Today’s my first Sunday back after being on holiday down in Seaton, on the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic coast is so called because it is the place for fossils. The steep streets of Lyme Regis are full of fossil shops, where you can buy bright polished ammonites varying in size from little golden pyrites half an inch across to great monsters of two foot wide.
They are wondrous to look at – shimmering colours, whirling patterns, fine details and texture. You can pay uto buy one – or you can pick among the flotsam and pebbles to find similar specimens on the beach. The seashore ones won’t look the same – the fossil shops have washed them, picked off encrusting mud, cut and polished the fossil shells to a finish. Yet the beauty within is there ready to see.
It’s like that with the pebbles on the beach. They shine in glorious pinks, greens and sapphire shades. You take them home, and drying out they fade to a disappointing off-grey. But immerse them in water and the glorious beauty emerges again. In the right situation, at the right time, for those who are there to see it, there is glory to perceive.
And so it was with Jesus. Usually there was nothing extraordinary about his appearance and as the three disciples climbed the scented slopes that day, they probably thought they were going to spend some time in prayer. After all, mountain tops are where you go to be alone with God. But as v.2 in our gospel reading from Matthew 17 says: ‘Jesus was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun.’
Suddenly Jesus’ true nature shone through. Awestruck, Peter James and John saw Jesus as he really is – the Son of God. We might speak of a bride being radiant on her wedding day, or of someone exuding cheerfulness, and in the Old Testament there is the story of the face of Moses shining with reflected glory after spending time in the presence of God.
But this is on a whole different level. This transfiguration is not of human origin, nor even is it from reflected divine light. Instead it’s part of who Jesus is, his real nature revealed. God himself affirms in v. 5: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!’
This had been God’s plan right from the beginning – that’s the point of Moses and Elijah being there – they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, who predicted the coming of Christ and looked forward to him. God intended to send his Son and to reveal him.
Those words might remind you of another event? They’re almost identical to the words of God at Jesus’ baptism. Both times God says that Jesus is his own Son, divine but come to earth as a human being. There are many pieces of evidence in the gospels that point us to that conclusion: the miracles Jesus performed like calming the storm, his power to heal and authority over evil. Jesus himself believed that he was God’s son: he claimed to be able to forgive people, which only God could do; and when he taught he did so with authority: ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’ And of course his Abba Father gave him the ultimate vindication in raising him from the dead
In a way, the Transfiguration looks forward to the Resurrection. The glory revealed here is the glory that Jesus will share when he has conquered death. But looking down from this steep hill, there’s a long and dusty road back to Jerusalem. A path of pain and sorrow that Jesus is about to tread, the way of Holy Week, that leads up to the cross. Only by coming down the mountain, by embracing a suffering world and transforming it, can the glory be made available to all.
Understandably, St Peter doesn’t want to come down. In v.4 he offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay up there with them forever.
I think that speaks to us of three choices that we have today. We too can be like Peter, and try to hang on to the spiritual experience. For instance, there are churches which are incredibly well resourced, with amazing music and technology, and they can be very popular. People travel miles to get to them – they drive though many parishes to get there. Maybe that’s not a problem if that experience enables them to serve better, to engage more closely with their community, to love their neighbours more deeply. But it is a problem if it’s just about seeking an experience. If worship isn’t geared up to making a difference.
Christians rightly seek to be built up in our faith and spiritually nourished – and sometimes we do need extra input beyond what we can do in one smallish church. To resource us in these churches we have Group Services where we all get together, housegroups for mutual support. Some of us go to the Filling Station or New Wine. I need to receive and be topped up so I go on annual retreats and the odd trip to HTB. For if all you do is give out, then you dry up. But if all you do is receive, you stop gaining any benefit because it’s as we give out that we grow.
The other danger to watch out for is what happened to the disciples after the reading. They came down the mountain, encountered difficulties, and promptly forgot the power they had just experienced. When we are preoccupied by challenges, they crowd us in and we neglect the resources we have in Christ.
We can become like the guy who was king in the time of Elisha. Samaria was besieged and all king Joram could see were crowds of enemies. Elisha the prophet prayed ‘Lord, open the king’s eyes’, and he saw the angels of God, an invisible army protecting the city.
That’s why the Transfiguration happens at this particular point. It’s a blessing and encouragement for Jesus and his disciples. Knowing who Jesus really is gives them strength and persistence for the road ahead. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’ says Jesus in verse 7.
Knowing who Jesus is means that we can be secure in following him. It also means that we can be secure in our own identity as children of God. For one day we too shall share in Jesus’ glory. St John says in 1 John 3:2 that we shall be as Christ is. Isn’t that amazing? That one day we shall be like Jesus!
Jesus didn’t become human by kind of popping God inside human skin. Or by a divine soul descending into a human body. Jesus became human by assimilating humanity, by taking humanity into divinity. And so as people who are united with Christ we shall one day share his glory. Because we have that identity, because we have a glorious future, we can act with real integrity now.
What I’m trying to say is that when we understand what our future is in Christ, when we understand our real identity, it changes the way we view ourselves and the way we act. We will move in the direction of our destiny.
Society today is very keen on the idea of authenticity. That we should be true to our inner selves. That what we are outwardly should be the same as what we are inwardly – otherwise we’d be hypocrites. But there’s a problem with that. A writer summed it up very well in this article from The Week, originally printed in the Observer.
“‘Be true to yourself’ is one of the most common pieces of advice given in graduation speeches. But it is a strange vanity to think that it is this is deeper unfiltered version of ourselves, as opposed to the one we show the world, that is the better part of our nature. My own authentic self, sadly, is a fan of pyjamas and inertia. She doesn’t take out the bin or write thank you notes or file tax returns. Her heart tends to sink when she spots the lonely woman from next door. Authenticity is, at its heart, the idea what we should make the way we behave match what we feel on the inside. But really a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”
So, seeing problems with authenticity, she sets up an alternative. One that will sound familiar to a lot of Christians. Perhaps we too think of themselves as trying to do the right thing outwardly while struggling with all sorts of inappropriate thoughts and wrestling with darkness within. Do you know what I’m saying? The outer me I present to the world, versus the inner me which I need to keep under control? Which one is real?
Actually neither of those understandings are fully Christian. The Transfiguration points us to an alternative way. Those who trust in Christ will one day be like him. We shall be glorified. That is our destiny. So our outer actions and our inner thoughts are all on a journey, a journey of transformation. What we are inwardly is not fixed, a grubby self to be beaten down. Instead the Holy Spirit strives within us, helping us to be more like Christ.
I find understanding this really helps me. It gets over the sense of being divided, a good person versus a bad person and which one’s the real me? It means the struggle against sin isn’t about fighting a losing battle. It means I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say ‘sorry that’s who I am.’ The Transfiguration tells me that my destiny is better than that, in Christ.
Imagine a gangster and thief released from prison, who manages to go straight and get a job. He works his way up a company and does pretty well. At the weekends does he go back to the old ways, smoke pot and get in fights? Hardly. That’s not him any more. He is looking to what he has become. A new life.
Christians are called to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. So the real you is not some shabby, sinful, ashamed or inadequate self-image. That is the old man, who died with Christ. The real you, the real me is the new creation. The one who is being formed in Christ’s image, made like him. So become what you are! Let the glory of the Transfigured Christ transform you! Lord let it be so.