changing Jesus- Transfiguration
(Note that the recorded sermon was part of a child directed sermon)
Jesus is far from a comfortable person. Being around Jesus always changes you or challenges you. No one who reads the New Testament will leave feeling perfectly comfortable with the way they have always been living. We will come away having our faith challenged, our lives reexamined, our love stretched, and our minds broadened.
One of the ways to get around this discomfort in encountering Jesus is to put up filters. In our North American world we have problems with miracles. The easy thing to do is to put up a filter when we read the New Testament and not take any of the miracles seriously. That filter will assure us that the miracles are just metaphors, or that they are fictional.
There is no lack of things to make us feel uncomfortable when we look at Jesus. In our craftiness we have filters to suit our tastes. It often makes us feel uncomfortable when Jesus speaks about our money and our responsibility to the poor, but no need to be worried, we can put up a filter. All we need to do is assure ourselves that we shouldn't be attached to our money and then we can go along merrily.
It can make us uncomfortable when Jesus turns over the tables in the temple court in judgment. A Jesus who brings judgment in this world or in the next is hard for many of us to accept. Our filter will cause us to soften those words of judgment, or forget them entirely.
We have issues with Jesus telling us to not worry in a worrisome world. We have issues with Jesus' call to non-violence in a violent world. We have issues with Jesus' call to repentance in a world where we don't often believe in sin. We have issues with the cross in a world where we don't understand or feel the need for sacrifice. We have issues with resurrection in a world where people die and don't come back. We have a variety of filters to make Jesus more comfortable for us. We have many filters to transform and transfigure Jesus into a Jesus we are more willing to accept. This way we can have our own personal Jesus that does not challenge us in ways that we don't want to be challenged. "Your own personal Jesus"- as Depeche Mode said.
Something similar was happening to Peter. Jesus was always stretching his disciples. And Peter had an image of who the messiah was. The Messiah was a person who would join military and religious authority and kick out the Pagan Roman oppressors who had overtaken the promised land. In Peter's mind that is the definition of the word "messiah". In the Gospel of Mathew (chapter 16) when Jesus told Peter that he would have to suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in
Jerusalem, Peter was
stretched too far. Peter dragged Jesus off to the side and gave him a talking
to. He told him that this was unacceptable behavior for a messiah. Peter's
image of what a messiah was and did was so strong that he began to lecture the
one he called his "lord". Jesus was trying to teach Peter that
suffering and dying were points along the path of the messiah.
This exchange between Jesus and Peter happened just before the Transfiguration, which we read in Matthew. When we read about the Transfiguration, Peter still hasn't learned his lesson. Jesus takes the disciples Peter, James, and John up a mountain, which is a thin place. Mountains are almost like suburbs of Heaven (as one commentator put it). There they witness Jesus transfigured. They see him as the heavenly being he is. The veil of the everyday and ordinary is lifted and they see the deeper reality. Jesus' face shines like the sun, and his clothes are beyond white. And Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him.
And what does Peter do? He goes back to his original idea of the messiah. He wants to build three tents. They can camp there for the evening and then in the morning Jesus, Moses and Elijah can all go down to Jerusalem and start putting things right. Peter has completely filtered out the suffering that Jesus said was going to be a part of his role as the messiah.
When we look at the transfiguration in more detail we see that it is a reassurance to the disciples that Jesus can be trusted. They can accept him as he is. It is the disciple's views and expectations that need to change, not Jesus.
In the ancient world a mountain is a place you go to get closer to heaven, which sounds silly to our modern ears, but when you stand on top of a mountain you begin to understand why they thought that way. They go up the mountain, the way Moses did when he received the Law from God. When they get up the mountain Jesus' appearance changes and he looks like a heavenly being, because of course that's who he is. He existed before his human mother Mary gave birth to him. The disciples see Jesus with representatives of the Law and the Prophets. This is to reassure them that Jesus is in continuity with what God has been doing since the beginning. But Jesus is more important than Moses or Elijah. A voice speaks from the cloud of God's glory that surrounds them, and tells them that Jesus is not just a prophet, he is God the Father's beloved Son. They hear God speak from the clouds and God points to Jesus, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased" And the last thing they hear the heavenly voice say is "listen to him".
I can imagine that phrase rattled inside Peter's head- "listen to him". Just before they came up the mountain Peter had lectured Jesus and corrected him on his understanding of the Messiah. Peter was afraid that Jesus was making a terrible mistake- suffering and death could not be a part of the equation. It doesn't make sense. Jesus was going to ruin everything with that kind of thinking. But now they stand on top of the mountain. Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus. The cloud of God's glory has surrounded them. The cloud that was there when God gave the Law to Moses. The cloud that guided
Israel out of
slavery, the cloud that had filled the Temple
so Long ago. And here it is surrounding them. A voice comes out of the cloud,
God's voice, and God points to Jesus, the beloved Son. And the voice of God
tells them to listen to Jesus. Now how does Peter feel thinking back on his
confrontation with Jesus? Maybe a bit foolish? maybe frightened? God says,
"listen to him!".
I'm sure no one has ever listened so carefully as those disciples did after having heard the phrase from the cloud, "listen to him". And what is the first thing Jesus says after this? Jesus says "get up and do not be afraid". So the first thing they are to do- the first command they are to obey- is to get up and not be afraid. The next words to come from Jesus instructs them to not tell anyone about this until he has been raised from the dead. Again Jesus makes reference to his death. Jesus cannot be properly understood apart from the cross.
This is good news to Peter and the other disciples. They want a safe definition of messiah. They want a powerful messiah who arrives in power with an army of angels and kills all the bad guys. A definition of Messiah that includes suffering and death leaves them unprotected. It leaves the future unpredictable and out of their control. Yes, Jesus' mission will include his death, but they do not have to be afraid. They just have to trust him. And that is the good news. They can trust him. They don't have to be afraid.
Like the disciples we are much more comfortable with a Jesus we create. We are much more comfortable when we can filter out those bits that make us uncomfortable. We all have different bits about Jesus that make us feel uncomfortable, whether it be loving our enemies, forgiving as we want to be forgiven, giving our money to help the poor, the reality of miracles, or turning the other cheek. Encountering Jesus is not comfortable.
So when we encounter Jesus we have two options. One, we can change Jesus and filter out all those things that bother us about him. We can replace Jesus with an idol of our own creation. Or, two, we can accept Jesus as he presents himself to us, transfigured on the mountain, and suffering on the cross, with all the challenging parts included- all the hard teachings. But, if we accept Jesus as he is, without the filters, it means we are the ones who will have to be transformed. And that can be frightening. That is why we try to change who Jesus is, because change is frightening and it's not always in our power.
However, the good news for the disciples is also good news for us. We are encouraged to not be afraid. If we can truly believe that God has things under control and that he will guide us then we really don't have to be afraid. No matter what comes our way God will work it out for good. It doesn't mean there won't be pain, or even a cross, but in a world where God has things under control we don't have to be afraid. We will be tempted to be afraid because we can't control it. But we can choose to trust the beloved Son who the Father encouraged us to listen to. And when we are face down in the dirt afraid of what the future might look like- afraid of what God might do with out lives- we hear Jesus' words to us and feel his hand on our shoulder "Get up and do not be afraid".