Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Transfiguration of Our Lord, year C
texts: Luke 9:28-36; 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Why did Jesus need Peter, James, and John on the mountain?
They kept silent about it afterward; they were so sleepy they almost missed it; he didn’t ask any of his other disciples to come. What value did they bring?
It’s clear this experience was a gift to Jesus. After this, he turned toward Jerusalem, toward his suffering and death. But here he was strengthened by Israel’s greatest leaders, the prophet Elijah, the lawgiver Moses. Luke says they spoke of his “exodus,” his departure, that is, about the cross he was facing, what was to come. Jesus needed this encouragement, this conversation with people who understood what was to happen, something we rarely say about the disciples.
And that cross was a very different scene. On that other mountain, really a hill, everyone saw what happened, not just three. On a highway outside a major city at the most important Jewish festival, thousands likely saw the humiliation, torture, and execution of Jesus, the Son of God. Unlike today, that hill was very public.
Maybe Peter, James, and John needed to be on this first mountain because what they saw was going to be important later. This glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory became an important reminder to the Church that what happened on the cross had a deeper truth than those thousands could have understood.
What they couldn’t see, what Peter, James, and John had glimpsed, was that it was God on that cross.
The second mountain was public because this is what God needed the world to know.
The way of the cross is the way of God. This is how God heals the world’s suffering. Not by shining in glory, as on today’s mountain. Not by overpowering oppressors or destroying the wicked, as we sometimes hope. Jesus’ “departure” he talked about today was how God would change the world.
This is the center of our faith: the Triune God who made all things answers the pain and suffering of our world by becoming one of us, living among us, and entering the depth of that pain and suffering. The cross shows us all that God’s love will enfold the whole universe, but that love only lives on a path where we win by losing, we live by dying.
God needed the world to see the cross to understand this truth. And then to follow this path.
But Christ’s path is abundantly hard to walk. We’ve long known this.
There’s a reason the Church so easily falls for the power games of the world, so quickly seeks the security of dominance and control, even though we know that’s a false security. Our faith is centered on a God who gives up power willingly, but we go the other way so often because the path the Triune God walks is a hard, frightening path.
We fear losing, letting go. We fear not knowing all the answers. We fear true love, which, as Paul told us again last week, is deeply self-giving. So much so the world can’t abide considering it, substituting all sorts of nonsense for love. We know having our Lord walk beside us in our suffering, sharing the pain of the world, is a gift. But we’d rather that gift included our never having to suffer for the sake of someone else. We’d rather an easy path where all things feel good, and we never doubt, and no one ever hurts.
Unfortunately, that isn’t Christ’s path. So if we are, as we believe, also Christ, anointed ones of God, well. The hard path is the only one for us.
Maybe this is why those three witnessed today: to give an encouraging glimpse of who it is we follow, so we will follow.
Today’s glimpse reminds us of the profound mystery: it was the God of the universe hanging there.
Seeing a glimpse behind the curtain of Jesus’ humanity gives us hope. If God can face death and bring new life, then even if this path is hard, even if it means dying in little ways every day, we, filled with the Spirit of God, will find life. If this is truly how God deals with suffering and pain, and transforms it to healing and wholeness, we, filled with the Spirit of God, can trust this path even when it’s overwhelming.
At the center of our Eucharist we say this: When we eat of this bread, and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We proclaim the Lord’s death. Every week we remember we have to account for this in our theology and life: the one, true God entered death, now lives, and is coming.
It really was the God of all who faced that. That’s who walks beside us, leads ahead of us, and sustains and fills us on the path, whenever we are afraid, or stumble, or want to turn aside.
Now, we don’t often see these glimpses clearly.
Sometimes the best we have is this third- or fourth-hand account: Peter, James, and John pass it to others, who tell the evangelists, who share it with us. We don’t always see God when we look at the cross. But Paul says that’s fine. We might see dimly, like a reflection (this is twice in two weeks we’ve heard him say we see as in a mirror), but we see something. And it’s enough to go on.
We know in that dimness who is with us. And we see in that reflection a sign of who we are becoming. Paul says we are being transformed into the same image, into that glimpse. Into the likeness of Christ.
Not surprisingly, we only see this in ourselves in glimpses, too.
If our destiny is that in walking Christ’s path of self-giving love, we become the Christ we follow, we don’t often see that clearly.
We know our flaws, we fret about our weaknesses. But every so often we have a moment where it makes sense, where we act, and realize the Spirit is there, where we know we are Christ. We get a glimpse of ourselves, like in a mirror, transformed. And that, too, is enough to keep us going.
Sometimes we can even look back with a few years’ perspective on our lives, and marvel at how different the Spirit has made us. The glimpses in the moment become, after many years, realities of the children of God we are transforming into.
So now we turn to Lent, to practice walking this hard path.
We get a glimpse today of who is walking with us, and filling us. And of who we are becoming.
And that will get us through. These glimpses of Christ in our lives, of the moments we are Christ, help us set aside our fear and our reluctance and step forward on Christ’s path.
Today in our liturgy we remind ourselves of this. We bid farewell to Alleluia in Lent so we can focus. We need Lent to teach us once again what it is to walk Christ’s path, to follow the way of divine love with our lives.
But we carry through Lent the glimpse of Alleluia with us in our hearts until the Easter feast, even as we carry through life’s wilderness the glimpse of the image of God who is with us, the image of who we are becoming, until we fully see all.
And “so we do not lose heart.” By God’s mercy we live our ministry. We see this, if only in glimpses. And we do not lose heart.
In the name of Jesus. Amen