Transfiguration- Who do you say Jesus is?
Today we have reached the end of the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning something like “manifestation”. Many medieval calendars used the Greek name “Theophany” for this season, which means ‘manifestation of God’. This season is about how God was made manifest in the person of Jesus, and how he was shown to be both fully human and fully divine. Throughout this season we have read about different ways that Christ has been made known to the world. The season is bookended by two major events. The first is the visit of the Magi to Jesus and his parents. And the event that ends the season is the Transfiguration. … This season has been all about the revelation of who Jesus is. We have seen his early miracles and some of his central teaching, and all of that is about getting to know him.
Right before our Gospel reading today Jesus asks his disciples the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answer, “John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again” (Lk 9:18-20).
If you asked people on the street who Jesus is you would get a variety of answers. Some would say he is a mythical figure who never existed. Some would say he was a magician. Some would say he was a teacher about morality. Some even think he was an alien in disguise. Others think he is a kind of enlightened being like the Buddha. Still others think he was an idealistic young man who was trying to change his society, but who was crushed by the political powers of the day.
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. He asks,
“Who do you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20).This is the more important question- For the disciples, as well as for us. We can spend a lot of time theorizing about who Jesus might be without actually committing ourselves to an answer. There is a big difference between thinking a lot about Jesus in a theoretical and academic way … and committing ourselves to him as our Lord. … Peter, representing the disciples answers, “The Christ of God” (Lk 9: 20).
What we say about Jesus might effect our life. If we say, “Jesus was a kind and idealistic young man who lived a long time ago” our lives won’t be that altered. We can feel free to ignore his directions as mere suggestions. … But, if we declare Jesus to be the “image of God on earth and our Lord and he remains alive even now” … well, that will change everything because what he says is actually the final word of authority on all subjects he addresses. For us to call him Lord, and ignore what he says about living life is to make ourselves vulnerable to the accusation of hypocrisy.
Immediately after Peter’s declaration Jesus begins talking about how he has to suffer, be rejected, and then killed. He then extends this to anyone who desires to follow him- they must deny themselves and pick up their cross. … In Matthew’s Gospel this is where Peter rebukes Jesus telling him that he doesn’t have to die. It’s not very hard to see why. Why would you want your leader to suffer and die, and why would you want to follow him into that suffering?
This issue of the suffering of Christ, and his disciples’ suffering (by extension), is central to these issues of identity- Who is Jesus? Yes, he is the Christ of God … AND he will have to suffer and be rejected because of it. … This is not easy to accept. The image of the messiah at the time was a kind of warrior king, like King David, who would remove the oppression of Rome and restore the dignity of the nation of Israel. Suffering and dying wasn’t a part of that image, so that’s a lot to swallow. They might very well be asking themselves if this is really the Messiah they believed the Scriptures spoke about.
This is when we get to the transfiguration story. Jesus brings three of his disciples up a mountain to pray. Mountains to ancient people were almost like suburbs of heaven. That's why they are often the place where people go to meet with 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.
Suddenly they see Jesus transfigured. His face is changed and his robe becomes white and glistening. 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. This is It is the revealing of who he actually is. Divine light shines from him. 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!”
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.
… Back to the transfiguration.
Two others appear with Jesus- They see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. 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 both 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. And what are they talking with him about? His “exodus” (the word used in the Greek translated as "departure") that he would accomplish in Jerusalem.
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?" 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 on earth. Maybe they can even leave out that whole unpleasant suffering bit.
While Peter is still speaking a cloud overshadowed them. Think about the Glory of God that rested on Mt. Sinai and filled the temple- It surrounds them, and they hear a voice, "This is my beloved son. Hear 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.
There are parts of who Jesus is that we sometimes 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. AMEN