Coping with Transfiguration

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

The Feast of the Transfiguration, which is the formal name for this Sunday in the liturgical calendar, celebrates one of the more weird events in Christian history. After Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah—six days after according to Matthew and Mark, eight days for Luke—Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain and was transfigured before their eyes, his body and clothing becoming radiant. Moreover, the disciples saw him talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter offered to make temporary shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, an offer not taken up. Then a bright cloud came over the mountain and a voice spoke from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples fell to the ground, and Jesus came over and touched them with instructions not to be afraid. When they looked, Moses and Elijah were gone.

What does this mean, besides a physical transformation that computer graphics could easily duplicate today, right down to the appearance of Moses and Elijah? Part of the meaning lies in the reference to Moses. Our text from Exodus recounts Moses going up Mt. Sinai to receive the Covenant; on the peak God’s presence is like a bright cloud that cannot be approached but through which God blesses the people. When Moses went back down the mountain, his face was transfigured to shine so brightly that it frightened the people. For Christians, Moses brought the first covenant and Jesus the second or new covenant. Matthew’s transfiguration passage affirms the continuity of the covenants from Moses to Jesus, thus running contrary to those who believe that Jesus’ covenant was a rejection of Moses’ covenant rather than a continuous supplement.

Another part of the meaning of the transfiguration comes out in Peter’s eye-witness recollection of the event, in the Epistle this morning. Peter referred to the transfiguration as a counter to the charge that Jesus was something like a pagan god, filled with magic. However magical the transfiguration was, Peter said he was there and saw it. Moreover, he saw Moses and Elijah, both long dead. This demonstrated to him the resurrection of the dead. Not only was Jesus raised, he would come again, just as Moses and Elijah came again. The transfiguration was thus a foretaste of resurrected life.

Yet another part of the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration is that the disciples saw Jesus as approved by God. The voice, which the people took to be God’s, identified Jesus as God’s son in whom God was well pleased. These were the same words heard when Jesus was baptized by John. At the baptism, Jesus was transformed. At the transfiguration, the disciples were transformed.

What does all this mean for us today? I doubt many of us take this as a literal happening that somehow proves Jesus’ divinity, although that is how the story was taken for centuries. To our skeptical minds it seems too much like a dream, and Luke actually says that the disciples were falling asleep when the vision came.

Let me ask you, however, whether you have ever had experiences in which your world suddenly was transfigured and shown to be vastly more profound, astonishing, and divine than you had thought. When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher was talking with me about religion after class and remarked, “You know, Bob, that God is not in time.” I was astonished by that remark, astonished to have encountered a totally new and unusual thought, astonished that I understood it, and astonished to see suddenly into the intellectual world in which I knew then I would live the rest of my life. When I was a college student I worked in a Boy Scout camp as chaplain in the summers. One night, as I lay on the deserted parade ground looking up at the star-filled night sky, suddenly I saw through that vision to an infinity of creation incomprehensibly old and vast in which I had my own particular place, a divine meeting ground of the infinite and the finite, or more prosaically, of God and me. Later in college I came to the sudden realization that the pastor of my church when I was in high school had been a saint, not just the kindly man who brought me into ministry, but a saint; what a transfiguration of my adolescence that realization was, to have been in the presence of a saint! In graduate school I was working on the philosophical problem of divine creation and one day, confused and in emotional and intellectual agony, I knelt by my rickety chair to pray —dirty yellow in the pseudo-Danish Modern style. Suddenly all my thinking fell together and I grasped my complex theory of divine creation like a vast name of God and that name let my prayer engage God as I had never before: I perceived God as creator. And so came more little transfigurations. About a dozen years ago I was visualizing Jesus as a revelation of God and pictured him running up a hill, nearing the verge, with a crowd including myself running behind him, knowing that when we topped the verge we would see God. Again and again we ran up, never reaching the top. At last we followed Jesus over the brow of the hill and I fell into a comprehension of how God contains the present, past, and future all together, not in time but in the creation of time, a divine life infinitely more dynamic than our passing of days within time. The intellectual theory, of course, was my own construction, but the transfiguring experience was to think and feel God through it. To this day it takes me about three hours to think or meditate myself into grasping that complex idea plus the visualization of Jesus that allows me to engage God by that means, and I very rarely have that much concentrated time. But every time, it is a transfiguration of my experience.

