In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter, James and John went to the mountaintop – just as Moses and Elijah had visited the mountaintop before them – and they experienced the presence of God in a brand new way. Then what?
Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (and please believe me when I tell you that I read the quote, not the book – science in general is not really my forté. Anyway, Kuhn said) that “scientific revolutions occur when someone creates a new perspective; a new model; a new approach to reality. After such a breakthrough, a new way of thinking, previously thought to be impossible, comes to life.” I understand Kuhn to be saying that such revolutions are about a new insight that causes a paradigm shift. That is what happened to Peter, James and John on the mountaintop that day, a paradigm shift, or a revolution in the way they saw God and God’s relationship with humanity. And when it was over, they had to deal with the consequences of their newfound knowledge.
It is no coincidence that this story appears near the middle of Matthew’s Gospel, right before Jesus begins his inescapable journey to Jerusalem. In this Gospel, the Transfiguration event takes place after Jesus and the Disciples got back from a preaching, teaching and healing trip around Galilee. Peter had just confessed to Jesus that he knew Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. The Disciples had heard Jesus preach and teach about the Kingdom of God with authority (in a brand new way) but the basic message probably hit their ears much like the message the rabbis had been teaching for years – at least at first.
At the end of this trip, after Peter had confessed what he knew about the Messiah, Jesus told them that He would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer terribly, and be put to death in order to rise again. That must have been truly shocking for them, so much so that it sort of flew right over their heads. But this Transfiguration thing was something brand new and amazing. A paradigm shift. Something that changed their way of thinking.
Throughout time, in the Jewish world one had personal encounters with God on mountaintops. That’s the way it worked with Moses on Mount Sinai and that’s the way it worked with Elijah on Mount Horeb. As we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, God called Moses to that specific mountaintop in order to have time together in order for God to give him God’s rules for life.
The Disciples knew the story of Moses going up the mountain and experiencing the power of God. Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and came down a changed person. So imagine what the three disciples must have thought when, on the mountaintop, they not only saw Elijah – the foremost of the prophets – but Moses – the lawgiver himself – talking with Jesus. Then, to suddenly see Jesus’ entire being change and become suffused with this blinding light, must have been perception changing and life changing, especially when it was accompanied by the voice of God, telling them to listen to Jesus because he was, as Peter had asserted, God’s Son.
Jesus took these three up the mountain with Him because He knew that after He had ascended, they would be the ones to be the first elders of His new church and He wanted to let them in on the absolute truth of what he had been teaching and preaching. He also wanted to prepare them for what would happen to Him in Jerusalem, by giving them the confidence that came with knowledge of His power. He let them peek behind the curtain, as it were, to see with their own eyes what he had been proclaiming and showing in human ways all along.
The Greek word that Matthew uses for transfigured, is metamorphothe which is where we get our word, metamorphosis. Years ago, when I was in Houston, I served as Dean of Diocese’s intermediate school spring camp. Over that weekend, our gifted children and family minister and her staff of equally gifted teenagers taught 10-12 year olds about bullfrogs and butterflies and new creations in God’s world.
The “new creation” theme played out in stories of caterpillars –worm-like creatures that – only God really knows how – become beautiful butterflies, with amazing color on wings that carry them far from the leaves where they used to live. These young people learned about this metamorphosis as analogous to their growing up and changing as children of God. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar though is entirely different from what Jesus did on the mountaintop.
Metamorphosis is the word we have for complete change – that of tadpole to frog or caterpillar to butterfly, but it does not really describe what happened to Jesus in Peter, James and John’s sight. Jesus didn’t change into a new creature or a new being. Instead, he just showed them what he had always been. He gave them a glimpse of the power and glory of God shining in Him. If you’ll pardon the silliness of this analogy, what Jesus did for the Disciples that day was sort of what Clark Kent did for Lois Lane in the movie Superman II when Lois was allowed to go to the Fortress of Solitude. She saw a glimpse of who and what Clark really was and had always been, Superman. But when Lois Lane learned the truth, Superman had to spin the world backward and go back to a time before she knew his secret so that she couldn’t share her knowledge with anyone else. She then went back to life as normal, just as she had been before she was let in on Clark’s secret. Not so with the Disciples. They came down the mountain with a new way of seeing and experiencing God and had to learn to live in the ordinary world with that knowledge.
Peter wanted what any of us would have wanted if we had been there that day, to stay on the mountaintop. He wanted to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah would have places to stay and so that they wouldn’t go away; so that he and James and John could sort of bottle the experience and keep it – exactly as it was – forever.
Have you ever gone to Cursillo or Happening; or Yes or Vocare, or Kairos? These spiritual renewal programs offer people a sort of mountaintop experience, as close as most of us ever get to what the Disciples experienced that day with Jesus. These programs let many people experience God in a brand new and very palpable way. People who attend are emotionally and spiritually super-charged during the programs. But just like the Disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, people then have to face going down the mountain and back into the real world, trying to hold onto their new understanding of God.
When Jesus and the Disciples came down from the mountain, they were met by a huge crowd and the remaining nine disciples who were dealing with a young man who was possessed by a demon that physically threw him around and hurt him. His father told Jesus that the nine disciples had tried to cast the demon out but couldn’t. In other words, when Peter, James and John came down from the mountain with their new knowledge of God and the power of the Spirit burning in their hearts, they were met – just as Moses had been, by a faithless group of people who spent their time arguing rather than worshiping God and faithfully doing His work.
We find ourselves in a place very similar to the Disciples’ place this morning. We come to church and experience Jesus through sharing His story and sharing in His body and blood – what should be for us the very real experience of Jesus’ love – and then we have to go out and face Lafayette traffic. From the sublime to the ridiculous. But that is our lives on Earth.
Christians are called to experience God in every way that we can – both old and new – and then to take that experience and translate it into something that strengthens and empowers us to do the work God has given us to do in this world. It is a tall order, but we can get it done. We have our experience of God in the reading, studying and sharing of Holy Scripture. And we have the experience of God in Christ in the Holy Eucharist. And we have our experience of God in each other – seeing Christ in our neighbor and experiencing the power of God’s love for us through loving someone else in God’s name. Our experiences of God are brief glimpses, but powerful ones, just like the powerful glimpse of God that the Disciples got.
The Transfiguration was meant to show the Disciples the glory of Jesus Christ in the world, by showing them the power of God in a new way, in a way that our limited human understanding could grasp, but one that was awesome enough to stick with them forever. We have all experienced the power of God in our lives – whether we are like Lois Lane and have had our memories erased, or like the Disciples who had their understanding changed forever – and we are called to take those experiences of God and share them with other people, so that others can see a metamorphothe in us and can, themselves experience God in a brand new way, through the power of Jesus Christ in our lives. That’s what Peter, James and John did when they came down from the mountain, and likewise, it is what we are supposed to do today, when we leave this place and go down the mountain to our homes and workplaces.
Let us go forth in the power of the Spirit – showing the radiant light of Christ to all who see us.