2 Corinthians 3:18-4:1; Luke 9:28-43a
One of my very favorite parts of the week happens most weeks at 6:30 on Wednesday evenings in the Youth Room. Confirmation. This year’s Confirmation class is awesome – we spend those 75 minutes checking in with one another, reading statements of faith from across the centuries, and learning together as we talk through questions of faith. Here’s a little sampling of the questions we’ve thought about together so far this year.
How is Jesus both God and human? What’s up with the mystery of the Trinity, God in three persons? How does the Spirit show up in our lives? What kinds of relationships are we called to have with siblings of other faith traditions? What’s the point of singing hymns? How do our pastors plan worship each week? How are Presbyterian churches structured, and why, oh why, do we have so many committees?
I know – your head is totally spinning right now. It’s a gift to get to spend that time together with our amazing 9th graders every week, and I am certain that I come away with as much new perspective as the Confirmands do.
This past week was one of my favorite lessons: What does it mean to be a Presbyterian? We walked through a very brief crash course in Presbyterian history, and I got to show off my John Calvin bobblehead and my John Calvin throw pillow. We discussed some core convictions that make Presbyterians distinct from other Christian traditions, and some core convictions that bind us together across traditions. In our conversation about Christian traditions that felt different from our own, a Confirmation student raised his hand. This student had noticed something about some Christian traditions that emphasize personal salvation. “If the point of being a Christian,” he asked, “is to make sure we get to heaven when we die, what’s the point of having a life?”
I saw lightbulbs going off in people’s heads as we thought about his question. We talked about how in some communities, there’s a heavy emphasis on what happens when we die. And in others, there’s a heavy emphasis on how to be faithful here in our lives. We talked about where we think Westminster falls on that spectrum – most of us agreed that we’re close to the latter side of it. It led us to a place where we often end up in our Confirmation class discussions, of discerning what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. Big questions that we’ll wrestle with not until Confirmation Sunday rolls around, but for the rest of our lives.
As today drew closer and I sat with the Transfiguration story, I kept returning to that student’s question about the tension between believing in a God who makes things right – including in matters of eternity – and a God who is with us in our own lives here on earth. If you stop reading the Transfiguration story before Jesus is down from the mountaintop, it might feel more like a story that doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on how we live – some sort of theological statement about how Jesus is God’s child, the Messiah, the one to fulfil a lineage of faithful ones throughout the centuries. And the transfiguration, this strange story, is about that. But if we follow Jesus all the way down the mountain, we see that he’s invested in the everyday lives of real people – he goes straight down the mountain, face glowing from the events of the day, and heals someone who is hurting. Following Jesus is about being there at the top of the mountain and the foot of the mountain. It’s about carrying the brilliant light of God’s glory, which shines in the face of Jesus Christ, out into a beautiful, hurting world.
As Luke tells it, the story of Jesus and his disciples thus far has been full. It’s chapter 9, and we’ve seen an awful lot of preaching, teaching, miracle working, journeying. Jesus has taught about forgiveness and fasting and Sabbath; the disciples have seen him walk on water and feed 5000 people from one person’s lunch; he’s healed at least eight people, and those are just the stories that Luke recorded. And by this point in the Jesus story, Jesus has gotten a little more pointed in his communication with his disciples. He’s told them that on the journey of discipleship, they’ll need to travel light – no extra clothes, no extra money or food – and if anyone doesn’t welcome them, shake it off and move along to the next village. He’s told them that to really be a follower, they’ll need to take up their own crosses every single day. He’s told them, in cryptic terms, what’s ahead for him in the days to come – death at the hands of the powerful, and resurrection 3 days later.
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, and he’s making sure that the twelve disciples know who he really is, because it will only help them in the days ahead. Right before this story, Jesus asks his friends what people are saying about him. They tell Jesus that some people think he’s like John the Baptizer; others think he’s like Elijah; other think he’s like the ancient prophets, come back again. Jesus asks them, “and who do you say that I am?” Peter answers correctly: “The Messiah of God.”
A mere eight days later, Peter is on the mountaintop with Jesus, his beliefs about his teacher confirmed: he is truly the Messiah. Jesus’s very body is transformed before Peter and John and James’s very eyes. He is transfigured: his clothes a glittering, dazzling white, his face transformed, Moses and Elijah somehow, miraculously, by his side, talking with Jesus. And a voice from the mysterious clouds, claiming Jesus as God’s beloved child.
What a day this must have been for those three faithful ones. What a strange confirmation of what they were coming to understand about him. He is the Messiah, the longed-for one, part of that long and wonderful lineage of ancestors through God’s story with the people of Israel. What a day this must have been.
But the story is not over. Peter, James, John, and Jesus descend the mountain and encounter a crowd. At the foot of the mountain, memories still reeling from all that happened up there, the disciples watch as Jesus jumps headfirst into a heart-wrenching story of hurting and healing. When a man with a hurting son calls out for Jesus, he doesn’t hesitate. He has some harsh words for the crowd, to be sure, but he goes to the young and hurting one, gets right up close to such profound suffering, and ends it. Our story for today finally ends, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Indeed.
