Transfiguration (February 23, 2020)

Churches have picked some weird things as articles of faith. Creation according to a scientific interpretation of Genesis 1 (and not Genesis 2). Sexuality laws of ancient Palestine. The Book of Revelation as play-by-play of the future, starting…now. No one ever picks a literal reading of “I am the vine; you are the branches.” No Church of which I am aware pins its doctrine on insisting that there was a lawyer named Tertullus who prosecuted Paul. Who makes it an article of faith that Jesus glowed at the Transfiguration? …Well, actually, Transfiguration is a significant event in Orthodox Christianity. It’s one of the Twelve Major Festivals in Orthodox Churches. It’s a festival in Western Christianity, but not one of our Big Six. It seems mystery has always been a little easier in the East than in the West. And Transfiguration is mysterious.

            The Transfiguration is weird. Jesus is glowing. That’s not normal. And it kind of defies explanation. There is an explanation, but the explanation points to further mystery. It is said that God is light, unapproachable light. So, the light shining through Jesus is his divinity—his being God—made visible. That’s the explanation. So, what’s that look like? Nothing. It’s blinding light. You can’t see anything. More mystery. But at least for me I can’t let go of it. Transfiguration demands we talk about it and won’t let us explain it.

            One of the things you do when a Bible story is hard is you see if it is told elsewhere in the Bible, and how the versions differ. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention the Transfiguration. Matthew has some unique features. In Matthew, Peter seems to know exactly what he is talking about right up until God interrupts him. Peter is going on about how everyone needs a tent, the cloud and voice barge in, effectively saying, “Stop talking, Peter!” Then, Matthew refers to this as a “vision.” Visions…not everybody sees them. It suggests that the Transfiguration might not have been visible to anyone else, had they been there. But, crucially, Peter, James, and John all had the same vision.

            What’s the substance of the vision, then? I mean, Peter tried to explain it, and God stopped him. I’ve said it defies explanation, but, man, it demands explanation! It calls and compels us to probe it. Matthew takes a shot at explaining with one more piece unique to his telling. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples—flat on their faces with fear—get up, do not be afraid. This scene gets played with some different actors on Easter, when the women before the empty tomb turn to leave and run into Jesus, and they fall at his feet and worship him. He tells these disciples at his feet, “Do not be afraid. Go, tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” And, at the end of Matthew, the disciples go to “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” And this phrase has annoyed two thousand years’ worth of readers, who observe, Jesus never directs anyone to any specific mountain. So, we don’t know, only I think we do. I think it’s the mountain from today, when the Big Three see Jesus changed and he tells them not to mention it until he rises from the dead. I think on Easter Jesus tells the disciples, “Find me at that place where I glowed that time.”

            The Transfiguration in Matthew is about resurrection. The shared vision of Peter, James, and John is a vision of a risen Jesus. They don’t know that, yet, in today’s story. Only after the resurrection do they realize what they saw. And, even after the resurrection has been seen it still defies description. I mean, resurrection is like unapproachable light: it’s impossible to explain exhaustively and we really cannot look right at it, even though we see it and we talk about it because we feel compelled to do so.

            So, Transfiguration in Matthew is a foreshadowing, but more than that. It’s not just an, “O, by the way, he will rise from the dead.” Transfiguration is something of a vision statement, a “here’s where we are going.” This journey ends only after earth-shattering changes (literally, earthquake and resurrection) and God, in our presence, telling us to tell others about the changes. Whatever is happening from Matthew 17:10—the next verse after our story—until the women at the empty tomb turn to leave is meant to get us to the empty tomb, and Jesus arisen, saying, “Do not be afraid. Go!” Transfiguration lights the way through Matthew. It can light the way through Lent, like a vision statement for Lent. Whatever happens in Lent—and I love Lent, but it is always longer than I think it is going to be, and not in a good way—whatever happens, this is where we’re going. While we’re reading Matthew and John’s versions of Jesus’ death in Holy Week, Transfiguration hangs over all of it, saying, “This is God who rises from the dead, and God’s words to us are ‘Do not be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the others.’”

            Transfiguration demands we tell, that there be words from us. Twentieth Century theologian Rudolf Bultmann asked, in 1925, “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” In the essay, he notes that we want to talk about God, as though we know something, like, maybe how God feels about folks we don’t like, or that God is really something made up, or that God follows certain rules which can be deduced from nature. But whatever the case, when we’re going on about God we’re making it up. God is entirely other than we are. And yet, we experience God, we experience the Entirely Other. We find that we must speak. We must speak not from certainty but in faith, and not about God but of God. From our experience of God. We’ve experienced the Entirely Other and we must speak of that. Our speech is incomplete, because we do not know all that there is. And it is transitory, because how we experience God tomorrow may differ greatly from how we experience God today.

            In that sense, Transfiguration is kind of like our vision for this congregation. That vision comes from our collective experience of God and what we’ve had to say about what we believe God is calling us to do. All the Bible Studies, the Panel Discussion, the mountain of sticky notes with answers to the question, “If God has God’s way, where will Trinity be in five years?” They all get at our experience of the Entirely Other, of God. Members of Trinity see God at work in Advocacy, calling us to get out and deal with matters in our area; in Community, calling us to strengthen our relationships within the congregation and the area; in calling us to welcome Young Families, to hear what matters to them and how they want to be involved; in Stewardship, calling us to explore how to use our time, talent, and treasure; in Healing, calling us to be a place where healing happens both for us as individuals and for the community; and in Teaching, calling us to enliven our spirits through study of Scripture and Theology. That’s how the mystery of God has been affecting us, lately. That’s our shared vision, just as Peter, James, and John shared a vision of Jesus transfigured.

            At the heart of our life together as the Church, this crucified man—Jesus—is God, who rises from the dead, and says to us, “Do not be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the others.” Yes, I know that in today’s reading he says, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Guess what? He has! Easter was a damn long time ago. The moratorium on telling people about the Entirely Other in Jesus is long past. We find we must speak of God. Jesus tells us, “Don’t be afraid, get up, go, tell the others.” Yeah, talking about our shared vision can be intimidating. Not everyone sees what we see. And it’s holy work, and as the disciples show in today’s gospel, it’s common in the face of the holy to fall on your face in terror. So, Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, get up, go, tell the others.”

            In advocacy. What, you mean I have to go out in public and take on important matters? What if they tell me to shut up? What if I’m removed? Don’t be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the others. In building community. My ordination sponsor once wisely said, “People think community is easy. It isn’t. It’s hard work.” Don’t be afraid. Get up. Go, build community with others. Young Families. I have one of those, apparently. What happens if you let us make decisions? (Part of me wants to say “We’re Gen Xers, you haven’t noticed anything we’ve done yet; why start now?” That’s probably not helpful. But I said it anyway.) We’re a little freaked out by us being in charge, too. Don’t be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the world how you see God working. In Stewardship. Oh, God, please tell me we won’t be talking about money. Not just money. It’s also time and talent, but yes. Jesus talks about money more than anything else. Jesus also gets crucified. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the others.” In Healing. Can we really be a place of healing in the community? Do we even know how to approach the issues? Or will anyone listen if we do? “Don’t be afraid. Get up. Go, tell the others. Scripture and Theology. Are we going to talk about Transfiguration? Yeah. We must.