After a very helpful comment (from a good, wise and experienced friend) that I needed to change things around and not assume that people will stick with it right to the end, here is the final version, with, I hope, more 'punch'.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus stands out as being unlike the 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.
But before we look again at the story, I’d like us to think about the difference that this story makes to us: why is this story important?
Sometimes in our church life we can be like Peter – we get caught up in concerns about structures and buildings, we can only think about how to keep things as they are. Keeping going, keeping the show on the road, wanting change to stop so we can feel safe. This is all a natural reaction, but it is not a reaction of trusting faith.
The eyes of faith see the amazing glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – they catch a glimpse of what God is doing, how the grace and power and love of God has flooded into the world in Jesus Christ. In the transfigured face of Jesus we see that God’s love for us is real and that God’s love reaches out to touch and to change. This can be scary, but I think we have to be ready to see what God is doing and to risk being part of it.
It's a very understandable and human reaction that Peter has: build a shelter, keep the world safe, do it right. And I think for many people in the church, the church is the bit of life they really desperately want to be stable and secure and in good order. But the gospel tells us that faith is about transfiguration - and that's frightening. So how can we read this story?
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 two 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.
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 who Jesus is. 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. The disciples are left feeling that Jesus, their teacher and friend, is also the Christ – God with us. This can make lives and even faces shine with the glory of God, or it can give us enough strength to keep going when everything feels hopeless.
We don’t need to fear change – since the future of God’s kingdom is in God’s hands. The transfiguration needs to challenge us to let go of our fears of the future, stop building shelters and trust the God who meets us in Jesus. We need to walk with Jesus and the disciples, down the mountain and bravely into the future, knowing that God’s love will never fail us.
And to God be all the glory, in the face of Christ, in Christ’s followers, and in Christ’s church, now and forevermore. Amen.