Luke 9:28-36; the Transfiguration
March 3, 2019
The Rev’d Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”– not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Finally it is the last Sunday in the season after the Epiphany. We have not had seven Sundays after Epiphany since 2001. It’s been an unusually looooong season.
The season after Epiphany is appointed to introduce us to the person and power of Jesus, who will, after Easter become the Christ. It’s the season that begins with Jesus’ Baptism and ends with his Transfiguration. And today, we see for ourselves that Jesus, whose face is transfigured in the presence of prophets who have been dead and gone for generations, is divine.
On Wednesday, which will be Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent with the all too human Jesus. The vulnerable Jesus. The rejected Jesus. The Jesus on his knees on the Mount of Olives. The broken body of Jesus, bleeding and weeping on the cross. The Jesus who is our brother, who shares our flesh, who lives our human suffering. The fully human Jesus.
But this morning we are on the mountain with this Jesus who is about to be transfigured right before our eyes. And as special effects go, this is pretty spectacular, and a scene that is displayed in all three of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. The versions of this story that appear in Matthew and Mark are almost identical. But there are a few details, key details, that set this story apart in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke. The author of Luke writes:
And they went up on the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed…. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…
The first distinction in Luke is, quite significantly, that Luke treats the transfiguration not as an experience of supernatural power, but as an experience of prayer. Luke puts us in a very different frame of mind. Jesus and three of his disciples go up on the mountain to pray and while they are praying the transfiguration transpires. They do not ascend the mountain for the purpose of transfiguration. They go in search of prayer.
More than in any other Gospel, Jesus prays. And that is one reason why our Lenten theme this year will be Pathways to Prayer. If we are going to be walking through Lent with Luke, we will need to prepare to spend some time on our knees. Over and over and over again Luke emphasizes the power of prayer to mediate the presence of God. Luke wants us to know that divine things happen when prayer is involved.
And so after Jesus prays with Peter, John, and James, he is “transfigured” right before their very eyes. His robe changes to a dazzling white. But this is not just a fashion statement. For Jesus’ whole being glows with dazzling divine presence. The author of Luke says that indeed his face changed. And this is the second significant difference in Luke’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration.When Matthew and Mark describe the change in Jesus, they use the Greek verb metamorpheo that literally means that Jesus completely changes form. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus undergoes a metamorphoses, he is literally trans-figured. He becomes something that he was not before. He takes on a whole new identity.
But Luke says that only the appearanceof Jesus’ face changed. That is to say, he does not morph into something altogether new. He does not become something that he is not already. Luke does not use the verb metamorpheo. In Luke, this dazzling change is rather the illumination of what is already there. The divinity that has always been there in Jesus, suddenly begins to shine through.
This is a significant departure from Matthew and Mark. In Luke, the change is embodied in the way Jesus is perceived, not in the substance of who Jesus is. He was not suddenly divine, he is just suddenly perceptibly divine. It seems more about how the disciple see him than who he is.
And so although this passage is called the transfiguration in all three Gospels, I think that Luke’s story would be better referred to as the transcendence. Or maybe, in Luke, Jesus is just plain trans. In Luke, Jesus transcends the boundaries of this earthly existence and becomes more of his true self. For the first time, his appearance matches his inner self, his inner divinity. For the first time, Jesus looks to be both fully human and fully divine, a non-conforming identity if ever there were one!
And so Luke tells us that as Jesus prays he is brilliantly and dazzlingly transfigured. Both Moses and Elijah appear with him. The gang is all here. Moses, the keeper of the law; Elijah, the prophet of the Source; and Jesus, the New Creation. A continuity of God’s chosen old and new that is unmistakable. Here they are.
And here is where Luke’s version of this story is again a bit different from Matthew and Mark. Right here, the author of Luke clearly makes a connection between Jesus’ mission on this earth and the story of the Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is here not just as God’s Son on earth, but specifically to deliver us from the suffering of this world. Luke writes: They appeared in glory and were speaking of Jesus’ departureto Jerusalem….the Greek word used for departure here is literally exodos. Moses, who was chosen by God to lead the first exodos out of the persecution and suffering in Egypt, appears here with Jesus who is God’s chosen one to lead the second and final exodos out of the suffering of this earthly world. As God says to Jesus in this passage, “This is my Son, my chosen”…as opposed to Matthew and Mark, where God calls Jesus the “beloved. Jesus is specifically chosen for this mission.
