You dare to get in my way?
I called you to follow.
Now you act as my adversary?
Get back behind me.
Do not presume to try and lead me.
You do not know where I am going.
Now, having been subjected to that little tirade, imagine the worst possible death that you can imagine.
We might think of many things:
The “Big C”, cancer, which took my father-in-law before I ever really knew him.
Dementia of many kinds, one of which affected my Nan so she didn’t know me.
Each of us could, I am sure, think of those kinds of death we would think particularly despicable.
Imagine that you were asked in some way to grasp that kind of death in a personal way.
That someone suggested your faith meant personally embracing such a death.
That is what Jesus has suggested to his many disciples just before the Gospel reading we heard this morning.
Six days before.
According to Matthew’s text.
It is one of the risks of the lectionary that pieces of scripture become separated from their wider context.
To really start getting a grip on the transfiguration, that long and fancy title given to the passage we have just heard, I believe we first need to understand what has happened just before.
Or at least 6 days before.
And we can be pretty certain they are events the disciples, especially Peter, would not be forgetting in a hurry.
Jesus and his disciples have been in Caesarea Philippi, in the northern part of Palestine.
For all that Matthew tells us they may still be in that region at the time of the events on the high mountain, for there are mountains in that region.
While there Jesus has asked who people think he is.
And he has been told, “A resurrected John the Baptist”, “Elijah”, “Jeremiah”.
Then he has asked who his disciples think he is.
Simon says, “The Christ.”
Or “The Messiah”.
The Anointed One.
According to Matthew he even uses the phrase “Son of God”.
For which he is named “The Rock”, upon which the church will be built.
Peter must have been walking on air after that.
Here’s this fisherman, walking all over the country, following his teacher wherever he goes.
He finally feels like he’s got a grip on things, on what his teacher is trying to teach him.
And there’s going to be a kingdom.
And he’s going to have the keys to it.
Then Jesus starts going on about what is to come.
About going to Jerusalem, and suffering, and death.
This is the Messiah, the King.
“Jesus, you can’t be saying things like that.
You’ll start scaring people.
You’re starting to scare me!”
From high to low in such quick succession.
Gatekeeper one moment.
Adversary the next.
And, as if that is not enough, Jesus goes on.
He goes on by telling those listening to him that if they are to keep following him they must associate their life with a death considered the ultimate humiliation and degradation – crucifixion!
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
I wonder, given what we now know, whether those words of Jesus, said so shortly before the events we heard about this morning, ever really have the impact on us that they had on those who first heard them.
And so we come to this morning’s passage.
“Finally!” you’re probably thinking.
But I am convinced that we cannot dig deep into this morning’s passage, without having first considering the preceding passage.
So, here are the disciples.
Jesus has recently accused his close friend and disciple, Peter, of being Satan.
He has started talking about needing to carry an emblem of humiliation and personal devastation as a necessary part of their faith in the man they believe to be the Messiah.
We can possibly only imagine how confused, how challenged, how close to desertion, the disciples are.
And Jesus takes Simon Peter, both the Rock and the adversary, and he takes James and John, and they head up the mountainside.
And there, on the mountain, they receive a revelation. Before their very eyes Jesus is “transfigured”.
I could spend an age talking about what that word means.
About the word used in the original Greek and the theories of purpose attached to it.
About what they actually saw, and what physically happened to Jesus.
About whether what they saw was simply a vision, or a reality.
And it’s that last point I want to consider for a moment.
Peter, in his letter, is absolutely certain that what they saw was real.
The funny detail about Peter offering to make tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah adds to the feeling that what they saw felt very real.
And it is a funny detail.
Peter’s embarrassment in telling it to people in future must have been quite acute I think:
What happened was.
We went up the mountain.
And Jesus turned all bright and shining.
No, really, he did.
And Moses and Elijah were there.
I don’t know how I knew they were Moses and Elijah.
I just knew.
And I had this urge to build them shelters.
And what do I do?
Do I ask some great question about God?
Or the Law?
I offer to build them some shelters.
Boy, did I get some stick for that from James and John afterwards!”
It was a daft thing to do.
If it was made up it seems a strange thing to make up.
If it didn’t feel real, if he didn’t think they were really there, then it seems a strange reaction.
I don’t know what really happened on that mountaintop.
How can any of us?
