The Transfiguration of Jesus
August 6, 2017
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99 or 99:5-9, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36
One of my few vivid memories of Kindergarten was spilling orange juice on myself repeatedly. I learned very quickly that humiliating myself was something to be avoided at all costs, so I worked hard to make sure those kind of things never happened again. Yet, there I was, 23 years old, at the retreat in the Diocese of Atlanta to determine if I would be accepted as a Postulant for Holy Orders, when as I was finishing dinner on the first night I spilled coffee all over myself. I had to go change my pants! Talk about humiliation!
So you can imagine my surprise to hear Fr. Richard Rohr say that he prays for two or three humiliations every day! He had turned his humiliations into a spiritual practice of acceptance of who he really is while dropping the puffing up of the ego!
Peter leaves the boat and the nets and follows Jesus and we say: wow, he must really be holy—a real spiritual giant. But there is another way to look at this: maybe Peter is desperate for any chance to escape the smell of dead fish! Maybe he sees Jesus as his ticket out of his humiliating life, like those who attach themselves to the wagon of the hottest movie star or politician or TV preacher. Maybe Jesus will take Peter into fame and glory!
Peter is you and me, of course, because everyone, or at least everyone I know, including myself, starts the religious life hoping Jesus will take them away from humiliations and into success and peace. We first join a church or start reading our Bibles not for God’s sake, but for self’s sake, in order to find comfort for our damaged dreams and bruised egos.
Maybe Peter is in love with what is called a theology of glory. He wants to see God wiping out his enemies, restoring the fortunes of Zion, and the fortunes of Peter for everyone to see. Peter wants to see Jesus in his glory, so Peter can bask in that bright light.
And what do you know—today his dream appears to come true: Jesus invites just him, James, and John, up on the mountain to pray. The other 9 apostles, including his little brother Andrew, have to stay in the valley with the poor, the sick, the huddled masses.
Then Jesus receives a mystical experience that transforms his face and clothes. And not only that–the two great heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets of Israel show up.
Peter thinks: “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
Yeah, baby! Mystical lights and Biblical heroes and even a luminous cloud of the presence of God.
I have to believe that Peter had given up hoping for something like this after all those days of dealing with the sick and the poor, with the ordinary and the sub-ordinary people—the no counts and the losers!
Now finally, here on the mountain top everything, everything, everything he has dreamed of! Of course Peter wants to build shelters for the three, so he can keep this moment alive, show it off to his friends, and, who know, maybe charge admission.
And it’s not only Peter who is beside himself with joy: James and John, who Jesus named the the Sons of thunder, see Mark 3:16, are the ones you remember who get their mother to ask Jesus that her boys get camera time on CNN as they sit on their thrones right next to Jesus.
Yeah, Baby, bring it on! That’s what I’m talking about!
Finally, Jesus will attract really big crowds of the really important people!!!
If you build the church on glory the people will come! The people will most definitely come.”
So the church, after it is co-opted by the emperor Constantine in 313 AD by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, sets out to build churches that reflect this theology of Glory: Let’s build a St. Peter’s Church in Rome, the biggest church in the world. Let’s build the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in the Upper West side of New York—the biggest church in the U.S.
People want glory so let’s show them how prosperous and successful we are and the people will surely come—especially the right people who have lots of money and who can appreciate the finer things in life.
Forget the cross—its Transfiguration all the time!
But here’s the thing: The Transfiguration doesn’t negate the cross, it reveals the One who is on the cross as the One who connects us to God’s Life.
The Transfiguration doesn’t call us to pursue our own glory, but to pursue the One who empties himself of glory for us. As the voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
Immediately before they go up the mountain Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed. But Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for talking such nonsense, so then Jesus rebukes Peter and says “Get behind me, Satan!”
The only glory for Jesus is going to be his self-emptying on the cross for the salvation of the whole world! And the only glory for Peter, James, John will be their self-emptying for the love of God and neighbor.
Then Jesus says to all of us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to “glorify” their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will “glorify” it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Luke 9:23-25
To the ego the way of glory is the only way! We are trained in this way from birth: Bring home good grades, be a star athlete, be better than the other kids, be self-sufficient, and never shame your family. This is the way of glory.
Yet we can’t help but notice that Jesus goes to those who have failed to find glory: the sick, the poor, the outcasts, the public sinners who have shamed their families. These are the ones he comes to save. This includes us because we all fall short of perfection, and we often fall into the practice of hiding our failures and proclaiming our successes, of hiding our age and proclaiming our youthfulness, of hiding our inner poverty and proclaiming our outer wealth.
We walk the way of Glory until the wheels fall off our wagon. Then we are in position to fall into the hands of the Crucified One who loves us and gives himself to us and calls us to follow him on the Way of the Cross.
After Jesus’ arrest the cock crow pierces Peter’s illusion of self-sufficiency, like a child popping a soap bubble in the backyard, and Peter collapses in tears, bringing him to the place where trusting Jesus for everything is the only way out.
As Sister Ruth Burrows writes in her powerful small book, To Believe in Jesus, “To become a true disciple of Jesus means accepting a spirituality of the cross and renouncing a spirituality of glory….It has nothing to do with hard or easy in that sense. It has everything to do with seeking God and not self.” Page 27
Of course, the Way of the Cross is possible only as Jesus walks the Way in us. We can’t do it on our own nor is it one more thing for the ego to get good at. It is the free gift from God, ready to be opened by all those who have hear the cock crow.
You and I do not have a choice whether or not we will die.
We do have a choice, however, whether or not we will truly live. The way of glory creates all the messes in our lives because it is the way without God in control. The Way of the Cross surrenders our lives to our creator, so Christ’s love may shine through our humanity into the world.
When we wake up to our deep need for God in our lives then we, like Peter, will follow Jesus and listen to him…even if at this moment our only reason for following is that we are tired of the smell of dead fish.