How many of you have read that poem called Footprints in the Sand about the fellow who had a dream he was walking along the beach with God (raise hands)? So, I saw this cartoon the other day, the first part of it had God with his arm around the fellow saying, “Where you see one set of footprints is where I carried you . . . ” much like the poem, and then the next frame, “ . . . that long groove is where I dragging you kicking and screaming.”
So, after a long hike up the mountain, you catch your breath and settle down thinking you have come to pray in this secluded place with your mentor. He stands before you, his clothes stained from the long journey through the forest, and suddenly he – is – transformed. His face shines as bright as the sun, and his clothes radiate an unearthly brilliant white! This portrays the beginning of the astonishing transfiguration of Jesus that Peter, James, and John witnessed.
Matthew recounts. “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” My first reaction to this story is a very simple curiosity: why did Jesus pick these three disciples and not anyone else? Perhaps this comes out of my grade school experience of always being picked last, but here nine of Jesus’ disciples weren’t picked at all. It makes you wonder.
Scholars believe that Jesus chose Peter, James, and John because these three individuals were to hold very prominent roles in the ministry after Christ’s death and resurrection. As one commentator affirms, “Peter would take the lead in establishing the church; James would be the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem; and John would receive the final revelation.” Witnessing the event on the mount helped to prepare each of them for the responsibilities that where to come. It is also important to note that Christ brought with him three apostles, as it was established in that culture that the account of “two or three witnesses” was necessary for a testimony to be deemed credible (See Matthew 18:16).
Matthew continues, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In other words, the glory of Christ’s Divine nature had been revealed to the apostles. One commentator state, “The word [transfigured] is the same as metamorphoses of pagan mythology…The idea is change (meta-) of form (morph).” In reference to this event, the Romainan Orthodox priest George Calciu said, “Don’t imagine that Jesus Christ took from His Father the Uncreated Light just for that moment. He was surrounded by this light all the time, and He only opened the eyes of the apostles to see His Light on the Mountain of Tabor in order to make them understand He was truly God.”
The account carries on, “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” or in Luke “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Considering this conversation about departure, it is interesting here to note that neither Moses, nor Elijah departed from this earth in a normal way. Elijah was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, and the body of Moses was never found.
According to the account, “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”” Peter’s naivety, exhibited throughout the Gospels, surfaces in this story. As Matthew writes, “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” This divine voice interrupts Peter, and not only declares Christ to be God’s “Son, the Beloved” but also establishes his prominence over Moses and Elijah, as it instructs, “Listen to him.” Here, Peter’s shortcoming is revealed in that he had equated Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in suggesting that dwellings be built for all three of them. As one commentator asks, “What need had Moses and Elijah of tabernacles?”
This event, unmistakably, establishes Christ as being above the authority of the Law, symbolized by Moses who wrote most of the Law and who brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. It establishes Him above the prophets, symbolized by Elijah, the most significant Old Testament prophet. The Divine voice does not say, “Listen to Jesus and Moses and Elijah.” It says, “Listen to him.”
This event was a strong and absolute verification of the three apostles’ faith in Jesus Christ, and most importantly prepared them for the trials to come through revealing the glory and power of Jesus. It established the pre-eminence of Christ, and as one commentator states, “furnishes also to us the striking proof of the unity of the Old and New Testaments…Both meet in Jesus Christ; he is the connecting link between the Old Testament and the New Testaments, both heaven and earth, between the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of glory.”
Because of the great significance of this event, it is not surprising to find this story also fully recounted in Luke and Mark’s Gospel accounts. This event also was alluded to in the Gospel of John where he wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14 RSV).
The focus of this story is Christ. The focus of our worship here is Christ. We are not called to gather together on Sunday because of the allure of socializing, good music, or food afterwards. We have those here, but we differ from other social clubs and gatherings because of our faith in Christ. We are called to gather together as a worshiping, praying community. We gather not just because of Christ’s moving and profound teachings about how to live in the world, but also and primarily to worship our God together as one Body.
Often in the larger church it seems that people have divided into two different camps where you either are focused on the “social gospel” and the works of justice, mercy, and compassion and Jesus as a divine social worker—or there’s the camp that is focused so much on worshiping Jesus, belief in his Divinity, Resurrection, and the creedal mysteries we profess each Sunday. I think we can seek both—to hold both together in a profound call to service of the needy, lowly, and marginalized, as an expression of following Christ as our Lord and Savior. In fact, this is what our baptismal covenant and our liturgy points towards.
The same Jesus who commanded us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the lonely and those in prison is the Jesus who, in the Gospel of Luke warns his disciples to be ready like those who are waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet (Luke 12:32-40), for, as he says in Matthew’s gospel “So as the lightening comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:27-30).
The same Jesus who responded to his disciples bickering about who would be the greatest in heaven by the beautiful act of washing their feet is the very Jesus, who, in the Gospel of Mark, when asked if he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One, replied with the risky words, “I am” and quoted from the books of Daniel and the Psalms saying, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power.” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus said, come unto me….drawing people to himself. He also said to heal the sick, sending them out. He said, believe in God, believe also in Me: drawing to himself. Love your enemies: sending forth. This drawing near and sending out is the rhythm of the life of the Church. We draw near Christ on Sunday and commissioned at the end of the liturgy to go forth in the name of Christ to do the work of the Gospel.
The Gospel in its entirety only makes sense if we are willing to step into the absurdity of a world in which God can, would, and did become human– fully and truly. This is at the foundation of Christ’s ministry, and the very reason he was charged with blasphemy and killed. Let us with Peter affirm, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Mark’s Gospel, immediately following the Transfiguration Jesus heals a young boy, and the boy’s father declares, “I believe, but help my unbelief!” Merge Peter’s acclamation of faith and this father’s honest confession, and in many ways you have a good summary of the faith of the disciples, who gave up everything to follow Jesus, but were shaken deeply by circumstances along the journey, doubting, arguing, and frequently just totally not getting it. It’s not unlike many of us today. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”… “I believe, but help my unbelief!”
My prayer for us is that we might bring our doubts before Christ, laying them before him as an offering…and also go to the mountaintop with him, into that vulnerable place where he is revealed for who he truly is—both fully God and fully human. Indeed, I believe that place is the Eucharist, where we surrender to God our fears, our anxieties, our insecurities, and receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, more than a symbol, but a reassurance of his Real Presence, that he sustains us by his own Being, and that as much as we can doubt and struggle, he is there along the journey.
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon