Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 27 February, 2022.
Readings for this Sunday: Ex 34:29-35; Ps 99; 2 Cor 3:12- 4:2; Lk 9:28:28-36.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Lk 9:31).
I was once chatting with a bright young person, an engineer by training, about the story of creation in Genesis, and he asked me, “can you believe in physics and religion?” As we explored his question, I realized that he was asking me, essentially, whether faith and reason were compatible.
I began my answer by saying that I agree with a long tradition of Christian theology and philosophy which hold that faith and reason are compatible. In the case of Genesis, I said that personally I did not want to disregard the evidence of geology (particularly the fossil record) and physics (specifically, studies of the age of the universe) which on the surface seem to contradict the biblical account of the world being created in seven days.
I noted that some biblical scholarship takes a figurative account of the creation story, noting that the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis can mean “age” or “a long time”, and so what we could have is a poetic account of creation that is compatible with an evolutionary perspective. I cited one of my professors from seminary, John Bowen, who liked to say that the process of creation (a literal account of seven days vs evolution) is one of those things that Christians can disagree one, since the mechanics of creation are not creedal.
When we got to the New Testament, however, I told my engineer friend that my beliefs would seem decidedly irrational to someone outside of the faith. As a creedal Christian, meaning someone who believes in the historical teachings of the church, I believe that the historical man Jesus was also the Son of God, a person of the Trinity, that he died, rose from the dead, returned to heaven, and will come again.
There, I said it. Doesn’t sound very rational, does it? There is nothing in the world of science that I can appeal to or take refuge in to support my belief, no equivocation in translation of words in the bible. You either believe this stuff or, because it doesn’t sound rational, you don’t. Or, as some Christians do, you treat it all as a lovely fantastic fable that contains some spiritual truths, but honestly, I’ve never found that a very satisfactory compromise.
Our gospel story of the transfiguration today is decidedly irrational. Jesus goes up a mountain with two of his friends. He meets two figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who are somehow recognizable as themselves and who seem to have some sort of afterlife. Jesus then is transfigured, becoming “dazzling” with glory, and then a heavenly voice from a cloud is heard.
As one of the sheep in our weekly cartoon, Agnus Day, comments, “Jesus is talking with two dead guys and his head becomes a light source. How much weirder can it get?” Indeed. Which is why I’m grateful for this gospel story, because it shows us the true nature of the God we worship.
There are several times in the gospels that we see the true nature of Jesus. The greek has a word for this true nature, doxa. We translate this word as “glory”. When the shepherds see the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. At Jesus’ baptism, we also hear the voice from heaven, reminding us who Jesus is. The vision of Jesus here on the mountain reminds us of “the two men in dazzling clothes” who appear to the women in the empty tomb in Luke 24.
In all these places, as in the Transfiguration, it is as if we get a glimpse of heaven, of the things that will be, breaking through the veil of our earthly reality. These things give us hope, and remind us of the God that we worship.
Why don’t we see God this way all the time? Perhaps it’s because the glory of God, were it to remain with us, would be oppressive, even coercive, demanding our obedience and submission. But God doesn’t work that way. Most of the time his son is fully human, a human who laughs, goes to weddings, shares meals, becomes irritated, suffers, and dies.
It’s been said that the time between now, Transfiguration Sunday, and Good Friday, the end of Lent, is framed by two mountain tops. The first is the mountain we visit today, the mountain where God is revealed in glory through his Son. The second mountain is Golgotha, the place of the skull, which we visit on Good Friday. Is God revealed in glory through his Son at Golgotha, on the cross? It depends on what you define as glory.
The cross is, as St. Paul reminds us, an instrument of shame and pain, but it becomes glorious because Jesus chooses to go there, for us. Rather than a dazzling glow that confounds and blinds us, the cross, as painful as it may be, is something we can contemplate and remain with, even take upon us, for it becomes an emblem of the way that Jesus calls us to follow – a way of self-giving, of care and love and forgiveness of others. It’s through the cross, and following the cross, that we see others, and where others can see God in us.
How can others see the glory of God in us, in we who aren’t very glorious or very impressive to look at? Paul says in our second lesson that we too, as Christ’s followers, are caught up in his glory, and being changed by it. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Do you remember how Paul famously defined love? He said that “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7). God’s that love isn’t manufactured human sentiment as we might find on a Hallmark card. That love is the gift of the Spirit, it is the same love for us that God shows for humanity on the cross.
The glory of God offends and contradicts reason, but even more confounding to reason is the idea that we, God’s people, can be transformed by and show that glory to the world in the life and love that God calls us to.
I can’t explain or rationalize this to others with the same comfort that I can talk about creation. What I can do, what we can do, is listen to Jesus carefully and attentively, as the voice from the cloud calls us to. We can follow him, live as he calls us to live, and open ourselves to the love of God which is the gift of the Spirit. In so doing, we have the promise that we too, ordinary, unremarkable, flawed human beings, will find ourselves transformed and able to stand in the full glory of God.