2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
At one church we have a 'creative church' service on the theme of love (St Valentine's Day). But at the 8am and at the second church of the day I will be tackling the readings. I began thinking about what a strange story this is (so strange that at least one commentator suggests it's a resurrection appearance that ended up in the wrong place!) and then got side-tracked by the number of parallels between this story and many others.
So this is what I have so far:
What do we do with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus?
Read it. But how should we read it?
It stands out as not being like stories of Jesus’ teaching, or healings, or the call of the disciples - it’s not a story we can easily try to imagine or relate to. Perhaps the best approach is just to listen to the story itself, because listening to a story carefully is sometimes the only way to begin to understand it - and the more strange the story is at first hearing the more carefully we need to read it.
If we just read the story of the transfiguration & rub our chins and say ‘hmm, yes, deep’ - aren’t we in danger of being like Peter - who says “Ooh, Moses & Elijah are walking with Jesus - lets build tents for the 3 of you”& Luke says, rather scathingly ‘he said this because he did not understand’.
We’re in danger of doing the equivalent to Peter’s suggestion of building tents. Let’s enshrine this story as ‘important’ without really asking what its importance is, let’s pickle the story in aspic, give it capital letters & a long title ‘The Transfiguration’ & put it on a high shelf and never ask what this has to do with us.
So let’s, instead of building tents, try to find some tools for reading & understanding.
I’d like to suggest three possible ‘ways in’ to understanding this, or indeed any gospel story. We can ask:
• Why does Luke tell us the story - what is it ‘doing’ in this part of the gospel?
• Who are the significant figures in the story, what do we know about them and their possible significance?
• Is this story like any other stories we know & if so what might they be trying to tell us all together?
Why does Luke tell us the story?
The part of the gospel we heard starts with ‘Now about 8 days after this...’. It is one of those times in Luke’s gospel when he places one thing in relation to another - so to what is he relating the transfiguration?
8 days before there has been the question from Jesus ‘who do you say that I am?’ where Peter blurts out ‘you are the Messiah, the son of the living God’.
And what happens just after the transfiguration? Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem - the story of Jesus’ life begins the downward turn towards the cross and suffering and death.
The transfiguration stands between 2 concepts that could be seen to conflict: Jesus is God’s chosen one ... and Jesus is going to die a despicable death. The transfiguration leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is the one chosen by God, the Son of God, the Messiah, but that far from protecting him from harm, this places him in great danger, because it is only through submitting to death that Jesus will be able to display God’s saving love.
Who are significant figures in the story and what is their significance?
Jesus takes Peter and John and James with him. The next time we read of Jesus going somewhere alone with these three will be in the garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. At these times of intense importance in his life, Jesus takes with him the 3 disciples he most trusts. These two episodes in Jesus’ life - of glory and transfiguration, of affirmation by God on the mountain top, and of suffering and agony in the garden are inextricably linked.
And as the story progresses, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. These 2 represent the Law and the Prophets, they underline Jesus’ place as firmly rooted in the tradition and history of the people of Israel. They are also 2 men who walked and talked with God - as we heard in the Exodus reading, Moses, too, had a glowing face when he had been talking with God.
The presence of Moses and Elijah, heroes of the faith who knew God intimately, marks out the closeness of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, even before the cloud descends, signifying God’s presence, when God himself is heard to say ‘This is my Son - listen to him’.
Is this story like any other stories?
We can see parallels of this story with the story of Jesus’ baptism, where very similar words are heard from heaven ‘you are my beloved son’.
It also reminds us of the story of Jesus’ resurrection where dazzling angels are seen and where Jesus is recognisable yet clearly changed.
And we have the passage we heard from Exodus about Moses’ changed appearance and the effect it had on the people who saw it.
As we look at all these possible ways of reading the story - I think there is a theme which links them: the question of Jesus’ identity.
When we look at how Luke uses this story in his gospel, it is to bridge the ideas of a chosen one of God who loves and suffers.
When we look at the characters in the story we are again reminded of Jesus as the one who faces agony and yet the one who walks with the God of Israel.
And when we ask which other stories this reminds us of, Jesus’ closeness to God the Father and his resulting transfiguration is echoed in them.
The transfiguration is a strange account, no doubt about that. But as we try to read and understand we keep being brought face to face with Jesus. The transfiguration leave us in little doubt that Jesus shows us glory and agony, and through them shows us the love of God more clearly than we could ever have hoped before.
...and then I need to end the sermon by helping people make a link between this realisation about Jesus' identity & their own lives - and at the moment I've run out of steam, but I might make a link to Lent, as a time to meet Jesus more fully... But hey, not bad for a Monday!