As we listen to the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, the Triune God is gathering us together, transforming us, and accompanying us so that we can be strengthened for the journey upon which we are sent: following our Lord Jesus into the pain and suffering of our neighbors.
Vicar Emily Beckering; Transfiguration Sunday, year A; texts: Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 2:12
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Remember the last time that you took a trip?
Perhaps you just returned from one, or perhaps you are getting ready for one right now. If you are, then the rest of us are all envious that you get to escape the tundra. And if you are, then you know all the preparations that have to be made before you leave.
There’s transportation and lodging plans, arranging for things to be taken care of back home while you’re gone, and securing all of the proper documents and vaccinations necessary to travel. We make lists, pack—some of us unpack, repack—all in order to ensure that we will have everything that we need to handle the weather, get business done, enjoy the trip, or face the possible difficulties that we might encounter along the way.
We prepare ourselves for the journey ahead.
That is exactly what is happening at the Transfiguration. On that mountain, God was preparing the disciples for the journey ahead.
Here, today, now, God is also at work to strengthen us. As we listen to this story of the Transfiguration, we hear three things that the Triune God is doing in our lives to prepare us for the journey ahead so that we may live as Jesus’ disciples.
First, to strengthen us for the journey, the Triune God calls and gathers us together.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain.”
Jesus calls these disciples together—draws them close to himself—so that they might believe and have something to hold to for what is yet to come: his crucifixion and death—events that will cause them to doubt. This moment is meant to be a light when it seems that all other lights have gone out.
There, on the mountain, God the Father confirms the disciples’ faith: Jesus really is the Messiah promised to them through the prophets to fulfill the law. Jesus is the Beloved, the Son of God. They can trust Jesus, and they can entrust themselves to him.
Some of us may feel that we have never had a mountain-top experience like the disciples. How we long for an experience of revelation, of beholding the glory of God! This is important to name because it is true that we will not always “feel” or recognize God’s presence.
It is evident to me, however, that here at Mount Olive, we do trust the promise that God is present with us. We come to worship, expecting to encounter God.
The Holy Spirit has gathered us together in worship today so that we might be enfolded by God’s love, shielded against any doubt that we have struggled with, and drawn in to God’s bosom in order to trust and believe. Jesus really is our Savior, God with us and for us. And we are the Beloved.
In our baptisms, we are given the same promise that God the Father speaks on the mountain to Jesus, the Son. God the Father proclaims to us, “You are mine, beloved. I am pleased with you.” When God the Father looks at us, we are already seen as Christ, but we are being formed so that when the world looks at us, they also see Christ.
This is the second word for us today: the Triune God is transforming us in order to prepare us for the journey.
“Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.”
The word, “transfigured,” is only used four times in all of scripture. Twice for Jesus and twice for us. Matthew and Mark use “transfigured” in their gospels to describe this exact moment on the mountain top. Paul also uses this word—“transfigured” or “transformed”—to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
As we will hear in today’s anthem, Paul writes to the Romans: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
And he writes this in the second letter to the Corinthians:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Transfiguration does not belong to Jesus alone; it is the pattern of our daily lives because of the Spirit work. We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit to bear Christ’s image, to be Christ in the world. We are transformed to glow and to reflect Christ’s light to all still trapped in darkness.
Certainly, we know from our daily lives that we continue to turn away from this promise, that we still hurt ourselves and one another, that we still seek our own interests at the expense of others—even those whom we love the most. For the past three weeks, we have heard of the joy and life meant for us in God’s gift of the law, but we continually resist and reject it. We hear again today that this transforming work of the Holy Spirit is how we will be made new, fulfill the law, love our enemies, be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and live as Christ.
God is not finished with us yet. We may not always feel it, or see evidence of it, and so we trust instead Christ’s promise: we are being transfigured, transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s image.
We are not being transformed into Christ for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world, which is why the third word for us today is one of sending.
Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain.
Departing the mountain begins Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. From this moment on, Jesus makes his way to the cross. They cannot stay on the mountain because of the brokenness that lies below: a world that yearns for this light of Christ. Because of that brokenness, those who yearn for the light will also reject it, and so the way of this Son of God is the way of the cross.
