The Transfiguration of Our Lord
A sermon by Bishop Joel Marcus Johnson, Rector of St. Andrew's in Easton, and Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of the Chesapeake.
The Lesson: Exodus 34:29
The Psalm: 27, Dominus Illuminatio
The Epistle: II St. Peter 1:13
The Holy Gospel: St. Luke 9:28
+In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
¶Poor Peter. He had to decide which mountain he wanted most, whether Mount Tabor or Mount Calvary. As James and John went with him to Jesus’ prayers on Mount Tabor, the brothers still were smarting from the fresh humiliation of their mother having begged Jesus for thrones to be bestowed upon them; they were in no position to side with Peter in his argument against the Lord’s revelation to the twelve of his impending Passion. Fervent in denial, Peter’s expectations were heightened on the suddenly fashionable Tabor.
¶As the Lord Jesus prayed there, he was transfigured, or, as Matthew and Mark put it in the Greek, he was metamorphosed. Their description of Jesus’ altered countenance was so intense that King James’ word smiths had to coin a term to describe it: glistering.
¶Understand, this was no miracle, but the sighting of the Lord’s normal appearance, the veil of his humanity momentarily lifted; the robe of flesh clothing the Word who had chosen to be numbered among the transgressors here parted to reveal Very God. No, there was no light shining upon Jesus, but his deity radiating from within. This was how Moses and Elias had seen Jesus, the vision glorious which they had known in him.
¶Then, just as the Father and the Holy Ghost had joined Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry, at his Baptism, so now did they join him at its close, the Three Persons of the Holy and Undivided Trinity revealed in the same place and time. The Father again spoke from heaven of his pleasure in the Only-Begotten Son; and just as the Holy Ghost had appeared at the Jordan mikvah as a dove, so now did he come in the cloud to be present with this holy Jesus, whom these prophets had known intimately through the Spirit’s vision bestowed upon them.
¶Why in particular was Jesus joined by Moses and Elias? Simply said, it is because he was the fulfillment of everything they had taught: the Messiah, the Chosen One of Israel whom they had known through the revelation of the Holy Ghost, Moses having delivered the Law, Elias the chief of the prophets. But if you want it said a little more complex, they were ‘types’ of the Messiah. By ‘type’, I do not mean they were sort of or kind of like messiahs, but that by their beings and teachings they had ‘resembled’ one like them but so much greater. God had revealed this much to Moses: "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him." (Deuteronomy 18:18)
¶Moses, in the closing moments of his leadership, participated in the most telling prophecy yet of the Saviour, when instructed by God to strike the rock which had followed them. "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly...." (Numbers 20:10) Now, this rock actually was the presence of Christ among the people of Israel, the water from it the symbol of his precious blood. We know this because St. Paul teaches us, "[They] all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ." (I Corinthians 10:4)
¶There is a very peculiar fact about the water from that rock. It is described by a strange Hebrew word, which transliteratesmeribah, translating as the water of strife, or the water of contradiction. It bespeaks the never ceasing stream of grace from God to his people, even in their most rebellious and contentious moments against him.
¶Elias, Elijah if you prefer, was known as the chief and greatest of prophets, and especially because he was drawn up into heaven by a flaming chariot via a whirlwind. Many Jews (and remember that Judaism, then as now, was a multi-sectarian religion) considered Elias to have been a prophet in a sense so great that he was a messiah, and who, because he departed this world alive, could return alive. Some Jews today believe he will return again. In fact, there is even a Christian tradition that he will precede Christ’s return, his purpose to convert the Lord’s own Jewish people, and then their rabbis!
¶The Archangel Gabriel would comfort old Zacharias by likening his son St. John Baptist to Elias: "Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (St. Luke 1:16) You may recall, in fact, that the priests and levites thought John to be Elias returned. (St. John 1:19)
¶So now, can you imagine how raced the hearts of Peter, James and John? You would have thought that on the holy mount they had learned so much of the Cross when hearing God in Christ, with the Law and the Prophets, speaking of "his decease," of his redemption of the world; and of the joyous joining there of the Father and the Holy Ghost! I must believe that the brothers, the sons of Zebedee, had taken it in, because merely a few years would pass after Jesus "decease" that the courageous James would be the first Apostle to witness for the Lord Jesus in martyrdom; and John, seasoned by time so many years later, would receive the apocalyptic Revelation. You and I know that Peter would wholly understand these things only after Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, and especially at Pentecost.
¶But, my beloved, not today. As I have told you that Peter was fervent to deny Jesus’ foretelling of his Passion, his expectations for a bloodless Christianity were heightened on this day. And I have told you also that Peter was torn over which mountain to choose: The romantic garden spot of Tabor, or the stinking, blood-sodden rot of Calvary, where, by an old Jewish myth, was buried the skull of Adam.