The transfiguration story is a perplexing one. It’s rich in biblical allusion and full of interesting theological perspectives, but if we don’t keep reading, we forget that Jesus’s mission is with and to the ones at the foot of the mountain. Jesus is the Son of God, and we catch a glimpse of that spectacular reality on the mount of transfiguration. But his mission is not just all about the dazzling mountaintop show, the glorious experience, ancestors side-by-side, the booming voice from the heavens. Jesus’s mission is also about the dusty, well-worn trail down the mountain; the encounters with the beautiful, hurting people who need something of what Peter and James and John have seen on that mountain peak. Jesus is the Son of God, but he doesn’t stay up on the mountain. He comes down into town, ready to live in community and bring healing and new life.
I’m reminded again of our Confirmand’s question: if the point of being a Christian is to make sure we go to heaven when we die, what’s the point of having a life? I’ll reframe ethe question a bit in light of today’s story: if the point of following Jesus is that he’s a glorious, mysterious Son of God, shining forth on a mountain peak, what are we meant to do with all the brokenness at the foot of the mountain? What’s the point?
Thankfully, we get to read the whole arc of scripture, not just one short story at a time. We get to hold the Jesus on the mountaintop right next to the Jesus healing the suffering child. The experiences at the foot of the mountain aren’t the same without the transfigured Christ, without the assurance that he is who he says he is, the Son of God, the Messiah, the longed-for-One. And the mountaintop doesn’t mean much unless we remember that Jesus is headed from the glowing, dazzling mountain peak down to the beautiful, hurting world with its beautiful, hurting people.
When we follow Jesus, we follow the whole Jesus story. We journey to the top of the mountain and see the view. And we take the path back down the mountain, dust clinging to our pants legs, ready to encounter the world. 20th century theologian Walter Wink said it this way:
“Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us.” End quote.
We live in the “already-and-not-yet” world of following Jesus. The glory of God is shining in Jesus’s face, way up there at that high altitude, and yet… there is profound pain in the community at the foot of the mountain. The realm of God is already at hand, and yet we have broken relationships. The call of the Spirit is continually moving us forward, and yet we feel stuck, not sure how to address the pain and loneliness of the pandemic world. The beauty of God is among us in creation and community, and yet we experience the ugliness of racism in our midst. Already – and not yet. The transfiguration shines light, so to speak, on this push and pull of our lives, this reality that God is present and yet the world is not as it should be. There is beauty and pain, brokenness and healing, transfiguration and sickness.
And so our call, as always, is to stick close by Jesus’s side. To follow up him up to the mountaintop and back down again. To be there to witness the glory of transfiguration – to see that Jesus is real, that God is living and active, and that the Spirit is still moving in our midst… and then to join Jesus and his friends on the path back down the mountain. When we encounter all the struggle and pain that the world has to offer down in the valley, we do not lose heart. Like Peter and James and John, we have seen that Jesus is real and that Jesus brings healing and life to a hurting world.
When we remember these two parts of the transfiguration story – the mountaintop and the bottom of the mountain – we can be encouraged in our own journey of following Jesus. When we’re sick and tired of loving our neighbors who are hard to love, we do not lose heart, because Jesus is with us, showing us how to love. When we’re sick and tired of engaging political systems for change when it seems like change will never come, we do not lose heart, because Jesus is with us, giving us strength and courage.
When we’re sick and tired of pandemic fatigue and people arguing about face masks and getting those dreaded quarantine emails from our kids’ teachers, we do not lose heart, because we know that Jesus is with us, ready to hear us when we pray prayers of desperation or anxiety or just plain tiredness. And when we are, as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” we do not lose heart, because we know that Jesus is with us, calling us forth to rest.
Jesus is not an otherworldly god who dwells only on the mountaintop. Jesus is a right-down-here-in-the-thick-of-it God who follows the path down the mountain and is not afraid when things get messy or painful. This is a gift.
In a favorite worship book of mine, “Imaging the Word,” there is a beautiful imaginative retelling of today’s story by a contemporary Catholic priest. The reflection ends with Jesus and Peter standing side-by-side on the mount of transfiguration, and Peter is not ready to leave.
“Master,” Peter said again. “Why not stay here?” He tried not to look in the direction Jesus had set his gaze, south toward Jerusalem. The sun was setting. It had been an extraordinary and eventful day. They were tired and happy. Jesus started toward Jerusalem. “There is one more mountain to climb,” he said. “In Jerusalem.”
The disciples may not have known exactly what was ahead for Jesus in Jerusalem, but we know. As the season of Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we, too, set our faces towards Jerusalem. We journey with Jesus through the season of Lent, knowing the betrayal, death, and resurrection that is up ahead. Lent is a season where we may take on a new practice that draws us closer to God, or we may intentionally break a habit or practice that distracts or separates us from God or neighbor.
Here at Westminster, the Lenten season gets quieter – committees and boards don’t meet, and many will gather in intentional circles of community as Lenten Covenant Groups form and meet. In our worship, we will hear about, and be invited into, some core spiritual practices that form us as followers of Jesus. This is a season that offers a special opportunity each year for us to wonder together where the Spirit is leading us.
As we move into the season of Lent, I wonder how we might find inspiration and challenge from the transfiguration story – and not just the mountaintop part. I wonder how we might grow in our trust that Jesus journeys alongside us in our own experiences in life, no matter how mundane or extraordinary. I wonder how we might find a renewed call to partner with Jesus in his own work of healing a broken creation, here in our own city and neighborhoods. As we set our faces towards Jerusalem with Jesus, may we be assured of his presence with us. May it be so. Amen.