Transfiguration of Our Lord
Beloveds, grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear that “[Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzlingly bright.” Jesus is fully himself in this moment, on the mountaintop, and it is glorious. He is human, embodied, in-the-flesh; and he is Divine, dazzlingly bright, revealed in radiance. He is in communion with the prophetic ancestors of his faith. He is blessed and named beloved by God, connecting his baptism to his transfiguration. He is with his friends, his disciples, Peter, James, and John, and he knows where his path is inevitably leading – towards the Cross, and towards Resurrection. The Transfiguration is a moment of vulnerability, risk, and fear.
Because is a risk when someone is their full self with others. Sharing their joys, their strengths, their mistakes, their desires. Our full, genuine selves are powerful, and full of brilliance. Encountering someone who is embodying their full self can provoke a response of longing or joy, a nudge for us to reflect on how we are living our lives. Or, like the case of Peter and the disciples, it can provoke a response of fear.
Six days before being on the mountaintop with Jesus, the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi. It was in this place, a seat of Roman administrative power, where Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter responded, “You are the Messiah”.
Peter might say that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t listen to Jesus when he shares what that means. He might believe in the idea of Jesus as Messiah, but by rebuking Jesus, Peter is telling us that he believes in the idea more than the reality. And Jesus rebukes him for that. “Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on Divine things, but on human things”. Peter rebukes Jesus even as I believe he deeply loves and cares for Jesus, and for Jesus’ work in the world. But he doesn’t want to lose Jesus. He doesn’t want Jesus to die.
The interaction between Jesus and Peter six days prior is essential to our reading of the Transfiguration, where Peter, and James, and John, experience the full human and Divine person of Jesus, perhaps for the first time.
They don’t know what to say, or what to do. I imagine that they are experiencing a disconnect between the idea they had of Jesus, and who Jesus actually is. A disconnect between the idea they had of God and God’s presence of the world, and how they are currently experiencing God. Someone they love, and are following, has been transfigured, and they are witness to that. It is a glorious and potentially overwhelming turning point in their relationship and their lives.
Peter’s immediate response is to say that it is good to be with Jesus in this moment, good for them to be present with him. He wants to build dwelling-places for the Divine figures before him. Peter sometimes gets a lot of flack for this reaction – for trying to preserve a moment that is temporary and removed from daily life up on the mountain. One way to re-frame Peter’s act is that’s it’s an act of hospitality – he is trying to provide a space of welcome and refuge for these prophets. I also read Peter’s desire to build dwelling places as one of protection – trying to keep them safe in their brilliant communion. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen in this moment when Jesus is embodying his full self.
And that’s not a bad desire. I can think of so many moments when someone embodies their full self – sharing their artwork, changing jobs or degrees, asking for others to see them as they see themselves – and the response doesn’t match the vulnerability and joy of the moment. Where the response is dismissal, or refusal. In a world that often seems to squash the joy of our wholeness, creating and protecting space for that is a sacred act.
But this year, I am also reading Peter’s response through the lens of his fear. He is terrified at this encounter with God, at this encounter with the fullness of Jesus. And so in his desire to build dwelling-places, is he trying to control the Divine in a way that he can understand and accept? Is he saying, you can be your whole self here, but only here? Is he not only trying to keep Jesus, Elijah, and Moses safe, but himself as well?
I think the disciples are afraid, not just for their lives in the face of God, but also about what Jesus’ transfiguration means for them. What God’s blessing, echoing baptism, “you are my beloved”, “I am well pleased”, what the presence of Moses and Elijah, means for how they are living their lives. And I wonder if they were asking, like I ask myself in response to this passage, when confronted with a moment to be transfigured, fully ourselves, do we take that risk? Or when we are surprised by a moment of transfiguration, do we hear God’s voice calling us beloved, and do we carry that blessing down from the mountain?