¶So Peter desperately appeals to his seeming fatalistic Lord to build three shrines here, for each of the nobility in the cloud. He thinks he can prompt God in Christ into self-aggrandizement. Satan has tried this before, hasn’t he? And Jesus had called Peter ‘Satan’ in another event, hadn’t he? "He turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men." (St. Matthew 16:23)
¶No way the Cross! Peter wants a bloodless Christianity, a religion vacant of struggle against sin and the way of death. He wants a religion of Mount Tabor, not a religion of Mount Calvary.
¶The unconverted spirit of the old Peter is alive and well today, in the Church of Social Cachet, the Church of Sentimental Footsteps Carrying Us on the Beach, in the Church of The Success Culture, and in the Church of Sexual License and Better Bowling Scores: Such as these Jesus calls the church of the whited sepulchre, the churches "that be of men." It is a Mount Tabor Christianity with benign shrines. But the religion to which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, calls us is that of Mount Calvary.
¶You see on Mount Tabor what you should want to see forever, the radiance of his face (....it’s all right, go ahead, look at him in Cimabüe’s crucifix over the altar, gaze into his loving eyes), that face which in weeks after Tabor will bear the thorny crown of ignominy, soon to be "sore wounded"; spattered with blood beaten out of him by the Roman guards, the same blood’s Real Presence on our Altar this holy day and every Sunday, each Sunday a little Easter. And look today on his glistering raiment, because you won’t see it on Mount Calvary, stripped away to reveal him, in Wesley’s words inspired by St. Paul, "robed in flesh, our great high priest," that flesh which had been the tabernacle of his divinity, which had come among us, full of Grace and Truth.
¶You know how I am forever telling you that your religion must be as intensely practical as it is mystical. As with all else, even the Transfiguration of Our Lord must speak to your heart.
¶Mine? On August 6, 1963, I paused for a few days at The Abbey of St. John the Baptist at Collegeville, Minnesota. (I know the arithmetic is a mystery to you young people, who have always known that I am only thirty-nine years old.) In those days, St. John’s was the most populous Benedictine monastery in the world. Well, I was en route to my undergraduate experience in Chicago and needed a few days of prayer. So, at the Abbey on this day, the Feast of The Transfiguration of Our Lord, I thought to myself: Goodness, it looks more like Easter, so decked out in flowers and lights, ebullient to the ear in joyous chant!
¶I asked my old friend the choirmaster, Fr. Gerard Farrell, of blessed memory, how this could be. And he replied in such a way that I was reminded of the passage from the Revelation to St. John which we always read on All Saints’ Day. "These are they," he began, "who’ve seen death beyond measure, and who’ve fled to Jesus, because they know he’s the only one who can make sense out of Calvary, to know the one who died there, who’s still alive."
¶Well, you know, I was a kid, and I’d thought every monk was some kind of world-wise sophisticate like Thomas Merton. But Fr. Gerard explained to me that most of the monks were farmers or common labourers, ordinary people like you and I, who either had enlisted or were drafted into two world wars. For them, there was no Mount Tabor to which to return. They wanted, they lived for, the life-giving religion of Calvary, knowing this is the place from which Jesus saves!
¶You see, just as Peter would have to decide whether to choose Tabor or Calvary — rather, whether his would be the Christianity of Peter or Jesus — you and I must decide, too. The old Peter’s path is to one hell of a realm of materialism where you fret over the meaningless vintage of your failure to redeem yourself; whereas the other by simple humility and submission will lead you to the royal wine of heaven. Simple as that!
¶My beloved, given that St. Andrew’s faces some serious days ahead, I tell you we’re going to succeed because we have chosen the right mountain. We will stand some ridicule because we have chosen not to imitate the world’s vision of the Church, but because we have chosen Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and so his salvation and sacrifice as the mission and message of his Church. One day, rich or poor in the world’s sense, we’ll be able to answer to the Lord Jesus in his Day of Judgement.
¶But listen, as Peter was transformed, so shall we be transformed; Christ changes all things and all persons who come to him. For here’s what Peter wrote years later of the Transfiguration. Please read it aloud, and listen not only for the sublime poetry; but understand this same Jesus can touch your heart, too.
¶"We had been eye-witnesses of His exaltation. Such honor, such glory was bestowed on Him by God the Father, that a voice came to Him out of splendour which dazzles human eyes. This, it said, is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased..... We, his companions on the holy mountain, heard that voice coming from heaven, and now the word of the prophets gives us more confidence than ever. It is with good reason that you are paying so much attention to that Word: It will go on shining, like a lamp in some darkened room, until the dawn breaks, and the day star rises in your hearts." (II Peter 1:16-19; tr. Ronald Knox.)
+Joel Marcus Johnson, Chesapeake