Whenever people return from a trip, rather than asking how their trip was, I like to get to the details, and I always have three questions I ask folks when they return: 1) What was the most beautiful thing you saw? 2) What was your favorite thing you ate? 3) Who was your favorite person you met? These three questions give me a window into that person’s experience of traveling, and it also helps them share about how their journey changed them in some way; how are they better for where they have been, the different cultures they experienced, and the small relationships that form without much effort when one is in an unfamiliar place. In reading our gospel lesson for this week, I was captivated as I thought about how Peter, James, and John might recount all the ways in which their trip up the mountain changed them.
I wonder what they might have been thinking on their way up the mountain just six days after Jesus had told Peter that he is the rock upon which the church shall be built. I wonder if their muscles enjoyed the climb or if they were wearily, but willingly, following Jesus. I wonder if they rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Jesus changed right in front of them once they were on the mountaintop all by themselves; did the brightness of Jesus’ face shining like the sun cast a warmth on their own faces? I wonder if Peter, James, and John looked down at their own clothes as Jesus’ were dazzling white to see if they too were affected by whatever was happening. And maybe when they looked up and saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus they glanced at each other wondering what on earth was happening.
And then Peter—bless his heart—in all his eagerness, jumped up, ready to do something in the midst of all the visceral experiences that he and the others were having, and he told Jesus that it was good that he was there and that he could make a dwelling for each of them. And then before Peter could finish his plan, a bright cloud came and covered all of them and from that cloud came the voice of the Lord, “this is my son, the Beloved.” And I wonder if this voice was a booming, strong voice that commanded attention, or if it was a gentler voice that quieted Peter’s anxiety in trying to come up with something to do. I wonder what the earth of the mountain smelled like as the disciples fell to the ground in fear; I wonder if the dirt felt cool in the shade of the cloud or if the disciples pounding hearts trembled visibly against their chest. I wonder when Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid if they at first flinched at his touch, worried for their lives. And when they realized that they were safe and looked up, I wonder if that when they saw that Jesus was standing alone and was no longer shining brightly if they doubted whether it was all a dream or if the others saw it happen as well. I wonder if their minds were racing as they came down from the mountain, distracted with thoughts of how this experience has changed them; I wonder if they knew what Jesus was asking when he asked them not to share what happened on the mountain until after he had been resurrected.
Now, to Matthew’s audience, the imagery would have been striking. The parallels between the transfiguration of Jesus relayed here and Moses’ journey up to Mt. Sinai are abundant. The bright white, the voice from heaven, and, of course, the inevitable but changed descent from the mountaintop. What we hear today in Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse of Easter. It’s a glimpse of what is to come after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; it’s a small window into all the ways in which those of us who follow the crucified and resurrected messiah will be changed as we seek to follow the Christ. All the ways in which those who follow the one who was transfigured will be transformed in our daily lives as well.
The Greek word used here in Matthew’s gospel for transfigure is the same word from which we get metamorphosis. It’s the same word that we use to describe a striking change one must undergo to be what they were created to be. To be transformed, to be changed into something that we once could only hope to be, comes from following Christ. I’ve heard it said that the intention of Christianity shouldn’t be to worship Jesus, rather the intention of Christianity should be to follow Christ. We aren’t just here to sing flowery songs or to make our hearts glad with the fact that the one whose name we bear is the one who brought hope to the hopeless; no, we are meant to let songs from deep within our soul bear witness to the truth that without our faith we aren’t much of anything. And we aren’t just meant to wear crosses on our neck or to sit in a pew for an hour on Sunday, but we are meant to actually follow Christ like Peter, James, and John. We are meant to follow Christ down the mountain, into the low places where there isn’t much shining or much delight; we’re meant to follow Christ to the places where the weight of the world seems as heavy on us as it does on the least of those people over there, wherever and whomever that is for you.
Because after all, after this fearful, miraculous experience, the three disciples looked up and it was Christ alone; standing there was the not great prophets of history or even a shining, bright form of the one who they followed, no, standing there alone was Jesus, just plain Jesus. And this plain Jesus doesn’t want the glory into which we have been changed to stay on the mountaintop, but wants the glory to be in the low places; they had to return the world which would, as we all know, soon mock and crucify Jesus. But they had to go; they had to go back down the mountain because to be changed for change’s sake isn’t really of much use. It doesn’t do much good if these three disciples are significantly changed by what they saw that day and don’t go back down to the people. To be changed, to be transformed by following the Christ, can never solely be about who we for our own sake, but it requires us to be oriented to others. It requires us to be oriented to the ones whom God loves, and it requires us to follow in the ways of the one who changed the whole world. To be transformed by following Christ is to be changed from who we once thought we were to who we couldn’t have even imagined we could be.
God is inviting us to be changed into the type of person and Christian that we can only imagine; let your imagination run for a second. Who is God calling you to be; what kind of Christian do you hope to be in a year, in five, in twenty? God is inviting us to be changed into the type of person and Christian that we can only imagine when we choose to follow the transfigured Christ. This week we are enter into a season of intentionality, we are entering into a season of change. Yes, Lent is a season of repentance, but at its core, it’s really just a season of change. And change can be scary, but it’s a chance to follow Christ up and down the mountain, to be changed by what we see and do, our faith restored, and our hope ignited for what is to come after the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
So as we wait to enter the season of Lent, let us hold in prayer and intention where we might hope to go in this next phase of life. Let us hold on to the ways in which we intend to change and to grow as we work to follow the transfigured Christ. All the while holding dearly to the fact that, too, can change.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for the Last Sunday After Epiphany, Year A on Sunday, February 23, 2020.