Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Transfiguration- Jesus, as he is

Sometimes our ideas of who someone is can overshadow the person. Sometimes we think we know someone, but then we get new information that is hard to fit with our idea of who that person is. Maybe we find out the person has been to jail, suddenly we wonder if we really know that person. Sometimes our prejudice can cause us to be surprised when we learn that our cab driver was a medical doctor back in the country they moved from. Our assumptions can sometimes overshadow the person to the point that we don’t really see them.

Something similar happened to the Apostle Peter, who is often the spokesperson for the disciples. In the chapter before our Gospel reading today (ch 16) we witness an interesting conversation between Jesus and the disciples. They are walking along the road and Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them "who do people say that the son of man is?" They respond by saying "some say John the Baptist [who had been killed], but others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets?"

In our world we would get a variety of answers to the question, "Who do people say Jesus is?" There are no shortage of positions. An enlightened being- like Buddha. A wizard who can do magnificent miracles. Others might say that Jesus was an alien in disguise. Some think Jesus was just an idealistic young man. Others believe Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary. And we could go on and on. I'm sure you've heard your share of answers to the question, "who do people say Jesus is?"

After the disciples answer, Jesus turns and asks them a more important question. His second question is not about what people say, but what they say as his disciples. Who do they say he is? Saying what others believe can be a way of distancing ourselves. It can allow us to sit on the fence and not make a decision. Jesus turns and asks his disciples (and us), "who do you say that I am?" This is a more personal question. Our answer will have implications for our lives. If we answer, "A nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice" that might not impact our lives much. But if we answer, "My Lord, and My God" then our lives will need to be changed to match than belief. A command coming from a “nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice” will be treated like a suggestion that can be ignored. A command coming from someone we call the “Lord” of our life and the world cannot be disobeyed without turning us into liars and hypocrites.

Peter spoke up saying, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God". Jesus praises Peter for his answer saying it was a revelation from the Father in heaven. It was the right answer. … But something strange happens after this. Right after Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus praises him for it, Jesus then starts teaching about how he will suffer in Jerusalem at the hands of the authorities and be killed. … In Peter’s mind there was no room for this image of a messiah who suffers and dies at the hands his enemies. To Peter the Messiah is someone who is a great military leader. He leads his followers to reclaim their land from the oppressive Roman forces. He assumes leadership of the temple and the nation. That is what the messiah does. He liberates the people from oppression. A suffering and dying messiah doesn’t make sense to Peter or to most Jews of the time.

Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him, "God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you." Peter was persistent and passionate in rebuking and correcting the one he called “Lord”. “Rebuke” is a strong word. I don’t know if any of you have been rebuked lately, but it is the kind of thing that happens to you as a child when you get some hair brained idea that is going to get someone hurt. Being rebuked is not comfortable.

Jesus responds strongly, "get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Talk about rebuke! … Peter is imposing his image of the messiah onto Jesus. Peter just couldn't combine the image of suffering and death with his image of the messiah. He either had to change Jesus, or change his idea of messiah.

Of course we do this to Jesus all the time- knowingly or not. We impose our image of who we think he is onto him. We don't see him as he is, we try to make him into someone else. Often we emphasize one aspect of who he is and diminish or forget about the rest, which skews our image of him. Some might only see Jesus as dealing with forgiveness of sins and that's it. While this is true, he also wants us to be transformed and to transform the world as well. Some will emphasize other teachings of Jesus and will make him into a kind of social activist who stands up for the rights of minorities. While this is also a part of the image of Jesus, it is not the whole picture. We often decide on the kind of Jesus we would like to follow and then we impose that idea onto him, rather than following Jesus as he presents himself to us.

That's what the Transfiguration is about. It is about showing the closest disciples- Peter, James and John- who he is. Right after Jesus speaks about how he has to suffer in Jerusalem, which Peter is not able to accept, they go up a mountain. Mountains to ancient people were almost like suburbs of heaven. That's why they are often the place where people go to meet God. And our modern minds might think that's a bit silly, but when you stand on top of a mountain you can start to get a sense of why people might have thought that way. So Jesus takes his three closest disciples up the mountain.

Suddenly they see Jesus transfigured. He is changed. He is transformed. He is shining- glowing like the sun. Even his clothes are bright. He looks like a heavenly being, which is of course who he is. He came from heaven, he existed before his own birth. … The Eastern Orthodox Church sees the transfiguration as a huge deal. They see this as Jesus revealing his divinity- Jesus is God. It is the revealing of who he actually is. Divine light shines from him. What they experience is a revelation. Something hidden is revealed and the disciples see Jesus as he truly is.

This is a bit of a side note, but this is also important to the Orthodox because we are supposed to be constantly growing into the image of Jesus. Getting a clear image of Jesus also gives us an image of God’s desire and goal for our life. There are many stories about Orthodox saints that begin to shine with a divine light. The 19th century Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, was being interviewed by a man named Nicholas Motovilov when light began shining through his face. Nicolas recounts the experience saying, 
“Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?’ I replied: ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’ … After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!”[1]

The Orthodox see the goal of human life as being filled with divinity. They will describe it like a piece of iron that is placed in the fire and begins to glow with the energy of the fire. It is still iron, but it has taken on qualities of the fire. So we remain human, but are filled with divine energy and take on qualities of divinity. This is what the Orthodox think when their hear Paul's teaching to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" 
(Rom 13:14).

Two others appear with Jesus- They see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah both had experiences with God on mountains. Their appearance shows that what Jesus is doing is in line with what God has always been doing. What Jesus is doing is supported by the representatives of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Jesus is not starting a new religion though he is leading God's followers to a new covenant- a new stage in their life with God.

Peter, not knowing what to do, but feeling he should do something speaks up. "Should I set up three tents- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?" even this shows that Peter still isn't getting it. Peter might be thinking that his image of the messiah as the warrior-ruler is coming true. Tonight they set up camp and tomorrow they head to Jerusalem with Moses and Elijah to set up the kingdom. But of course that still leaves out the unpleasant suffering bit that Peter wanted to forget about before.

While Peter is still speaking a bright cloud- the Glory of God that rested on Mt. Sinai and filled the temple- surrounds them, and they hear a voice, "This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" They hear the voice of God the Father and he declares that He has a special and intimate relationship with Jesus. He is His beloved Son. These words echo the words we hear at Jesus’ baptism. The disciples are reassured that Jesus is indeed in line with God's will.

I'm sure the Father's last words echo in Peter's ears- "Listen to him". Peter, who rebuked the one he called “Lord”. God says, "listen to him". I'm sure that if you hear God tell you to listen to someone your ears would be especially attentive to the next sounds that come out of the person's mouth. And what does Jesus say next? First he says, "Get up and do not be afraid". Then he tells them to keep this experience secret until he is raised from the dead. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, and then mentions his own death, which was the truth Peter was unwilling to accept.

It can be easy to poke fun at the disciples as they stumble around trying to figure out who Jesus is, but we really aren't all that different. There are parts of who Jesus is that we don't want to see. There are parts about Jesus we want to emphasize and follow, but there are also parts we are just unwilling to incorporate into our life. At that point we have to ask ourselves what we mean when we call Jesus our “Lord”. Is it just a word? Or, do we actually believe he has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Does he actually know the best way to be human? Or do we know better than him?

Perhaps as we prepare to enter into Lent we could hear the Father's words with a new kind of gravity, “Listen to Him!” Perhaps we can allow those words to change how we hear every Gospel reading as we hear with hearts that desire to live out his teachings. Perhaps we can reconsider what we mean when we call Jesus "Lord". AMEN

[1] http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

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