Sermon for August 6, 2023 The Transfiguration
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99:5-9, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36
By the Rev. Dr. Kim McNamara
This morning we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. All of the Gospel writers except John describe the Transfiguration and the details of the event are consistent in each telling of the story. Jesus took Peter, John, and James up to a mountain. While on the mountain, the three disciples were astonished and terrified to see Jesus transfigured before them. His clothes became an unearthly and dazzling white and they observed Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses. A cloud overshadowed all of them and a voice spoke from the clouds. “This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!” Suddenly, the three disciples found themselves left standing alone with Jesus. Elijah and Moses were gone. It was as if nothing had happened, except the three disciples knew something amazing had happened.
While this story is short, it is full of symbolism; both for the people who were with Jesus, as well as for those of us who would come years after. Biblical scholars describe The Transfiguration as one of the five major milestones in the gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, the others being his Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Of these five events, Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration “the greatest miracle” in that it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.
Transfiguration is described as an outward, visible, and complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. Contrasting the concept of transfiguration with transformation provides a distinction between the two. Transfiguration is an outward and visible change; a change others see, even if the one who has been transfigured cannot. Thus, transfiguration makes a powerful impact on those who witness the event. The concept of transformation deals with a change from within. Jesus was not transformed. Jesus stayed himself. However, his disciples saw him transfigured. What they saw changed them and might have even transformed them. The event certainly transformed their understanding of Jesus.
The timeline of the Transfiguration of Jesus is important as it occurs several days after Jesus tells his disciples he must go to the City of Jerusalem, where his fate and destiny await him. Jesus tells them he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and then killed. The disciples, especially Peter, had argued with Jesus. “You do not need to do this!” Earlier, Jesus had asked his disciples to tell him who they thought he was. Some said he was John the Baptist; and others thought he was Elijah or one of the prophets. Peter, however, believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. After the Transfiguration, Peter was certain. Peter knew then that Jesus, the Messiah, did have to go to Jerusalem.
In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment. The setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. The Transfiguration pierces the veil between Man and God, Earth and Heaven. Jesus emerges transfigured, marking the transition between the Son of Man and the Son of God; between the earthly work Jesus and the disciples have been doing in Galilee and the events that will take place in the weeks leading up to the cross.
That Moses and Elijah have joined Jesus in his Transfiguration is significant. Moses, associated with the law, and Elijah with the prophets, both appear talking with Christ, the source of the gospel. The image of the three together demonstrates their mutual connections. Moses and Elijah meet in Jesus Christ; he is the connecting link between the law and the prophets, between the Old and New Testaments, between the present and the future. It is also significant that at the end of the scene the disciples are left alone with Jesus. Moses and Elijah, the law and the promise, pass away; the gospel, the fulfillment, the Messiah, remains.
This is not the first transfiguration the Bible tells us about. In our reading from Exodus, Moses experiences his own transfiguration after spending forty days with God on Mount Sinai. As Moses returns to his people bringing the Ten Commandments with him, his friends and family notice the skin of his face is shining. His face was shining so brightly, his people were afraid. He had to cover his face with a veil so they could look at him. Although Moses did not know his face was shining, he was transfigured in the eyes of his people. From then on, everyone would know when Moses had been talking with God as his face would shine brightly each time. Even though they were afraid of his shining face, they were certain Moses had a direct relationship with God.
The transfiguration stories are seen from the point of view of the onlookers; onlookers whose clumsy reactions reflect their wonder, terror, and confusion. Peter seems to be seeking assurance that seeing his teacher all lit up and talking with Moses and Elijah is a good thing. “Master, it is good for us to be here,” seems to end in a question. “Right?” When Peter stumbles upon an idea. “Let’s build three dwellings.” We wonder if he would also like to build a ticket booth. Yet, given Peter’s previous attempts to keep Jesus safe at home in Galilee, perhaps he thinks he has found a way to convince Jesus to stay. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” In other words, “better here than on the road to Jerusalem.”
