In designing this series, we originally chose the epistle reading for this week in keeping with the pattern of working our way through the Corinthian Epistles. Upon reflection, however, it adds a bit of symmetry to return to the Gospel for this Transfiguration Sunday to end our series. We began with Luke for a combined Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord Sunday, then turned to I Corinthians for the Ordinary Time series we called “Love Never Ends,” and now propose returning to the Luke text again. Certainly, the Epistle text, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2 could be used to provide supportive interpretation to the event, and it does speak of seeing the glory that is the risen Christ. Paul’s interpretation of the veiled Moses, however, is problematic for our more modern age. (See Robert Warden Prim, “Homiletical Perspectives on II Corinthians 3:12-4:2,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors, WJK Press, 2009, 447-451.)
So let us return to the Gospel of Luke and that author’s telling of the event we call the Transfiguration. Our series theme, as you recall, is “Love Never Ends.” Over the past few weeks, we’ve been listening in on Paul’s conversation with the church in Corinth as he attempts to unravel some of the knotty problems that community tied themselves into. And through it all, a consistent theme was that people matter, each one matters, and individuals are a part of the whole. And in the last couple of weeks, we even took a glimpse into eternity and discovered that grace, that essence that matters continues on past our limited horizons.
It would seem, then, that a summation statement might be something about the constancy of love experienced through grace. We might want to double down on the idea that God, the God who loves constantly, the God who offers grace continually, is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Instead, we are presented with change. At the heart of Transfiguration is change. And we are familiar with change.
Change: It is the way of things. For good or for ill, change is all around us; it is the air we breathe and the water we drink. Turn around, and everything is different. We can say we hate change, but it is part of our reality. Change happens to all of us. We are constantly in the process of shedding the old self and putting on the new. And this is a physical reality as much as a spiritual one. We shed our cells at an amazing rate, and they are replaced with new ones. Every minute about 300 million cells are replaced in your body. You are in a constant state of change. Do I seem different? Wait a minute, and you will be.
Our Gospel lesson is about change this week. But not what you would normally expect. This isn’t a call to change for the better; it isn’t a turnaround or repent passage. It is about a different kind of change all together.
Luke writes “The appearance of His face changed” (verse 29). His appearance. He didn’t look like what they were used to looking at. He looked different. He looked . . . more. Transfigured is the word that we have become used to reading here. That sounds more holy somehow, more theological than to say simply that he changed. But the Greek word here is metemorfw,qh (meta-mor-fō-they), from which we get metamorphosis – or change.
So, what happened on that mountain six days after a conversation about suffering and death? Something. It’s hard to say, except by repeating the words that we read there. The appearance of Jesus’ face changed. What they were used to seeing they no longer saw, and something they hadn’t seen before suddenly became evident to their frightened eyes. And what did they see? Something well-nigh indescribable. Luckily, there were aids to their seeing all around them to help them define what it was that had happened in front of them.
First of all, there were those other guys. Luke says it was Moses and Elijah. I always wondered how they knew who it was. Did they come with name tags? Were there prompters running around with signs? Or was it one of those “they just knew” kind of things? Maybe Moses had his famous staff - the staff by which he parted the sea and then struck the rock to get water. Maybe Elijah had his wilderness clothes on, a John the Baptist motif that showed he was a man of the desert, a man uneasy with so-called human civilization. Maybe it was a wild look in his eyes. Maybe Jesus called them by name when they appeared. We don’t know, because not a lot of attention is paid to the two of them. They were there as props; they were scenery for the lead actor; they were in supporting roles on this day. It wasn’t about them. They represented the law and the prophets, the story of the people of God, the heights of the Chosen People. But they were there to draw attention to the one who was the Word of God, who was the Presence of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Luke is the only one who spoke of the conversation among the glowing figures on the mountaintop. They appeared in glory too, did you notice that? It wasn’t just Jesus; they glowed too. But it was the conversation that drew Luke’s attention. They were there to talk about Jesus’ departure – checking his ticket, reminding him of the security details, perhaps, no liquids, take all the metals out of his pockets, take off his shoes (Moses said that, I would think). Moses knew about taking off shoes. No, maybe it was something else. Something more. Departure in Greek here is ἔξοδον or “exodus”. Moses knew about exoduses. Exodi? He knew what it was to change everything he knew and everything he was, even for an uncertain future. He knew how to embrace that change even through fear.
That seems to be what this odd little moment on top of the mountain was all about – embracing the change, trusting in the one who brings us through, more than that, who calls us to change, to become more. To become like Jesus. At least that was what it seemed like the voice was saying. The voice that spoke because Peter got the lines wrong. Peter wanted to stand against change. “Let’s set up camp here,” Peter said. “Let’s just sit; let’s just be; let’s dig in our heels and hold on to this moment because who knows what the next one will bring. Let us make a declaration that our understanding should never change. We’ve come this far, aren’t we there yet?” “No,” the voice says, “You’ve got a way to go yet. You are still becoming.” “Becoming what,” we ask? Becoming him. This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him. Pay attention to the change. To the metamorphosis.
In what context do we usually use the word metamorphosis? I remember science class, and we were talking about butterflies – the process of changing from a rather ugly wormlike caterpillar into the fragile but breathtakingly beautiful butterfly is metamorphosis, or change. Or maybe it was in earth science, and we are talking about metamorphic rock. Melted by the heat of the earth’s core, the rock flows from one form into another. But here’s the question: “Which is the true form of the rock or the creature? Or is the before and the after both a part of the whole? Is it a matter of perspective and a matter of timing?” Where you are and when you are allows you to see one truth as opposed to another.
What happened on that mountain was not so much a change into something different, but a revealing of the essence of the one who was changed. Jesus became who he was on that mountain, even though he was who he was as he climbed up and then down again. He is always who he is. He is always present in the fullness of his being. We can see only a part of him, the part we need at any given moment. We experience only a piece, a dimension of the reality that is the Christ. And we get used to that; it becomes familiar to us.
But every now and then, we catch a glimpse of something larger, something deeper and more profound. Every now and then, we hear a word that reverberates in our soul for weeks, if not a lifetime. Every now and then, a tear comes to our eye as we stand on the precipice of glory. Every now and then, a lump comes to our throat as we encounter the depths of love and sacrifice. Every now and then, we climb a mountain and see what it is that we are following in what is most often the darkness of this life. Every now and then, we move a little closer, grow a little taller, and listen a little better. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of the appearance of his face. And all we see is love – love so deep he would die for the object of that love; love so powerful everything is changed by that love; love that goes on and on, even through our own inconstancy, our wavering acceptance and application of that love. In him, we see a love that never ends.