What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.
So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?
First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.
Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.
Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:
Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)
Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”
Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”
“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.” “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”
This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.
Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.
What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.
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