Transformation and transfiguration are not experiences to be taken lightly or dismissed as religious nonsense. There are events in all our lives which do not have simple explanations; things that happen to us that we don’t entirely comprehend. Sometimes they are good things, unforgettable, life-enhancing moments. Sometimes they are terrifying. Sometimes we take them for granted.
Science and engineering regularly transform and transfigure our existence. Many of you will remember your parents or grandparents having a wireless set the size of a milk crate powered by a large battery which had to be filled up with acid at regular intervals. They had dials the size of a television screen, with places like Hilversum and Droitwich on them, and with a bit of luck, you could get the BBC Home Service and hear the brown gravy voice of John Snagge. Now you can get any station you want from an instrument no bigger than Grandad’s cigarette case, and at the same time use it to make phone calls to China. In those distant days, if you has a bad hip that was it, but now you can have a new one, which is a transformation most welcome. Our lives have been transformed; but have they been transfigured?
We’d better not deny the vision which the three disciples experienced – a moment which transformed and transfigured their lives. It wasn’t a ghost story, and it isn’t made up – if it were, why would Jesus tell his disciples to keep it secret? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story. What did it mean for the disciples, the witnesses who saw Jesus shining brightly with Moses and Elijah?
They saw glory – a brief glimpse of what faith is about, the past, present, and future revealed in a dazzling light. Glory has a bad name these days. “Glorifying” something is taken as a sign of unhealthy obsession. Celebrating justice and freedom, caring for the stranger within your gates, and welcoming the traveller and the homeless take a low priority compared with security and constant vigilance.
What happened to Jesus and his disciples on the mountain was a vision of the world as God sees it. Our day to day perspective is limited and clouded by so many pre-occupations and assumptions; God has his own perspective of a world transformed and transfigured by sacrificial love, nurtured through the ages, which made plain on the cross. The three shining figures on the mountain knew a thing or two about justice and freedom. They had all fed the hungry, healed the sick, set their people free, and stood up to corrupt politics: three men who knew how the world could be transformed and transfigured, and never tired of telling the story of how it could happen.
So, after this amazing encounter, the disciples do exactly what the rest of us of us do: rush off and tell the neighbours, and show off to the others disciples who hadn’t been there. There’s nothing like having an exclusive when you are a really keen reporter. But I don’t think they’d understood what had happened. A few days after their experience of the transfiguration on the mountain top the disciples are back home arguing about precedence. Which of them is going to be the most important in the kingdom? Jesus has to begin to tell them that if they are talking about orders of precedence then they are talking about who takes their place, with their cross, on the road to Calvary and crucifixion. In the end it was a queue of one: Jesus alone.
It was painful. And it was not what they expected. If we don’t understand the nature of God’s real glory in our lives we will not be able to make the terrorist or the fanatic understand the desperate folly of what they are doing. We will not be able to convince the world to serve the poor and the outcast.
What the disciples had to learn is what we have to learn: that when God comes, God comes for everyone. When God acts, God acts for the whole world, but above all when we see God we see a human form and that human form is also our neighbour.
Our lives are full of change. What is that, if it is not the possibility of transformation? Sometimes the changes are difficult to take: sometimes the wrinkles seem to be taking over the world as well as our faces. Sometimes the changes we feel within ourselves upset and distress us because we are no longer like we used to be – no longer young, no longer quick, no longer as fit as we want.
But there are almost always compensations if we want to find them: our memories, our loves and friendships which are there for the hard times. Sometimes life is giving us the time to move more slowly and enjoy the world at a pace which gives us more pleasure. But the transfiguration which Jesus brought is different. He offers us the chance to be his people; to share his power, to exercise healing in our own lives and relationships, to put aside bitterness and blame, to offer love and comfort, to bring forgiveness and patience when everyone else wants to point the finger or turn their back. Jesus offers to us the power of human ingenuity to change the world when we see it distorted. If we can blow up the world at the touch of a button, then we can, if we want, rescue people from floods, and disasters, bring peace out of hatred and plenty out of starvation.
If we can change the damaged DNA of mitochondria, then we can also change the endemic hostility, rivalry, bigotry, and suspicion which bedevils so much of the world. We believe it because we have seen the potential to change our human natures by witnessing the bright shining promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ – the story of Jesus, which could even take a humiliating death on a rough cross and turn it into a glorious resurrection. There’s glory for yo11u.