And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 ESV)
The transfiguration of Jesus is the closest we get, I think, to Superman Jesus. It is an important event, spectacular but it is shrouded in something – a cloud perhaps – because it is simply not clear what it means that Jesus shines like the sun. What do we know about Jesus because of it? If we didn’t know about it, what are we missing?
Matthew’s account – the Gospel we heard earlier – is straightforward – Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain by themselves and he is transfigured or transformed and we are told what happens – his face shines like the sun and his clothes become as white as light. Then Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus – we’re not told what.
Peter pipes up to start setting up the shrines and we can understand his thinking because God has revealed himself on a mountain in the past and where God ‘touches the earth’, so to speak, become special places for worship – for altars, for pilgrimage. So what Peter is saying is logical in the circumstance. We might wonder what happened 6 days earlier because this happens after 6 days and then we recall that Jesus was teaching them about building his church, about is suffering and death, and about his followers taking up a cross and following him. Six days earlier Peter had been praised for his answer about Jesus being the Son of the living God and the Messiah and called Satan moments later when gave his advice about how Jesus should behave. In truth the disciples were in the dark. It was all too hard, too traumatic – who can figure out death and rising again language anyway? Is it real? A metaphor? Poetry? But now Jesus is shining and they are getting the foundations of the church ready. I don’t know if you noticed but we don’t know the three’s emotions or psychology here.
But now a bright cloud overshadows them – again was it a little fluffy white thing that was drifting there and its timing over the mountain was perfect or was it a sudden appearance of a bright, dark, fiery cloud? Who knows? But the cloud speaks! And so we have a hidden presence above their heads and all the Old Testament messages about not being close to the holy without protection kicks in and now they are terrified and they drop to the ground. Don’t look! Don’t look! Don’t look!
Jesus comes and touches them – that’s significant I think – perhaps he had been calling to them and they wouldn’t move? ‘Rise and have no fear’ and all they see is Jesus! ‘Jesus only’ which I take to mean no glowing, no Moses, no Elijah, no cloud (where did it go?!). And then Jesus does it again and mentions death and a life afterwards – no saying what you’ve seen ‘until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’.
It seems the disciples are terrified of the voice in a cloud – and that is supernatural – because they have associated it with God and as people who know their history of Mount Sinai, the tabernacle, the boundaries God established to dwell safely with them through worship, the priests and sacrifices and what happened when God departed the temple and its destruction and their exile – this is all their
spiritual DNA – but they are not terrified of a glowing Jesus but see it is as God’s work – God has transfigured Jesus – and so they’re happy to begin the shrines. But then Jesus touches them and they go down the mountain calm and perplexed by what they’ve seen and heard – especially the bit about rising from the dead – which obviously means there is a death beforehand somehow.
Now for us who see this story in the reading, our imagination, in art, in film, in comics, in fiction perhaps we see what the disciples didn’t and that is because we are seeing this event not from the glow that comes from Jesus himself but from the light that comes from his empty tomb! And we know because of Jesus’ death – a crucifixion – and a resurrection that we are way beyond comic book heroes or even accounts of Greek gods and their powers – but that God is hidden but present in the man Jesus. And if those three disciples were terrified by a voice and cloud, if they knew at the moment who was touching them, they would have freaked out even more so!
The transfiguration or transformation wasn’t so much for the benefit of Peter, James, and John – important experience that it undoubtedly was – but they won’t build the message of Jesus on it. They will not build the Church on it. Instead they will build it on Jesus’ death and resurrection and occasionally point back to this event to emphasise that when the man Jesus died on the cross, God died. And yes, it is a mystery!
But this mystery means that people need no longer be hesitant, uncomfortable, afraid, terrified of being close to God because in Jesus who uses words, water, bread and wine God and Jesus – yes it can get confusing – but the message to people is still, ‘Rise and have no fear!’. And all they see is ‘Jesus only’.
And the story of this Jesus can change people – over time or in an instant – they see Jesus not just as a fairy tale or only history – but as alive and real and relating to them. Jesus loves me! Jesus died for me! Jesus is alive again for me! Jesus calls me to follow him and I will. Jesus is shining in their heart and mind, Jesus is alive for them – and when this happens people are transformed! Should I say ‘transfigured’? In baptism the deed is done. A new birth. A new life. And now the baptised can this new life in the way Paul says to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 ESV).
Christians are renewed through words and bread and wine and everyday remembering they have been touched by God when the wet words touched them. Jesus is our God – all powerful, all glowing – we’ll see that one day – but for now and as for Peter, James, and John there is only Jesus and he touches us and tells us not to be afraid – go out and live for another week – and know that this Jesus is with his people always.
- Matthew 17:1 - 9