Each year on the Sunday before we begin the season of Lent, we read the Gospel story of the Transfiguration which may be found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Today we read Luke’s version. Today’s reading is in the 9th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. In the early chapters of Luke, things seem to be going very well as Jesus calls his followers and people are flocking to hear Jesus preach. The apostles are excited, the crowds which gather are getting bigger, and things seem to be unfolding in many positive ways. It is here in the 9th chapter, however, when Jesus calls his apostles aside to let them know that it will not always be like this; there is going to be a lot of suffering as we head to Jerusalem and there will be pain and sorrow in the days ahead. The tone of Luke’s Gospel then shifts in the passages before our reading today. Let us pray, O Holy One, bless us this day as we seek to discover new meaning through your Word and through our lives. Our journeys have led us to great highs and lows and we know that you are with us always. Be with us now as we look ahead to the journey of Lent, seeking always to be inspired and renewed in faith and love. Amen.
I imagine that all of us feel the weight of what has been happening in Ukraine in recent days with the invasion of Russia and conflict in Europe. These have been and continue to be times of heaviness, worry, anxiety and sorrow over recent years. When conflict erupts in our world, we know that suffering will come. If we have learned nothing else from history, we know that wars bring untold misery to human lives and to communities. The fear and anxiety we share this day comes from knowing that the days ahead will not be easy for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine. And so we hold in our hearts all who are in the path of war, all who seek the path of peace, and all who are working to bring an end to this senseless violence.
Our Gospel reading on the transfiguration today is an important story in the life of Jesus and we read it every year on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. This is a pivotal moment in the story of Jesus and his friends; it’s a pause in the journey they have embarked upon; it’s a powerful experience that they undergo in watching Jesus with two of the greatest spiritual figures of the Hebrew Scriptures: Moses and Elijah. And in this meeting, Jesus is transformed; he is surrounded by light and we hear the voice of God affirming his journey and ministry. No wonder Peter wants to stay there. It’s not just the mountaintop; this is a place where they feel most in tune with the transforming power of God’s love; they can feel that they are being led to a higher calling; they likely feel inspired and awe struck. If we have had a powerful spiritual moment in our lives, even if it is not as dramatic as this, I’m sure we can appreciate their desire to remain there, because Jesus has already warned them of what is to come.
The early chapters of Luke describe hopeful stories of Jesus’ ministry but then, in the chapters which precede today’s passage, the tone changes and Jesus begins to warn his friends of what is to come. He knows that in his travels he has attracted many followers who have come to hear a message of hope and to see works of healing and comfort and that the religious and political authorities are increasingly worried about his popularity. His message is radical in a sense, because he is awakening the hopes and dreams of many who have felt powerless and hopeless for too long. We hear him tell his friends, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus has shared what is clearly his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all: that he must suffer, die, and rise again – and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Jesus is speaking to them about the true costs of discipleship and warning them that things are going to become very difficult. An opposition has formed and Jesus anticipates his own death and he is warning them that they are going to suffer as well. Imagine how frightening that must have felt for them?
The trip to the mountaintop and the events that unfold there serve as a kind of reassurance for Peter, John, and James (and for the rest of us!). It’s as if Luke is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death. But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way – not least because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed…” SALT Commentary
Richard Rohr explains “We see an increasing centering take place with Jesus and the disciples in the gospel text. Jesus is leading the disciples towards the Transfiguration experience. He is preparing them for the cross, and saying, “It’s going to come! Be ready. It’s probably the only thing that will transfigure you.” Rohr says that “there are only two major paths by which the human soul comes to God: the path of great love, and the one of great suffering. Both finally come down to great suffering—because if we love anything greatly, we will eventually suffer for it. When we’re young, God hides this from us. We think it won’t have to be true for us. But to love anything in depth and over the long term, we eventually must suffer.”
So, it is no wonder that when Peter, James and John are amazed at what they witness on the mountaintop with Moses, Elijah and Jesus, that Peter suggests that they just stay up there, remain in that place of safety and of peace. And, at that moment, a cloud overshadows them and they become deeply afraid but the voice of God calls out to say, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.” Jesus knows that his journey was not meant to be an easy one and so he asks that they follow him down from the mountaintop and continue moving forward.
The disciples first respond to the Transfigured Christ with fear.
“The disciples mirror the itinerary of the spiritual journey: we start out with many concerns, fears, and worries. Our minds and hearts are all over the place. Their lives have become fully focused and simplified on the one thing that is good, the one thing they desire, and the one thing that is necessary.”
But then Jesus leads them down the mountain, back into the ordinary world to continue his labor of love, healing and nonviolent protest against the status quo. We know in our own lives that we can’t stay on the mountaintop forever. Religious experience has to be experienced firsthand. We can’t believe it because someone else talked about it. Sooner or later, we have to go to our own mountaintop. We have to have our own transfiguration, and we have to walk down the mountaintop into the ordinary world, on the path of suffering, and the path of love—which are, in the end, the same. As we experience a suffering world together, I pray that this community will be drawn to center itself on the cross and bring Jesus’ teaching to life.”
We may not experience such a dramatic encounter with God in our lives, but if we explore our own journeys, we may be able to recall moments that were indeed life changing for us. And they may have come from the path of love or the path of suffering… but most likely, it is a mixture of both, because that is the journey of life when we fully embrace what it means to be human. And in is often in our times of great joy that we come to understand what is transcendent. And, it is often in our moments of greatest suffering that we turn to God and we seek spiritual consolation and meaning to help transform our own suffering into something greater or comprehensible or at least tolerable.
Jesus’ short years of public ministry included all of the highs and lows of life; loving parents, spiritual sustenance, dear friends, meaningful work, a higher calling, as well as betrayal, despair and profound suffering. The passage on Transfiguration prepares us for the unfolding of the next chapter of his life as he journeys to Jerusalem despite what he knows may await him. He travels with the companionship of his friends, a clear sense of his message, and the belief that this journey is God’s plan for him and for the world.
Richard Rohr, CAC, Life Coming to a Focus, Friday, March 20th, 2020