Our Gospel message comes to us today from Luke the 9th chapter, beginning at the 28th verse.
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. (Luke 9:28-36, NRSV)
All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you've done for us in Christ. Now as we open that word we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so, oh God, fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus name. Amen
Everyone has insights, experiences wherein the veil of ordinariness is briefly rolled back and we see into an object or a person or an event. We see it or him or her, them, in a way we never saw it before. We see it in a broader context than what maybe others seeing the same things do not see. We might really see the beauty of a flower, a flower we had looked at a hundred times before, but now it is its extraordinariness we grasp. We may see the truth of something or someone, a truth that had up till then eluded us. We may see the goodness of a person or an event, a goodness others might not only not see, but actually see as bad. All these experiences are insights into reality without the external appearances of the reality being changed. The change takes place in the person who is doing the perceiving.
Certainly the Transfiguration scene was an insight. But it was more than that. First of all, three people not counting Jesus, Moses and Elijah, had the same experience at the same time. While that experience was an insight into the real Jesus, it was also a physical vision of an objectively changed reality, changed before their physical eyes and not merely their faith eyes. Since they would have been able to ask each other, “Did you see what I saw?” and get the same answer, we can conclude that this was an experience on level one, the level of earth, time, space, the physical level. Yet, at the same time, the fact that they all heard the heavenly voice, the same voice and message Jesus heard at his baptism, means that this experience, though physical, was also a spiritual one, one that entered and affected their inner beings. Clearly, this was a preview of, a sneak peak at, a sampling of the resurrected life. That life will be physical in some yet-to-be-disclosed way. What is disclosed here is that our bodies will be transformed to fit the divine realm but not so transformed that we will not be able to communicate or to be recognized as the unique individual we are. At the same time, that life will be, what is the best word for it? Supernatural, numinous, physical without being solid. What is now perceived as “ordinary,” that is, without glory, will then glow. There will be no need for insight then, for reality will not be hidden but glorious, radiant, revealed, obvious. There will be no need for faith either, for all will be seen in all its dimensions simultaneously.
So, for all their vision of reality of Jesus as it, he, really is, the disciples still need faith, insight, for the time being. The three disciples had a religious experience, one in which the ordinariness of reality took on a dimension of splendor, everything was seen under a bright light, its hidden glory became visible to both the naked eye and the eye of faith. Great as it was, it did not last. They got a glimpse of glory, a sneak peak, a preview of resurrected life, but only for a brief moment. Alas, they would have to come down from this mountain experience and live once again on the molehill of ordinary time. And in ordinary time they will learn they always have the Word with them, the glory of God contained and hidden in the express mind and will of God. The same glorious reality they experienced on the mountain is present on the molehill, just as real and potentially powerful if they would but listen. Seeing the divine is reserved for heaven and very special earthly occasions, but hearing the divine in the Word of God is always possible and available.
“Mountain” experiences, “religious” experiences, “aesthetic” experiences, “truth” experiences cannot be conjured up. There is no known method to produce them. They are gifts that are given to us at the moment. But they can be remembered. They can help us to, know intuitively, the glory hidden in the ordinary and help to bring it out, but they cannot substitute for the Word which is always present and which needs to be brought out in actions and attitudes. We sometimes pray for God to reveal himself visibly, to confirm our trust by a visible, emotionally felt sign. This story teaches that even if he did - and he sometimes does- it would not make much difference. If we have a “mountain” experience, remembering it will make a difference. It will strengthen our faith and our resolve as it enables us to see the end point. But remembering the Word, however, will do the same thing. “Mountain” experiences are nice but unnecessary. Visions are no substitute for faith in the Word. With the brutal realism of Jesus we are to listen to him and follow in his steps, confident that what the disciples saw - the hidden glory that Jesus always had- we shall see and experience at the eternal Easter. For God is always present and present everywhere. Seen or not, God was always present in Jesus, as Jesus is now in us. Jesus was intensely, always and everywhere, aware of the divine presence within him, even though we are not. Awareness of the really real fueled Jesus’ actions and informed his attitudes. The same Jesus who was revealed in transfigured glory is present in his revealed Word, as is the same divine glory.
Extraterrestrial phenomena: It is impossible to tell from this story just exactly what happened. We cannot tell how much is physical fact and how much is metaphor or spiritual fact. That said, there is no doubt that this is a story that wants to say something “extraterrestrial” happened. This was a sight and not merely an insight. Such phenomena do occur and we simply cannot explain them. Some simply rule out the notion that reality exists on other levels than our own and deny even the possibility that visions of other dimensions of reality can occur. But even those of us who are open to these other dimensions know that such visions or experiences do not really produce faith. They may and should strengthen faith, but not necessarily or automatically so. The three disciples in this account do not seem to have had any noticeable change in their ability to put faith in Jesus after this vision. In fact, it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that they understood what they experienced and only then could they even talk about it. Believers know that there is at least one extraterrestrial world, heaven, and most believers are open to the possibility that there are even more worlds out there in space and even on earth. Indeed, knowing what we now know through the study of psychology we would say there are even “worlds” within a person. What believers also know is that such discoveries will not affect faith or render faith unnecessary so long as we live in this dimension. Glimpses into other dimensions are wonderful indeed, but it is really the ever-present and available Word of God that really reveals the “inside” of God and our relationship with him. When the disciples came down the mountain and re-entered ordinary reality ordinary as we perceive it the vision was gone but the Word, Jesus, was still present. So it is with us.
The meaning of the Transfiguration: The transfiguration, like all truly religious experience, is both a real event and an anticipation of future glory. In this case, it is an anticipation of the resurrection glory of Jesus, including our share in it. It provided these three most intimate friends of Jesus with a glimpse of the, not yet historically, risen Lord to help them get through the upcoming rough days. It assured them that despite apparent abandonment by God, Jesus is God’s Son and Servant. He will be successful. As a revelation of the hidden quality of Jesus’ life the transfiguration was a guarantee not only of later glory, but also of the present quality and strength of their own life when Jesus would be raised and be enabled to enter into them through his Spirit. This intense quality of life can, will and does shine through in the life of a disciple, especially at prayer. However, it will never replace suffering in this life. We can no more skip the cross than did Jesus, even though we, like him at Gethsemane, would want to. We can ascend the mountain to get eternal vision back, but we must come back down. All we really have is Jesus’ Word, a living word, a word we are called upon to en-flesh again in this world now that Jesus’ bodily person has transcended to the eternal world.
Trans-: “Trans” is Latin for “across. “ Whether we transfigure, transcend or transform we go across one boundary into another. Christians still live within the boundary of time and space but they have also transited by identification and communion with Christ into the “boundaries” of the realm of God. Because we live in both worlds simultaneously our focus and attention shifts back and forth and can drive us a little crazy at times. We do have our moments when concentration on God’s presence lifts us temporarily out of this earthly world we call it “ecstasy,” but mostly they are but fleeting glimpses of a later permanent experience of the glory of God. The presence of God is always there; the “glory,” that is, the felt presence of God, for now, comes and goes.
Let us pray: At the Transfiguration, Father, You showed Jesus in glory, a glimpse of what His disciples would see in His risen life. Bless us in our humanity, with an awareness of Your presence, leading us to share in Your divine life even in our daily struggle. Help us to deepen our knowledge of the Law and the Prophets, channels of Your grace throughout history, and signposts for our journey. Amen.
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The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. Sermon contributed by Rev. Dr. Jerry Morrissey.
Certainly the Transfiguration scene was an insight. But it was more than that. Something “extraterrestrial” happened.