Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Transfiguration of the World

Most of you know that I just got back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  A pilgrimage is not a tourist trip nor is it a vacation. We didn’t go to see the sites, but we journeyed to experience something of the presence of God. Bishop Goodpaster reminded us the Holy Land was supposed to mean more than a few nice pictures and olive wood sculptures. Words and pictures are just a shadow of the real experience of that place. That’s why I took more pictures at Disney World than the Holy Land.  A pilgrimage is about moments of holiness.

This morning is transfiguration Sunday—the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  Let me remind all of you that transfiguration means change or transformation. As I reflect upon my pilgrimage, I can easily locate myself within this text. Today, we remember the moment of holiness felt by the disciples Peter, James and John. 

Peter, James and John hiked up Mount Tabor with Jesus. It was likely not an easy journey, but like any pilgrimage the three disciples experienced something marvelous when the reached the top. Jesus was transfigured—or changed—and became radiant, shining like the sun.  Elijah the prophet and Moses, the representative of the law, appeared beside him. It was a moment of holiness that interrupted the pilgrimage of the disciples. Peter quickly piped up, and said “unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three houses; one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  It’s part of our nature to want to contain and trap an experience of the holy. We have moments in our lives that we wish could last forever and we desire to build houses that will contain them.

I’m reminded of the day we sat by the Sea of Galilee at Sunset. We were at the traditional site where Jesus multiplied loaves of bread and fish and fed thousands. Some of us waded out into the water, others put our feet in the water, and all of us were transfigured just as Jesus transfigured the loaves of bread and fish. I felt like Peter—“Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you so that we never have to leave.”  It’s our human nature to try and bottle up experiences and places so that we’ll never have to let them go.

Places are important to God and they always have been.  Throughout the history of our faith, God has chosen to be found in houses, churches, and sanctuaries.  Our Jewish ancestors visited the Temple to find the living presence of God and to offer sacrifices. Later, they read Scripture and sang Psalms in synagogues, just like we are doing this morning.

That’s why churches, synagogues, and mosques overwhelm the Holy Land; they are the large boxes that try to mark and contain the sacred.  During the Middle Ages churches were placed on any piece of land that could be connected to the New Testament. There are houses for everything and anyone in the Bible. Gorgeous sanctuaries were constructed in Bethlehem at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth and there is a beautiful chapel surrounding the Samaritan’s Well.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher overpowers the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb.  The places of worship were beautiful—gaudy, even—filled with gold, lights, incense, and a mystical transcendence that will transport you to the divine. Jesus shone brightly in these places in the radiance of transfiguration.  Think of Peter—“Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.”

And I am reminded that the Jews in Jerusalem believe that God’s very presence can be found in the remains of the Temple wall—the Wailing Wall. Every day the Orthodox Jews visit the wall to experience the presence of God. Yet, I am struck that Jesus did not want to have a house built for him. And this is where Christians radically diverge from Orthodox Jews.  Christians believe that God’s presence has invaded the world through the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is not trapped inside of a wall, but can be found right here, too, in this sanctuary.

Right when Peter mentions building a house for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, God interrupts him. Luke tells us that God interrupts him because Peter had no idea what he was talking about.  And God says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.”  In other words, “Peter, you don’t get it.  I am doing something new.”  This interruption is the challenge of Jesus—a radical reorientation of faith in which Jesus Christ actually becomes the house of God.  He is the physical meeting place between the divine and human, the perfect sacrifice, and the complete worship of God.
With Jesus, we no longer have to go to a church to meet God. God has come to us through Jesus and honestly, Jesus is more concerned with what takes place when you step outside of the Church. Listen to the voice of Luke.

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him.  A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.”…[And] even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father.

There are two moments of transfiguration in this story, right?  There is the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, where he turns bright like the sun and shines radiantly. Then, when Jesus comes down the mountain there is a second transfiguration as a boy meets Jesus and is healed and changed.  The transfiguration of the child is the reason why Jesus left the mountain, came to earth, and ended up dying on a cross.  There is no way Jesus was going to stay in a house on top of a mountain, when the whole world could be transfigured.

Danielle and I, and thirty other young clergy went on a pilgrimage to be transfigured. And we saw something radiant and bright that made a change in our life.  But I also think that Jesus wants us to come off the mountain and share that change with the world. Jesus continually reminds us that coming down from the mountain is more important than staying on the mountain. As a Christian, I found it incredibly sad that the most beautiful houses of God are located in a place that is 2% Christian. The early Christians constructed beautiful sanctuaries that marked moments of transfiguration, but the real transfiguration must also take place on the streets in the lives of normal people.  What’s the use of a house of God if, if no one will ever go in and out of it? 

Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.  That’s still our mentality, right? Most of us want to stay in the comfort of the house of God, even though Jesus tells us that the moments of change and transfiguration also take place outside of the church. I have said this before, and I will likely say this again—transformation doesn’t only take place in a Church building.  And this is the point: are you more concerned with church attendance or the transfiguration of the world and your life?

Hiking down Mt. of Beatitudes
Let me close with one last experience from our trip.  Almost unanimously, one of the most beautiful parts of our trip was our hike after seeing the Mount of Beatitudes.  Most groups that travel to the Holy Land do not have the opportunity to take part in this hike down the mountain.  It’s too steep and most groups aren’t as mobile as we were.  Plus, it’s more convenient to drive, right? I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to a hike—I was tired and my feet hurt.  Yet, we were able to hike down the Mount of Beatitudes as the sun was setting.  It was a hike that Jesus was most likely familiar with as he walked back and forth from the Sea of Galilee.  When we reached the bottom of the mountain we gathered at the Sea of Galilee and each experienced a holy moment with God. I shared that experience a few minutes ago.

And as I reflect upon our trip I am reminded that the hike down the mountain is not always appealing.  It’s muddy, slippery and sometimes inconvenient.  We’d rather stay on top of the mountain. Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.   But Jesus reminds us that transfiguration also takes place outside of a church on top of a mountain.  In fact, the most holy moments of my trip took place outside of a building. 

God wants to transfigure your life. God wants to transfigure the world. And sometimes the greatest transfigurations take place when you are at the bottom of the mountain. It’s good for us to be here, but it’s also good for us to be out there.

A holy moment on the Sea of Galilee


  1. Glad you're back on the blog! Keep it going!

  2. Very nicely written and that last picture captured the moment.

  3. Beautiful reflection, Ryan. Thanks for sharing.