Beloveds, in this world, it is a risk to be fully yourself. It was true in Jesus’ time and it is true now. The story of the transfiguration, this festival day where Jesus is transformed, always resonates so strongly with me, and that has to do with one of the identities I hold – nonbinary, and trans. When I think about the times I have witnessed someone so fully themselves that they are radiant, my first thoughts are always of people in transition. Moments when someone whispers their name for the first time, when they paint their nails a sparkly gold and go to work, or when they set a boundary with their family about how they want to be treated. These moments of full embodiment – even fleeting, even temporary – are so holy and powerful they stick with me. In these moments, I experience God.
These moments are also terrifying. When I have witnessed someone so fully themselves, it’s like they are holding up a mirror to the places where, for safety or fear, I am not fully myself. This is true not only for trans folks, but for everyone. Transfiguration, our lives utterly changing in the face of God, our whole selves, embodied, is a turning point. Witnessing someone being who they are, in a way that is more brilliant than we could have ever imagined when they told us who they are, changes our lives, too. And the powers of the world often react to this uncontrolled, uncontained, beloved radiance, with a more violent type of fear than Peter and the disciples.
An ongoing and present theme in anti-trans legislation are bills to limit or ban appropriate medical services for transgender or gender non-conforming youth. These bills usually criminalize the doctors for providing care, require counselors to report trans kids to their families, whether or not those spaces are safe for them, or criminalize the child’s parents, falsely equating supporting a trans kid with the sin of abuse. When we listen to trans kids when they tell us how to affirm their identities, God is well pleased. It helps them not only survive, but thrive in their beloved flesh. This bills are born of fear, not love, and not valid scientific or ethical research.
When trans and gender non-conforming youth name who they are, and tell us what they need in terms of support, they are being so fully, gloriously themselves that it holds up a mirror to everyone else, challenging, asking – what would make you more fully yourself in the world, and why are you scared to live into that truth? And, can I help you let go of some of that fear, and hold your truth?
I feel so tenderly towards the ways the disciples respond to the transfiguration of Jesus, to the prophets, to God. They want to hold on to the moment, to protect it, to keep the pain of the world from following them up the mountain. They want to provide hospitality, welcome. And they are terrified, because they know this is a turning point. They cannot go back to their lives unchanged, after witnessing Jesus transfigured. This image, this glimpse, of Jesus fully himself follows them down the mountain, and on the road to Jerusalem. They hold onto the image of the transfigured Christ and see that even when the world refuses to.
These experiences are holy, and tools of resistance. Many of the anti-trans legislative bills have ultimately been voted down, because people are willing to risk being their full selves in public, to testify, in these cases, to the ways access to affirming medical care saves lives. And just as Jesus was joined by Moses, and Elijah, Peter, and James, and John, we are more able to be ourselves in community. It was good for the disciples to be there, to be with Jesus as he was fully himself, as he was reminded of his baptism, blessed as the Beloved of God, with whom God is well pleased. These are blessings God bestows on us as well, and we carry them from the mountaintop, into the valley.
In the valley, fear often runs rampant. We are navigating conflicting forces and powers, trying to live well while holding onto a sense of the sacred. We exist in spaces that want to erase us, or assimilate us, or boil us down to one identity, when many folks live at intersections. And, we hold on to our own experiences of transfiguration, knowing that God has named us beloved.
Much of this sermon circles around Peter and the disciples reactions to Jesus, not Jesus’ experience of transfiguration. That’s intentional on my part, because transfiguration is so personal to each of us, and we get to choose how we share those stories. Jesus brings his friends to witness this moment, but then asks them to keep it to themselves, until much later, until he is ready for it to be shared.
As we leave the mountaintop of Transfiguration and descend towards the journey of Lent, I’d invite you to hold on to your experiences of transfiguration – where you are so fully yourself you shine. Know that transfiguration doesn’t always look like a dazzinglingly bright spot on a mountain. Transfiguration can be a quiet self-realization of change that you carry with you. It could last mere seconds, and you are forever different. Sometimes, you only realize that you experienced transfiguration long after the fact. But embrace these experiences, and the transformative effects they can have on the world. Take comfort in Christ, allow his transfiguration to change you, as it changed him, and the disciples.
And in those moments, I pray that God is a dwelling-place for you. That your community – this community, holds you, and reminds you that you are beloved, and God is well-pleased, especially when the world doesn’t remember that. Or when you don’t remember that. Amen.