Last Sunday of Epiphany Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, Philippians 3:7-14, Matthew 17:1-9
The concluding scene of Star Wars Episode 4, A New Hope, is the glorious reward ceremony for the unlikely war heroes; Luke Skywalker the farmer from nowhere, and Han Solo the smuggler who’s been everywhere. After destroying the Death Star and saving the Galaxy from the certain misery of unending oppression under the heel of the Empire, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca process before the members of the Rebel Alliance, now fully being recognized for the truth of heir identities as saviors and heroes. Gone is the grime and sweat of their flight suits and cockpits, and they stand transformed before the people, no longer just one of the many, not faces in the crowd, but decorated with accolades born of their strife and sacrifice.
Well, Luke and Han stand decorated. For some reason, Chewbacca was not given a medal. What’s up with that?
The stories that often grasp us most deeply are the ones where we are witnesses to the vindication of the hero, where the protagonist stands triumphant after overwhelming the obstacles set before them by the courage of their character and the guile of their talents. We, the audience, who have seen them throughout their story, share in their vindication, because we knew all along that despite appearances, their true identity was more glorious, more beautiful, and more triumphant, than anyone could have imagined.
This is because our stories are often mirrors for our deepest desires. If Luke Skywalker can rise from his humble state as a poor farmer to be the savior of the Galaxy, then what can I become? If Han Solo can turn away from his selfishness and embrace the call to serve others rather than himself, maybe I can have a chance to kiss a Princess? These stories are aspirational, they give us role models and narratives which we use to navigate our own lives and our place in the world. We are seeking to fulfill our own identities, to know who we are most truly, and share that identity most intimately.
That this revelation of the protagonist’s truest identity happens at the end of the story might tell us that we generally understand that we will only be known truly through suffering, as though nothing but strife and triumph can tell us who we really are. I mean, no one is giving Luke and Han a medal just for showing up. And they also didn’t give Chewbacca a medal for winning (Have I mentioned yet how weird that is?).
Today’s Gospel is a glimpse of the truth of who Jesus is. We should expect this revelation to happen after his crucifixion and resurrection, after the strife is over and the battle is won. The shining lights and cloud. The dazzling bright clothes and the voice from heaven. Witnesses who can share in this moment of vindication. Here we are shown, along with Peter, James, and John, the truth of who Jesus is.
In Matthew 16, Peter confesses that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of the Living God,” but this is a proclamation that, until this moment of Transfiguration, is easily confused for a political claim, for the Messiah of the Hebrews is first of all a warrior who saves people from oppression, overthrows the unjust, and rules with integrity and truth. The Transfiguration, the appearing of Jesus in glory, is the transformation of what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
For in our yearning for heroes we may think that Jesus in some sense earns the right to his resurrection by his suffering. Now, we probably wouldn’t say this out loud but we proclaim that truth when we think that it might be by our suffering, our enduring, our triumphing, our efforts, which will one day grant us a place in the new heavens and new earth. To put it another way, we may wrestle with whether we should pray or read scripture, gather for spiritual fellowship, or even come to the Lord’s Table, because of the things we have done or left undone. When we do this we have made Jesus a triumphant hero who earns his vindication, because we are living as though we have to earn ours.
The Transfiguration then is the moment where we are shown the truth of who Jesus is, and we see that his identity as the beloved Son of God is not a title that is earned, but is the central truth of who he always has been, and will always be.
This could be the end of the Gospel. We have heard Jesus’ teaching, and despite how challenging it is, how much we may fear loving our enemies, forgiving our debtors, living in chastity and not indulgence, devoting ourselves to give without expecting reward, to walk the narrow path as Jesus teaches, the Transfiguration leaves us without excuse. Truly these words of Christ are words to be obeyed, for God himself commanded on the mountain “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him”. This is enough of a conclusion to make us strive to live in according to his ways.
But this isn’t the ending of the Gospel. And to understand why, we would do well to consider some of the places this story points. For the story of the Scriptures isn’t like a hollywood film. It isn’t a heroes story, in which the virtuous and the strong overcome the enemy and save the day, which is very good news for us, or at least is is to me, because I am not much of a hero.
The Transfiguration echoes a moment in the story of the Exodus, God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery. After the ten plagues which God sent against the Egyptians Moses leads the people out of Egypt to meet with God where he gives them the Ten Commandments.
