(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on February 26, 2017, Transfiguration Sunday)
The Jesus Whom the Church Knows
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (17:2). This—this, I think, is the Jesus that most churches know. This is the clean, spotless Jesus. This is the good-looking Jesus of blonde hair and blue eyes, who wears a winsome white robe, whose portrait hangs in Sunday School classrooms all over the world. This is the triumphal Jesus, the Jesus whom much of the church hopes for, who will descend from the clouds in power, whose light will overpower the darkness of the world. Chances are, this is the Jesus whom we envision when we pray: wrapped in white, serene, heavenly. Even in Bruce Almighty, which famously imagines God as Morgan Freeman, God sports a sparkling white suit, which exemplifies his character: cool, calm, and collected, he is a God who is ultimately above it all and in control.
It is no wonder that Peter suggests building a dwelling for Jesus there on the mountain. This is the Jesus he’s been waiting for; this is the messiah in all his glory. Like the church, Peter sees this Jesus as the victor, the winner, the champion. Once the world sees this Jesus, there will be no question. Peter wants to keep this Jesus around, to preserve this dazzling white Jesus—and so he proposes a dwelling place. It is, perhaps, his way of saying to this glorious Jesus, “Please don’t leave us!”
The Jesus Whom the World Knew
But this triumphal Jesus whom Peter worships, whom most churches put on a pedestal and proudly proclaim—this Jesus looks strikingly different from the Jesus whom his own world knew. The glorious Jesus is wrapped in regal robes of white. But Mary and Joseph and the shepherds knew a Jesus wrapped in swaddling baby clothes and lying in a lowly manger. The glorious Jesus shines and dazzles. But the fishermen of Galilee knew a Jesus whose tunic got soaked in water and caked in dust. The glorious Jesus stands high above everyone else. But the lepers and the lame, the people who were considered unclean, they knew a Jesus who stretched out his hand and touched them. The glorious Jesus has his home in heaven. But the crowds in Galilee and Judea knew a man who had nowhere to lay his head, and probably occasionally smelled to high heaven. The glorious Jesus keeps the company of heroes, like Moses and Elijah. But the nameless children of Capernaum knew a Jesus who held them and declared their like the greatest in the kingdom of God. The glorious Jesus reigns high up on a mountain. But the people who came to Jerusalem on that fateful Passover knew a Jesus who hung high on a hill, crowned not in glory but in shame, flanked not by heroes but by outlaws, covered not in brightness but darkness.
“Listen to Him!”
The Jesus whom the world knew, looked much different than this momentary glimpse of glory that Peter, James, and John had. The easy way of reconciling this difference in appearance is to say that this Jesus is a vision of the future, that this is a preview of what is to come, that only after the dusty struggle will God’s glory be unveiled. Jesus must endure the dirt of the earth in order to bring it to heavenly, spotless glory.
My guess is that this is the way Peter thought. But then when a bright cloud appears over him on the mountain, and a voice from the cloud proclaims, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!”—Peter falls to the ground with the other disciples, and I imagine those last words were ringing in his ears, “Listen to him! Listen to him!” Because not long ago, Peter had done just the opposite: he had not listened to Jesus.
Before Peter had followed Jesus up the mountain, the two of them had butted heads (Matt 16:21-26). Jesus had been anticipating his visit to Jerusalem, speaking strange words about death and resurrection, to which Peter had said, “This cannot happen!” But Jesus wouldn’t budge one bit. He proclaimed that only by losing yourself for others would you find yourself. He proclaimed the paradoxical gospel of death and new life, the good news of loss and more life.
So when Peter hears these words, “Listen to him!” I can only imagine that he remembered his heated disagreement with Jesus. Maybe now, for the first time, he really listened to what Jesus had been saying. Maybe now he started piecing two and two together. If Jesus had insisted on death as a part of new life, and loss as a part of more life, then maybe this glorious Jesus wasn’t the triumphal victor he had been hoping for, the messiah who would simply overpower his enemies and establish heaven on earth by force. Maybe this glorious Jesus was one and the same with the dust-covered Jesus he already knew, the one who was living his life for others, the one who would ultimately give his life in love for others. Maybe that was the glory of God.
Seeing the Dust That Covers Jesus for What It Really Is
This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, begins the Lenten season. What is Lent? It’s basically a time of preparation for Easter, in the same way that Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. (In fact, Advent has been called the “Little Lent” in some church traditions.) Lent prepares us for Easter by inviting us to follow Jesus on the way of the cross. The cross means many things. For us Christ-followers, it means that love lays down its life for others; it means that loss can lead to new life; it means that our wounded and weak bodies are the very vessels that share God’s powerful love in this world.
Transfiguration Sunday, which is today, always comes right before Ash Wednesday. As I reflect on Peter—and the way that he had been hoping for a triumphal, glorious Jesus, only to realize, perhaps, that the glorious Jesus was in fact the same as the dust-covered Jesus—I think maybe he unwittingly ushers us into Lent.
Because Lent is about shedding ourselves of our own skin. Like Peter, we too often get in the way of Jesus. What we really need to do is get out of our own way, so that Jesus can show us the way. When Jesus starts talking about losing ourselves, dying to ourselves, death on a cross, we respond like Peter, saying, “This cannot happen!” But according to Jesus, this must happen if we are to have life. The glory is not in success and triumph, in gain and getting our own way. These things keep us focused on ourselves; they make us small. The glory is in the dust—in touching the untouchables, in keeping the company of outsiders, in welcoming strangers, in forgiving your enemies and persecutors. It is these little things that make us, and the world, as immeasurably grand as love itself.
I’ve been reading recently about a great scholar, Henri Nouwen, who used to teach theology in the ivory towers of our Ivy League institutions. In the twilight of his life, he changed direction drastically. He entered into community with the mentally handicapped. In particular, he shared life with Adam, a man who could do very little more than lift his own spoon. But Henri writes so spiritedly of this experience, declaring that Adam taught him more than any book or teacher ever did. Adam showed him the way of a life where glory comes not in what you do or what you have or how you look to others. Glory comes in the little things that are shared together on the dusty surface of life, like eating breakfast together or washing up or walking together. Glory comes in the little things that incarnate God’s love and remind us we are loved simply for ourselves, and not for our achievements or appearance or possessions.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a vision. For a brief moment, we see what God sees. And God sees all the dust that covers Jesus for what it really is: the glory of love.
Whose love steps foot
Into the dirt of our world:
Divert us from our quest
And lead us into a love
Covered with the dust and glory
Of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).