Dean Smith. Dean’s pastor was instrumental in his faith formation. You’ve not heard of the pastor, Robert Seymour. In reflecting on these two events, tragedy and the difference faith can make, I realized how my passion for social justice and human rights were also shaped by Bob. Watching, learning from and working with him and Coach Smith, a curtain pulled back early on. That was a transfiguration moment now that I reflect on it. In that community, the light of God wins out and shines, in ways that shape me today. Death and murder are not the last words. I abhor and detest acts of evil and prejudice. I know God calls us to better. Sometimes, back down in the valley, wandering about, it takes a while until you can say what you know. Look for God not only in the good – transforming people and events when God feels real and close, but also in places of evil, death and sadness. God shows up in places we’d never think to look, like on a cross, at an empty tomb, surprising us with hope and love just when we need it – a transfiguration moment for me.
Jesus never gave up on his closest – or any of God’s children. He did what he could to prepare them – for the sake of loving us. I’m sure his faithful patience over us is limitless, but I don’t want to take a chance either. I hope you want to know him better. As you do your love for him and others will grow, and you’ll see the transfiguration moments when God enters your life. When we do, the world, well – just will never look the same again, thank God. Only in looking back, we begin to glimpse how God brings it all together. That’s transfiguration, my friends, and we are on a journey of being transfigured into the likeness of Christ.