In Exodus 24 Moses brings Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu as well as seventy elders of Israel up to Sinai, the mountain where God’s glory dwells. Upon this mountain God will give to Moses tablets of stone upon which are written his laws. Those who were once slaves who lived under the injustice and cruelty of the Egyptians are given righteous and just laws by which they can escape the cycle of wickedness and oppression. These righteous rules from God constitute the identity of the people of God. So Moses goes up to the mountain, bringing witnesses, where God will hand to him his words in stone which all the people shall obey. A hollywood ending, in a sense, but not a Biblical one. Because while Moses is standing in the glory of the Lord, the people who have gathered at the foot of the mountain make for themselves an idol of gold and worship it. Despite the appearing of God as a devouring fire, the people show themselves to be so desperately broken that they cannot keep the faith for even a moment. They must have a deity who they can touch and see, they must have a god of their own making rather than the true God who saves.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a clear echo of this, with three representatives of the Apostles, who will become the elders, or Bishops, of the renewed People of God, going up with Jesus, who is like Moses as he will lead the people to their promised rest. But unlike Moses, Jesus does not receive the law of God on stone tablets, but rather it is announced that all people should listen to Jesus. For in Jesus is the true law of God found. No longer a record in rock, but a living Lord who will teach with gentleness and compassion, and show all who follow him the ways of God and the ways that lead to eternal life. That is by way of contrast. But even with these contrasts that show Christ to be a better kind of Moses, we will also see that the revelation of the heavenly glory will not keep these Apostles from attempting to find their own salvation, any more than the fire on Sinai kept Aaron for casting a golden calf.
For just as the cloud of glory over the mountain was the start of a journey which led to the Promised Land, the Transfiguration is the start of a journey which will lead to the Cross and resurrection. And dear Peter, who upon seeing the glory of Christ, and Moses, and Elijah, yearned to offer them a place to dwell, will soon deny ever knowing Jesus and abandoning him defenseless to the judgement of the council and Pilate. Moses coms down from the mountain to begin the wilderness journey. Jesus comes down from the mountain and enters the wilderness of his Passion, but as a superior to Moses he makes it through the other side. Moses dies before reaching the promised land, because he could not keep God’s word. But Jesus dies to pass through the final wilderness, the wilderness of death, to rise victorious over the misery of the sin which had put him in the tomb, the victorious Word of God who conquers the sin which for so long had kept the multitudes of the people of earth from entering the wonderful Kingdom of Heaven for which they were intended.
The Transfiguration of Christ adds to the scandal of the Cross, because by witnessing it the Apostles ought to have had more faith, to have stayed with him in his suffering. These moments of revelation, we might think, will change us deep down inside. But if the appearing of the Glory of God was not enough to cause the people of God to keep the Law, then sure enough it will not be enough to keep us faithful to Jesus. We ought to acknowledge Christ as our Lord but we do not, in so many ways. And yet, despite our rejection of him, he does not reject us, but suffers our contempt and then comes again to meet us in the cowering dark places where we have hidden ourselves, believing that we blew it, but he stands before us alive, God’s beloved Son, who will extend to us his beloved-ness and make us his sisters and brothers, to share in the delight of God’s love.
It is this delight which is at the root of Saint Paul’s faith, where he says that Christ has made him his own. Paul mercilessly persecuted Jesus Christ, and yet Jesus appeared to him and called him to follow. That love which triumphed over many sins so captivated Paul that he would follow Jesus no matter the cost, even suffering as Jesus suffered, so that he might be brought into the the new heavens and new earth, attaining the resurrection of the dead.
That delight can be ours too, today.
Today as we celebrate the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood may the eyes of our faith behold this simple scene of bread and wine, and see instead the truth that this is the resurrected Christ’s invitation to have fellowship with him. Just as he ate with Saint Peter after he denied him, and just as he called Paul who murdered his disciples, the same Jesus appears in our midst having suffered because of our sins, but triumphant and standing before us. We do not come to the Table of the Lord to receive a reward for having overcome the obstacles and having proven our character as heroes of our own stories. We come because Jesus is alive, and despite whatever it is that we did or did not do, he will speak his word to us and lead us who follow in faith to everlasting life.