I wager that many of you have had transfiguring experiences in which something ordinary and everyday suddenly becomes luminous to reveal something extraordinary and life-transforming. Astonishing sunsets, the primeval heave of the ocean, transcendent music, the birth of a baby, someone’s touch at the right time, the bottoming out of despair, a sudden strange empathy with people to whom you are not connected: most of you have had personal experiences that set you outside the ordinary and give you a temporary new grasp on reality. Not all transfiguring experiences are happy and uplifting, to be sure. The world in which my wife and I lived was radically transfigured when our daughter died in infancy and we have spent nearly forty years coming to terms with that. Some people’s worlds are transfigured by madness, which is disconnected from the rest of reality. Theologians such as Paul Tillich call these “ecstatic” experiences, moments of ecstasy that figuratively make us stand outside ourselves in a new reality; “ecstasy” literally means standing outside oneself. Experiences such as these are little transfigurations.

How do we cope with these little transfigurations? They usually do not last long and they get submerged in ordinary reality when we come back down the mountain. When Jesus went back down in the morning he had to plunge right in to deal with a botched healing that his other, less than competent, disciples had attempted in his absence. Often we do not understand our transfigurations at the time, as the disciples did not understand Jesus’ transfiguration until after his death and resurrection. Sometimes these experiences are so delicious that we classify them as aesthetic and lift them out of life into irrelevance. Or they are so terrifying and horrible that they are dangerous to our sense of secure ordinary reality, and we try to deny, repress, and forget them. Few of us have grand life-shattering mystical experiences. Mostly we get along rather with small passing ecstasies
to which we might give little or no importance.

Friends, let me suggest that we cope with our transfigurations as windows through which to see God and what is ultimately important. Those transfigurations become like ideas or signs by which we can discern realities that are opaque to us without those signs. Like an NMR machine that creates a television picture of your insides out of perturbations in a magnetic field, these transfiguration experiences are signs that make it possible for us to engage what ordinary experience hides. These transfigurations give us the language, the images, the tools, with which we can recognize and relate to extraordinary dimensions of reality. By their means we can interpret aspects of reality that otherwise we would miss.

The transfigurations of life are engagements with the depth dimensions of reality. But they themselves need to be understood as interpretations engaging reality. If we look at the experiences themselves, taken out of their interpretive roles in engaging ultimate matters, they can be silly or just madness. Perhaps they are only dreams, fictions, intellectual constructs in my case. Ecstatic experiences can be caused by epilepsy, or LSD, or whirling in a circle, and they mean nothing in themselves. Nevertheless, if we cope with them, not in themselves, but as parts of existential acts of engaging things deeper than the ordinary, they can become the symbols that throw us together with those deep matters. The literal meaning of “symbol” is “to throw together,” to engage. Like all matters of the Spirit, the problem is to discern the spirits to see whether these transfigurations are of the Holy Spirit. The long run test is whether they lead to the life of love, peace, and graciousness. The short run tests have to do with whether they give meaning to our lives as genuine engagements with reality’s ordinarily hidden depths. Part of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, or of our task of holiness, is to find ways to live with the blazing colors of the extraordinary reality of our wild God at the same time that we live with the muted colors of ordinary life within which we lie under obligation and without which life would be chaos.

I invite you, therefore, to treasure your transfigurations, meditate on them, ask what you might learn from them. Let them be a lesson that our ordinary thoughts paint reality with dull colors so that we can deal with the practical dimensions of life. The transfiguring experiences teach us that God’s blinding colors truly can be seen and loved, if only for a moment, and only with weird images that ordinary life cannot stand to take seriously.

Many of us have seen this pita bread and port wine transfigured into the body and blood of Jesus. Truly, this is sometimes a vision, not just a doctrine. Perhaps we have also peered beyond to the next window and seen the body and blood of Jesus transfigured to be God’s merciful purification, God’s food, God’s love, God’s depth, God’s glory. I invite you to trust your transfigurations and, like the disciples, to wait upon the understanding of them. Come to this mountain-top meal. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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