Feast Day: The Transfiguration
Readings: 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet 1:16)
On this feast day of The Transfiguration, when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain and they saw with their own eyes the unspeakable glory of Christ, we are reminded that the God Christians worship requires witnesses. Which is rather strange because Christian and non-Christian alike tend to assume that any god worth believing in should not have to depend on witnesses to be made known (Hauerwas). That any god worth his or her salt would be obviously known, either through introspection—examining ourselves—or by observing the world around us. Consequently, if the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead requires witnesses in order to be known then this God is viewed with suspicion.
Yet the God that Christians worship does, as I’ve said, require witnesses precisely because the God that Christians worship is not some general principle that can be deduced from the created world but is the particular Jesus Christ.
And so St. Peter, writing to a group of new Christians reminds them that the faith they have received is founded upon the testimony of Peter and the other apostles who themselves were “eyewitnesses of his majesty,” (2 Pe 1:16). “For he,” says Peter, “received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain,” (2 Pe 1:17-18).
Peter is here recalling the experience he shared with James and John when Jesus took them up the mountain and they were given a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white—he was, transfigured. And Peter, James, and John, though they were very tired, stayed awake and thus saw his glory revealed.
This vision is then interpreted by the voice from the cloud, the voice of the Father: “This is my Son, my Beloved: listen to him!” (Lk 9:35). And this is really the climax of the whole event. The whole point of this episode is that for a moment the veil is pulled back and the disciples recognize God’s own glory hidden in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This voice of affirmation means that all we need to know about God is discovered in Jesus Christ and that we cannot know God apart from Christ. The voice means that God the Father wants us to reverence and adore His Son more than anything else in the world.
What I want to say to you this morning is that the Christian life is about beholding Jesus Christ in glory and being drawn into that mystery. As Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” To be a Christian is to be made an eyewitness of the glory of Christ and so to be given a new direction and purpose in life.
The question then is how does this happen today for those of us who are so far removed geographically and temporally from that mountain? How is it that we come to see Christ in glory so that we are transformed as individuals and as a community that is then capable of bearing witness to Christ here in the parish of Midhurst and Craighurst?
I believe that our reading from St. Luke points us to two ways in particular that the risen and living Jesus Christ reveals himself to those who seek him by faith: prayer and the reading of Scripture.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Everywhere in the gospels Jesus is praying: going apart from the crowds to pray, encouraging and teaching his disciples to pray, and the author of Hebrews tells us that even now Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven where he “lives to make intercession” for us—praying for us and praying with us.
We cannot know Christ apart from knowing him in prayer. Anglicans should know this because at the centre of our tradition stands one of the greatest written works that the English language has ever known, the Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book is not simply a manual for Sunday worship but is rather a whole world of prayer that we are invited to enter into through a living and active engagement with Holy Scripture. The Prayer Book contains prayers for everything, from birth to baptism to rogation days to marriage to death and more. From Holy Communion to the rhythm of the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. And the backbone of all of this is Scripture, especially the Psalms, but also the reading of vast portions of the Old and New Testament each day. The point is that our whole life is saturated in prayer so that we might know Christ in the 166.5 hours of the week that are not Sunday morning.
My hope for us here at St. Paul’s/John’s is that prayer would more and more inform the rhythm of our daily life. Personally, I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day. It is a priest’s duty to do so but more than that I have come to delight in it. And I want you to know that I will be praying for you all on a regular basis. One of the things that I hope to establish soon in our parish is a schedule of morning and evening prayer at both St. Paul’s and St. John’s. I am not sure what it will look like just yet and attendance will not be required, of course. But I want us to be a church that is known to pray and to pray often. And more than that, to be a church that prays with the faith that in prayer we meet Jesus Christ and come to know him more fully.
I am convinced that this is critical not only for each of us individually but for our parish. I know that there has been a good deal of uncertainty around these parts in the last couple of years. I know that this uncertainty has bred anxiety and even, perhaps, some animosity. I do not know what the future holds but I do know that we have no future apart from prayer, because we have no future apart from Christ who meets us there.
Holy Scripture is another place that we meet the risen Christ and are shown his glory. As Jesus is transfigured on the mountain suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with him about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. That is, they were speaking about Christ’s Passion, that whole movement of his death, resurrection, and ascension whereby God would save the world from sin and death and begin to renew all things in Christ.
Moses and Elijah are representative of the Law and the Prophets, that is, they represent the Old Testament in its entirety. And here is the point that the earliest Christians knew well, the whole Old Testament speaks of the mystery of Christ’s Passion. Recall that at the end of Luke’s gospel the risen Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus and what does he do but, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures,” (24:27).
We read the Bible for all sorts of reasons. We might approach the Bible as an interesting if not odd (and sometimes embarrassing) piece of ancient history. Or we might read the Bible as if it were a metaphor or allegory, believing that it contains a few nuggets of wisdom for living a moral life. Preachers are not immune from this either which is why so many churches have to bear with insufferable sermons each week.
Partly because we are good Modernists most of us have not been encouraged to come to Holy Scripture to find Christ there. Yet this is precisely how the the earliest Christians, and Christians for most of history came to the Scriptures. Not to learn a bit about ancient history or to hear some encouraging stories or to find a blueprint for a respectable and decent life. No, rather they came to the Scriptures to find the risen and living Christ there. To see him and to hear him. To borrow an image from last weeks’ gospel reading, Christ is the pearl of great price hidden in the field of Scripture. We read Scripture to search for and find him.
What difference would it make to our common life here at St. Paul’s/John’s if we approached prayer and the Bible with the faith that just there we encounter the risen and living Jesus Christ? To pray and to read the Bible with such a faith is what it means to “stay awake,” as Peter, James, and John did. And if we like them are able to resist the temptation to fall asleep we too will be shown Christ’s glory.
Recently Pope Francis said, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”
However long we’ve been around, however much we think we know, Christ Jesus invites us to encounter him anew personally each day. So as we pray and as we read Scripture and hear it proclaimed let us come with the faith that the risen and living Jesus Christ will encounter us there and we will behold his beauty. And let us do this together that we with Peter, James, and John may be made eyewitnesses of his majesty for the sake of a watching world. Amen.