The way of discipleship is also the way of the cross. They are to follow Jesus on the path to Jerusalem, to his rejection, and to his crucifixion.
They cannot stay on the mountain, but they do not go down into the valley below alone.
“Get up,” Jesus says, touching them, “Do not be afraid.” With this, he calls them back from fear, for he is with them.
Here in worship, God draws us up to the mountain so that we can follow into the valley. We are being prepared to enter into the suffering and pain of others, to give of ourselves, to lose. When we hear this story, Christ is coming to us here and now, touching us on the shoulder and saying, “Get up, do not be afraid,” for he is with us on the journey. We do not leave him here in worship, but are promised that we will meet him again and again in the people to whom we are sent.
What might it look like to trust God’s love for us, Christ’s presence, and the Spirit’s work of transformation in us so that we can follow Jesus down into the valley?
I have seen it. For me, it looks like the life of David Selvaraaj.
David was the director of the social justice, peace, and development study-abroad program that I did during college in Bangalore, India. He is also the co-founder of a school for girls between the ages of 6 and 15 who are at risk of being dedicated as devadasis. A devadasi is a woman or a girl who has reached puberty, who, on the basis of family tradition, economic need, or abuse of the caste system which still holds power in small villages, is dedicated in a ritual at a Hindu temple and is then sold to the highest bidder, or given to a powerful man in the village. She is then used as a sex slave and is supposed to support her parents, relatives, and children through the money given to her by the man or men who use her. Without intervention, the children have no choice and are bound to a life of poverty and abuse.
The school founded by David and his colleagues, however, offers a different life: a real childhood where they can play and make friends. A place to learn academics so that they can go to college, career skills so that they can work, and street theater, visual art, and music, which they use in public demonstrations to work for justice on behalf of other marginalized children.
Upon our arrival on campus, the other college students and I noticed that the perimeter was completely surrounded by 15-foot high fences topped with barbed-wire. We asked David about the fences, and he explained that they were necessary to protect the children.
When they first began the school, men from their villages came to take the girls back by force so that they could still have devadasis. The men threatened David and the employees. They did not manage to scale the fences, but they did not leave without terrifying the children or the staff.
When asked how he and the staff were able to keep going in such conditions, how they were able to face the threat that these men posed, or how they could tirelessly resist the opposition of their neighbors or other people in the city who did not want a school that brought such dangers with it in their neighborhood, David responded, “Much of what we do here is risky, but we do it to affirm life. My Lord, Jesus, suffers with and among people, and so will I.”
If we are truly to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the valley where the cross is, then we will enter into the suffering and pain of others, and it will involve risk.
We may never bear the kind of risk that David does, nor will we likely be stoned to death or crucified like the disciples, but make no mistake: if we enter into the suffering of others, if we dwell with them, listen to them rather than try to fix them our way, if we open ourselves to feeling their pain, then it will be difficult. We will not be left unscathed.
We are not strangers to suffering or injustice.
We know that there is poverty, abuse, and discrimination in our own society; it is not unique to India. We know the stories of loss in our own lives—the suffering friends, the chronic illness, the change from the way that life used to be, the death of a loved one, the job that has ended, the relationship that seems beyond the point of healing.
The question before us is this: will we risk the price of going down into these valleys with Jesus, of following him into this suffering? Will we hold onto our fear, or will we trust that the Triune God has something to say and something to do in the valley? Will we avoid these places of pain in our lives and the lives of those around us, or will we go where we have been sent?
David was sent to the children trapped in the devadasi system, but if you ask him, he will tell you that they were sent to him, for they have taught him to forgive and to love like Christ. It has not been without costs, but now there is freedom where there was slavery, joy where there was fear, healing where there was pain, and hope and a future where there was only death.
Will the journey ahead of us be easy? No.
Safe? Probably not.
But will we encounter the Triune God bringing healing, transformation, and life? Most definitely.
God the Father has claimed you. Christ is with you. The Holy Spirit is transforming you. So get up, Beloved, go, and do not be afraid.