I occasionally wish that I lived in an earlier era. Now, granted, I would want that era to have women’s rights and flushing toilets, so perhaps what I really want is a mythical earlier era. In that imaginary era, I would never have seen a special effect. So that, when I read the Bible, I would be awed by the stories it contains.
We 21st century people are jaded. We have seen waters part in The Ten Commandments. We can see creation begin by turning on the Discovery Channel. Noah’s flood has been replicated in any number of movies and cartoons. And dead people appearing is nothing new. In the last calendar year alone, the television series House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost all had major characters who were dead. Dead Amber appeared in House’s memory. Dead Denny was hallucinated by Izzie. Dead Christian-well, we still don’t know how he got on the island. And that’s not even considering the dead characters on the show Medium!
We are not impressed by well-laundered clothes and Old Testament ghosts. We have seen it all before.
Thankfully, Peter, James, and John are not jaded. Their senses are still sharp and their minds are fresh and open. For them, the transfiguration is the most incredible event they have ever witnessed. For Peter, James, and John the transfiguration is a moment of transcendence, a moment of understanding God in a new way.
It turns out for them, for Jesus, and for us, experiencing those moments of transcendence is a gift from God to help understand God better and to receive nourishment for the hard work of ministry.
Jesus and the disciples have been working hard. In the eighth chapter of Mark, immediately before this reading, Jesus has: miraculously fed 5,000 people bread and fish, walked miles and miles on foot, healed a blind man, informed his disciples that he was going to die tragically, and argued with Peter. Talk about a heavy couple of days!
Jesus and the disciples must have been worn out-physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
Jesus leads three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain so they can spent some time away from the demands of their work. While they are there two amazing things happen. First, Jesus becomes illuminated. His robes become so white they know the source must be supernatural. Second, two great Old Testament Heroes appear next to Jesus: Moses and Elijah.
Why Moses and Elijah? Why not Abraham or David?
The disciples are shown Moses and Elijah because of their unique, spiritual relationships to God. You might remember when Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments his face shone with a supernatural light. Peter, James and John would remember that story, look at Jesus’ shining clothes and realize that Jesus had the same ability to hear directly from God.
Legend has it that Elijah never died, but instead was assumed into heaven. Jesus has just told his disciples that he will die and be resurrected. They see Elijah as a kind of foreshadowing, to help them prepare for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
I believe for these three disciples, Jesus’ transfiguration was their transformation. While Jesus got time to rest and commune with his Father, the disciples had an incredible supernatural experience they would never forget. On their walk, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. They guess many things, but finally Peter gets it right. Peter tells Jesus he thinks he is the Christ.
The transfiguration is a way for these disciples to really internalize and understand at a more intuitive level what it means that Jesus is the Christ. When your friend is the Christ, weird, supernatural things happen. When your friend is the Christ, he can glow at will. When your friend is the Christ, biblical heroes who have been dead hundreds of years will suddenly appear. When your friend is the Christ, the voice of God will pour out of the sky, filled with love.
These memories of the transfiguration will be something Peter, James and John will be able to hold onto during their darkest moments of doubt. Even as Peter lies about his association with Jesus on Good Friday, perhaps a small part of his mind was reminding him that everything was going to be okay. His friend, Jesus, was bigger than death and more powerful than the laws of nature.
The transfiguration was the spiritual experience Peter, James, and John were given so they could keep on going, keep on “running the race”, as Paul phrases it in 1st Corinthians. After they leave the mountain, Jesus and the disciples get right back to work, right back to ministry, but now they can do it with a little more energy, a little more bounce in their step. They now know, in a concrete way, that God is with them.
Now, I think it is fair to conjecture that none of us will ever experience the transfiguration. However, I do know many of you who have had some kind of spiritual experience. I think we are all capable of that kind of experience.
Some of you have had spiritual experiences when you have taken time away from your own family and work and retreated for a few days in prayer and meditation. Others of you have experienced the holy when you have traveled to holy places like Iona, or Shrinemont. Others of you encounter God through singing sacred music. Still others of you have experienced the divine when you had your first child or understood God’s love for you through the love of another. There are many ways and places where God can break in and speak to us.
Those moments may be few and far between, but they are great gifts to us. They give us courage to go back to our ministries and give all we have to them. Those moments feed us spiritual nourishment that sustains us through difficult times. Those transcendent moments remind us that God is real and that he is with us. When we experience a spiritual moment we are invited to savor the time we are given with God and use the energy the experience gives us to return to our daily lives and ministries and give back to those around us.
We may be jaded. We may have seen it all, but like the disciples, we still need God. We still need reminders that he loves us. We still need the transfiguration.