As we study the Transfiguration, it is tempting to conclude that Transfigurations only happened in the past. So, I want to share an example of a very recent transfiguration in my life. Last week I had the amazing opportunity to attend a conference hosted by the Iona Collaborative, which is the organization that provides clergy and lay leadership training for Episcopal churches around the country. During the conference, my view of the future of the church was transfigured from one of lack, loss, and fear to a vision of faith and hope. My fear-based feelings result from the fact that Americans are increasingly losing interest in organized religion. Forty million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years, which is the largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history. The veil of fear was pierced and hope emerged from this conference. Our conference leader, the Rev. Nandra Perry, recently shared with the Washington Post. “We’ve got some scrappy little churches that are out there being salt and light in some very inspiring ways,” she said. “The importance of elevating the ministry of all the baptized, and strong, well-trained, locally formed leaders is an enormous opportunity.”
I was invited to the conference because St. Hugh is one of those scrappy little churches being salt and light in our community. For the past year, I have had the honor of convening regular meetings for all the Total Common Ministry churches in our Diocese and, together, we have been talking with Total Common Ministry churches from Michigan, Wyoming, and Nevada. We have been writing a report for the diocese that describes the work being done by our scrappy little churches. At the conference, we learned that we are the future of the church. There is so much I want to share with you about this conference and our work together, but I will attempt to limit my comments today and plan to spend more time on the topic in the months to come.
I want to share a label I learned about last week, “bivocational”, which is the term used to describe part-time clergy, including paid and unpaid, and their source of training, seminary and locally trained. In the opening session, we learned that of all the Episcopal churches in the United States, less than 10% have more than one priest on staff. Of the other 90%, approximately half have the traditional model of one priest, while the other half rely on bivocational clergy. Here at St. Hugh, our clergy are bivocational, as they are part-time, locally trained, and nonstipendiary, which means we do not receive a salary for our work. To offer a comparison, our colleague, the Rev. Charles Huff, who just became the priest at St. David Episcopal Church in Shelton is also considered a bivocational priest in that he is part-time, although, he is both seminary and locally trained and receives a salary, or stipend, as the church calls it. Here in Mason County, all our Episcopal churches are dependent on the bivocational ministry model because they cannot afford to pay for a fulltime priest. The rapid growth in bivocational ministry is keeping all our scrappy little churches around the country alive in these times of rapid change.
Part of the problem with church today is the traditional model of ministry; a model that treats the church like a business with buildings, staff, marketing plans, financial budgets, and expectations of growth, all to be administered by a priest who serves as the Chief Executive Officer. We turned our churches into institutions delivering faith-based services, with home offices, along with regional and national headquarters. It seems that Peter’s suggestion – let us make dwellings for Jesus – is exactly what we created, despite the fact that Jesus was not at all interested in building temples and hiring paid clergy.
Looking at our future from the perspective of this transfigured vision, it is vital that we engage congregation members in our works of faith. Christianity is not a show to be watched; it is a life to be lived, people to be loved, and work to be done together. Christianity really is about sharing a common ministry, where all the members in our church community are called into the life of the church, both inside and outside the walls we have built. As Mark Edington, the author of the book, Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of Ministry, concludes, “our lives of faith are to be lived with our whole lives – mind, heart, soul, and strength – devoted to loving God, and expressing that love through all that we do, wherever we do it. The question that remains for us is, how? What is the path?” Edington goes on to offer us some suggestions. If we look for and lift up those members of our communities who quietly and confidently demonstrate the gifts of faith and love, if we reimage the purpose and function of ordained ministry, and if we renew our understanding of God’s purposes in the larger church, we can – and will – get there from here. In other words, we are being invited to witness and to experience a transfiguration in our understanding of the concept of Church.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Harmon encourages us to spend some time reflecting on the images in the Transfiguration story.
The sweetness of the Transfiguration is that we are invited into a scene that typifies the collision of heaven and earth, with Jesus the Christ at its core. Each of us is invited to glimpse God’s glory, to see for ourselves that there is the possibility for dramatic change at the hands of the Divine. Take time to sit with the Transfiguration in all its richness. Roll over its symbolism and strangeness. Bask in the glory that shines brightly from the lines of this narrative. And finally, take heart that God’s timeless glory shines in the world and in our hearts this day, even in the throes of exhaustion and confusion. God’s glory still shines!