But those points do make me stop and think when doubts enter my mind about the reality of the event.
And the reality of it seems important.
Because we need to respond to Christ’s transfiguration in the real world, in the world we live in.
I don’t know about you but that world can sometimes seem so dark.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the darkness abound in various places.
When earthquakes strike;
When leaders are reported to have used military violence against those they supposedly lead;
Where there is destruction, and death, and violence, and suffering;
It seems natural to me that in these situations we begin asking ourselves, “Where is God in all this? Where is Christ, who died and was raised for our salvation?”
Well, here’s one answer that you might want to think about.
When we see those who suffer, who are in distress, who are in pain, who die as innocents at the hands of either natural disaster or human madness, Christ is there.
You don’t, I would imagine, need pictures of that described to you. I’m sure we’ve all seen enough of them over the past couple of weeks, whether from Libya, or New Zealand, or from elsewhere in the world.
Maybe the picture in your head is much closer to home.
When you picture all that suffering and confusion and turmoil it is understandable that we, like Peter, want to say “Stop! This is unreal! This is not the way it is supposed to be!”
And the response is, “No, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but nonetheless it is the way it really is.” In his predictions of death, a death of humiliation and pain, Jesus is not saying such a death is the way it is supposed to be.
Rather he is saying, “This is the way it must be, for this is the way it really is. This is what the reality of the world makes inevitable.”
In the pain and suffering of others:
In the cancer and dementia, the starvation and thirst, the violence and the natural disaster, we see an imperfect world in which Jesus’ passion, the passion we will be thinking about over the coming weeks of Lent and Holy Week, is lived out daily.
A constant reminder that the world is not as God would truly desire it.
And Christ is there in that suffering.
And in the face of such a world as this how do we keep faith?
If Christ had only predicted suffering and death.
If Christ had only preached the hard truths.
If Christ had only died.
There would be no hope.
Yet Christ brought healing.
He preached good news.
He was resurrected.
And at one of the darkest moments he offered his disciples a real glimpse of what was to come.
As we watch the pictures of the Middle-East we see photos of groups of Muslims and Christians offering physical protection as the other prays:
the Egyptian Muslims attending church celebrations on Christmas Eve to protect their Coptic friends from extremist bombers;
the Egyptian Christians encircling Friday prayers in Tahrir Square to protect their Muslim friends from Pro-Mubarak protestors;
even in the midst of the uncertainties and mess of Libya there is news of people offering hope where such possibilities seem almost nonsensical.
And in New Zealand the response to the earthquake was incredible.
I watched it unfold on Twitter and from the first moment tweet after tweet came in:
Tweets offering news of safe places in Christchurch;
Tweets offering immediate help.
And then, once the immediate effects were being dealt with, came the wave of tweet, after tweet, after tweet:
of people offering beds for however long they were needed;
of airlines offering flights at well-below cost to get people to where the beds were available;
of people offering to drive 100s of miles out of their way to get people to where they felt they needed to be.
Anyone of us who has experienced the pain of life has, I hope, also tales of hope within that pain:
the nurses who offered humour in the midst of painful chemo;
the carer who showed photos everyday just to try and keep the memory fresh;
the friend who offered space for tears in the midst of a marital break-up;
the open, welcoming and warm space offered to someone without a home.
All of these and more are God’s continuing signs of transfiguration in the world.
Our decision to follow Christ is one that must require an acceptance that the reality of the world is one that features pain, and suffering, and even death.
Yet God also recognises that if that were all we had to experience then we would swiftly lose all hope.
The first disciples, on that mountaintop, in the midst of their fading enthusiasm, were given a vision of the coming glory.
As we turn to begin our annual focus on the continual passion of Christ it is pertinent that we, just as the disciples were, are reminded of the hope Christ brings,
through both his death,
and his resurrection,
that things will not always be this way.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear we will not only see Christ’s Passion lived out in the world around us but also glimpses of the reality of his glory.
We will be able to share in transfiguration moments.
The way is tough and challenging.
But the destination is glorious.
One day the whole world will be transfigured, transformed, renewed.
Glimpse by glimpse, tweet by tweet, person by person we see it.
“Jesus came and touched them, saying ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
Sermon: St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Outwell in the Fens Circuit
Sunday before Lent (Transfiguration Sunday) 2011
2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9