When we glimpse the fullness of what could be, we are called to the tough work of bridging the gap between here and there.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you look at someone you have known for years and suddenly you see them in a completely different light? Itís like youíre suddenly seeing them as they really are for the first time, and although the intensity of that insight may only last a minute, youíll never be able to see them in quite the same old way again. And sometimes you can never see anything else in quite the same old way again either.
This is our last Sunday worship service together before the beginning of the season of Lent, and on this Sunday each year we hear again the story of that event known as the Transfiguration of Christ. In the weeks since Christmas we have had a series of stories of Jesus in which things happened that gave people sudden insights into who Jesus really was. We call such events epiphanies, which means they are revelations or manifestations of Godís presence in Christ. We began with the Magi from the East kneeling before his crib and recognising that in Jesus they were seeing far more than just another baby. We then recalled the story of Jesusí baptism by John and how for at least some of those present, the voice of God audibly declared Jesus to to be Godís beloved son and the Spirit of God was visible alighting on him. We have heard several stories in which Jesus taught the crowds or healed the sick and people responded with amazement and said that he was different to anyone they had encountered before. This story then is the pinnacle of the epiphany stories. This is the one where the veil of heaven is pulled right back and Jesus is revealed as the one in whom earth and heaven are held together.
I think it is highly significant that our worship takes us into this story this week, but I need to make a couple of background comments in order to explain why. Some biblical scholars argue that this story is a misplaced resurrection story. They say that if you study it closely you will see that it fits the patterns associated with resurrection stories and so it probably originated as a resurrection story, but it got put in the wrong place by Mark, and Matthew and Luke just followed Mark. Well it is true that it fits the pattern, but thatís not surprising because the resurrection stories are also epiphanies, but not all epiphanies are resurrection stories. And while it is probably true that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels by editing and adding to Mark, it is not true that they always follow Markís ordering. In fact one of the most notable things about this story is that it is one of the very few stories that appears in exactly the same place in all three. The transfiguration story is the centre piece of a long progression of stories and ideas that is told in the same way, in the same order by all three. And we really need to see the whole progression to get our minds around this story, not only as it relates to the overall gospel story, but as it relates to the way we live the gospel in and from our weekly worship.
It begins back in Mark 8 when Jesus asks his disciples ďWho do people say I am?Ē and after they report that people reckon he must be the reincarnation of John the Baptiser or Elijah or someone, he asks them who they think he is. And Simon Peter comes up with the big answer: ďYou are the Messiah, Godís anointed one.Ē Jesus accepts his answer but immediately begins a conversation in which it quickly becomes apparent that Peter and Jesus have very different ideas of what being Godís anointed one actually means. Jesus is talking about the inevitability of his suffering and death in Jerusalem and when Peter argues against this Jesus says his thinking is satanic! It is then that he goes on to talk about how anyone who would follow him will need to take up their cross and be prepared to die.
It is straight after relating that conversation that all three gospel writers tell of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up the mountain where they witnesses the Transfiguration. They have this awesome vision of Jesus dressed in dazzling white talking with Moses and Elijah. Having just discussed his inevitable humiliation and death, they see in Jesus the full glory of God revealed. If you take the Transfiguration story away from that backdrop, youíll probably fall into the same misunderstanding that Peter did.
But you can get equally tangled up if you read it without reference to what flows out of it too. All three gospels continue the story the same way again. They come back down the hill and immediately find the other disciples trying unsuccessfully to heal a tormented boy. Whether the evil spirit was just an illness or some kind of demonic being doesnít matter, the three disciples who had wanted to build huts on the mountain to cling onto their moment of epiphany are taken back down the hill and a broken and tormented world is immediately in their face. Jesus heals the boy and when the disciples ask why they couldnít do it, he speaks of the need for prayer when confronting such things. He then has another go at explaining to them that his suffering and death are inevitable, and certainly after Peterís experience, no one is going to argue with him. But weíre told that they didnít understand, and as if to underline their failure to understand, all three gospels tell us straight after this that the disciples started arguing with one another about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, probably shaking his head in exasperation, sits them down and says, ďThose who want to be first must place themselves last of all and be the servant of all.Ē
So all three gospel writers are at great pains to make sure we know that there is no way to the glory of transfiguration without accepting the way of the cross, and that we canít hang onto the ecstasy of intimate moments of revelation in the presence of God without being sent back into a broken and tormented world to confront evil and be the servant of all.
There are theologies around that are all about victorious living and endless experiences of glory and one magic moment after another, but you wonít find any such theology in the story of the Transfiguration unless you wrench it out of its context and try to read it some other way than how Matthew, Mark and Luke would have you read it.
We enact this story in our worship every week. At the start of our service when we honour people with incense and bowing we are saying right up front that if the veil of heaven was pulled back we would see the image of God as clear as day in every person here. We are saying that not only do we see something of Christ revealed in each person, but that if there was a moment of transfiguration and we saw each person as they were created to be we would see them in dazzling white shining with the glory of God, and that if God has his way with them, one day we will see them that way.
Our worship takes place under the shadow of the cross for we know that the way of Christ which we would follow is a way of humility and suffering.
But we come, and each week we ascend the hill of the Lord to enter the cloud of Godís silent presence and hear the Word of the Lord spoken to us. If our eyes are open to see we witness the veil of heaven pulled back and ordinary stuff, bread and wine, is revealed to us as being alive with the vibrant presence of God. But we canít hang on to that moment. We canít build huts and refuse to leave the ecstasy of that transfiguring vision. No sooner have we got our hands on that epiphany of bread and wine than we are sent out. Jesus promises to go with us, but he sends us back down the mountain to confront the evil and brokenness of a hurting world. The way of the cross lies open before us. There is no other way. Those who are given the vision of heaven on the mountain top are sent back to the tough and often thankless task of bridging the gap between what they have seen, the vision of what could be, and what lies before them, the fractured reality of what presently is.
We live through that story every Sunday, but at this time of year we are called to journey even more deeply into its mysteries. After six weeks of epiphanies - of reliving those stories where we suddenly realised that this Jesus was not just any bloke but that the fullness of God dwelt in him in an unprecedented way - we are now given a glimpse of heaven from the top of the mountain and sent down to walk the hard road of Lent.
Forty days in the wilderness. Forty days to examine and discipline ourselves, to hear the words of Jesus again: ďIf anyone wants to come with me they must take up their cross and follow.Ē Forty days to be reminded that to follow this man means to go straight back down the mountain into a confrontation with evil and on down the road of humble servanthood all the way to Jerusalem where the leaders of politics and religion wait to tear him down and string him up. Forty days to ask ourselves again whether we are willing to pay the price of following this man or whether we are really just looking for a blissed out mountain top type of religion. Forty days to fast and pray that we might be tough enough to come down the mountain and live as a transfiguration people - labouring to bring back into communion what they have seen from the mountain and what they have walked into in the cities below. Forty days to walk the only road that has ever led to resurrection life.