It’s an important divergence. Because for me, Luke elevates this story from a mere revelation, as it is in Matthew and Mark, to a call coined by Australian poet Michael Leunig, a gentle revolution– a focus on Jesus’ particular mission, which is the liberation of those who are marginalized and enslaved, as were the Israelites in Egypt. In Luke, this story of the transfiguration is not just a story of revelation; not just revealing of Jesus’ divinity. In Luke, the transfiguration grounds Jesus’ identity and mission in the story of God’s liberation.
And isn’t this exactly the story that we need right here and now in this world! A story that is grounded in prayer, accomplished by shining our true selves through the darkness, and that promises ultimate liberation from the struggle and suffering and persecution that is life on this earth, especially for those who live on the margins of power. It’s the story we long to hear, the story we need to hear, the perfect story for our time, until……….Peter opens his fully human mouth and says to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah“—
What is Peter thinking?! Maybe he’s thinking exactly what we might be thinking were we in his shoes. At least that is what many of the most popular commentaries suggest. The prevailing opinion on this passage says that Peter misses the point of everything by trying to capture and contain what is clearly divine and uncontainable.
But I am not convinced of Peter’s apparent…..denseness. What if Peter’s suggestion of building houses for the divine visitors was not a ploy to secure them, but rather an offering of hospitality? What is more hospitable than providing housing for those who have nowhere to go? A sanctuary movement, one might call it. Providing a place where those who have no place to go might regroup before they move on to the next destination. Maybe this offering of Habitat for Divinity has been misunderstood. Maybe it is an offer of sanctuary; a way to offer these divine travelers some sense of belonging. More along the lines of the hospitality of Abraham rather than the selfishness of Jacob.
You know I rarely mull a piece of scripture without finding some new insight from my horses. And each year as the transfiguration comes up and Peter proposes his building project to house Moses and Elijah, I cannot help but think about my year living at the stable owned by my friend Carter Heyward on a See-Off Mountain in Brevard, North Carolina. I was just there this week and we talked about this again.
It was 2004. I had three horses and Carter had five. It was the start, I think, of this wild weather that has become part of our landscape. And with every storm – and there were several whoppers that year! – Carter and I would angst over what to do with the horses. Should we put them in their stalls? They would be sheltered from the lightning and the rain and the wind, BUT they might be trapped, like if a tree fell on the roof, or lightening hit a gutter and caused an electrical fire. Maybe we should just leave them out in the field. We equivocated every time – knowing full well what we should do.
Horses have been surviving violent storms for eons. They are designed with a full compliment of instincts and facilities to provide for themselves on the open range. They have been surviving nature’s wrath for thousands of years, and without any help from me or Carter. And so while we knew that their best bet was to be free out in the field, to have the freedom to navigate around falling objects and windblown….whatever. It always seemed an excruciatingly difficult decision. Lock ‘em up? Or let ‘em go?
The decision was so tough partially because human beings would always rather have shelter than freedom. But our real fear about leaving the horses in the fields was that if a tree fell and damaged a fence, they might get away. If the fence was breached, we might lose them.
And so the real decision was between keeping them close by putting them in stalls or keeping them safe by allowing them to use their God-given instincts out in the open field. And when I put it that way out loud, it seems like there should not have been any question at all. And yet there always was. In the end we almost always left them out, but it was always an excruciating decision made with great fear and fretting.
And so when, in this morning’s reading from Luke, Peter suggests putting Moses and Elijah in a couple of stalls…. I must admit, know how he feels. What if they get away?
I know how seductive the prospect that we are the providers, the protectors, the ones who are here to take care of those in our charge. I know how easy it is to forget that horses are designed to be free. They are not designed to be mine, no matter how much hospitality I am willing to offer. And the offer of that freedom is among the pillars of Luke’s story of the transfiguration.
Luke sets us up well to walk into the wilderness of Lent. He says:
- It all starts with prayer. Divine things happen when prayer is involved.
- We are already everything we need to be. We do not need to change into something better, we only need to reveal the image that is already etched on our hearts, and shine that brilliant light through every pore of our being.
- Our journey with and toward God is about liberation, not security.
One could say that in this morning’s reading, Luke is calling us to what my favorite Australia poet/prayer master calls the art of the gentle revolution. A revolution that changes the way we are in this world. That beckons us to trade our performance anxiety for prayer, and to stop longing to be seen as something we are not for the light of God that already shines in us, and to put our faith and trust in the agency of the other rather than our own desire for their security.
Michael Leunig prays:
God help us to change. To change ourselves. To change the world. To know the need for it. To deal with the pain of it. To feel the joy of it. To undertake the journey without understanding the destination. [God help us embrace] the art of gentle revolution.
Onward into Lent!
And for the last time until Easter…..Alleluia!
© March, 2019, The Reverend Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Michael Leunig’s term.