Over the last five weeks, we have had conversations about our values as a church and how those values are expressions of the Gospel. That conversation actually began way back in October at our church retreat. We asked folks to write something they value about this church on a sticky note and add it to our board. Then we grouped those to try to see the relationships between them. I transcribed those into notes and then tried to synthesize them into a few things we could name for ourselves. I rested on hospitality, vulnerability, creativity, authenticity, and community. Probably someone else looking at the same grouping of sticky notes would have come up with something different. This is the difficulty of naming things and perhaps the folly.
When Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus, I’m not sure what they expected. Say a prayer, maybe. Well, take a nap while Jesus prayed, anyway. According to Luke, they did fall asleep, lending the Transfiguration a dream-like quality. In any case, what they got was a theophany, a revelation of God. Jesus is transformed, shining like a light as Moses did when Moses stood face to face with God.
Beside him were Moses and Elijah, two heroes of the Jewish faith. As I read it, Moses is representative of the Law, the past, and faith. The Christian tradition likes to imagine that the Torah is a rigid system of dos and don’ts from which Jesus liberated us. However, it is a very flexible legal system; much ink is spilled over how it should be interpreted and the conclusion is usually, Who knows? Faith demands that we take it seriously enough to view it critically. Elijah is representative of the Prophets, the future, and hope. Elijah was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot and so never died. When he returns, it will be the beginning of the end, the final redemption of God’s people. (One of his jobs, incidentally, is to settle all the questions about the Law, once and for all.) The two of them validate Jesus as the Messiah, the one to bring about that final redemption.
What are the disciple to think? Of course this is the end. It’s a wrap. Build those tents. But Mark tells us repeatedly how stupid the disciples are. Somehow, they missed Jesus’ proclamation that he was going to Jerusalem to die.
Jesus knows a few things. He knows that, despite the success of his ministry in Galilee, real change won’t happen unless he confronts the powers in Jerusalem. I suppose the disciples figure he can lead an army of thousands to Jerusalem and take power. That won’t work. Or perhaps, on that mountain, the disciples figure that the final redemption is here, so God will take power. If Jesus is the Messiah, he won’t need an army to match the Romans. But Jesus knows that the path to Jerusalem is the path to death, not victory.
I wonder if Jesus also knows that history is not teleological, organized on a line toward a purpose. At Passover every year, Jews keep a seat out for Elijah. Christians await Jesus’ final return. No matter how many times God reveals Godself to us in this world, no matter how many avatars and incarnations, we still wait. What if history is a circle? We are born and die and are reborn again. Maybe the Buddhists are right. And maybe our myths speak with one accord on this.
The usual sermon tells us that we should not settle down, not stop on that mountain where the world was suddenly, magically illuminated. This seems like a good lesson. However, it is always followed by the notion that we just shouldn’t do that yet. Someday we can. Someday Elijah will come or Jesus will return and all will be set to right. Maybe one of the deaths we need to die is the thought that we are headed somewhere. If we’re not, then rather than being called to wait, we’re called to keep moving, keep working to make the world a little more illuminated all the time.
No matter how great that mountaintop event, we cannot remain transfixed by it. Its meaning is only revealed if we allow ourselves to be transfigured, to be metamorphosed by the life we live and the death that awaits us. We can only return to that mountaintop if we come back each time as a new person, born again. So I hope this is not the end of our conversation about our values. We have named them, but we have to continue to live them out. As we do so, we’ll probably die a few times. When we do, we have the chance to be illuminated once again.