Come off the Mountain, Peter
Luke 9:28-44 The Transfiguration story
From the first time I heard this story from the Bible, I always assumed that Jesus’ transfiguration was a one-of-a-kind experience, which would resist any effort to explore or explain it. I assumed that it was one of the bits of our Christian story that we had to take on faith. As a result, I have tended to minimize it – to accept the story but move quickly beyond its limited details. In my mind, the details could be neither explained nor repeated anyway.
It was J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series who wove the subject of transfiguration throughout her books, taking it seriously enough to give it an entire system of definitions and skills.
Professor McGonagall was the main teacher of Transfigurations at Hogwarts. She taught her students that Transfiguration is a branch of magic that focuses on the alteration of the form or appearance of an object in some way. According to McGonagall, transfiguration is divided into four branches. They are, in ascending order of difficulty: Transformation, Vanishment, Conjuration and Un-transfiguration. Each of these is closely related and overlaps the others to some degree. While I have read all the books and seen all the movies, I had to go to the Harry Potter wiki site for the details (1).
A. The first kind of Transfiguration they taught at Hogwarts was Transformations. This included the ability to switch a physical feature from one creature with a feature from another creature. It might also include transforming a creature into an entirely different species – for example, turning a man who is eating like a pig into an actual pig.
B. The second branch of Transfiguration is Vanishment. This is the art of causing things to Vanish. The difficulty of the Vanishment to be performed relates to the complexity of the organism to be Vanished (for example, invertebrates are easier to Vanish than vertebrates).
C. The third branch of Transfiguration at Hogwarts is Conjuration. This is the art of conjuring things (bringing things into being) and hence is the opposite of Vanishment. With a nod to the Bible, Conjuring includes the ability to make more food from a small amount – although there is an additional rule which says that food can be increased when you have some already but cannot be conjured out of nothing. Thus, in the world of Harry Potter, the miracle of the loaves and fishes would be called an act of “conjuring.”
D. The fourth type of Transfiguration is Un-transfiguration. This is the art of reversing a previous transfiguration. In a gesture of respect to the Bible, magic had no power to make the dead alive again; even in the fictional world of Harry Potter, only God has that authority.
Clearly, the world of Harry Potter is fiction. Still, by exploring and expanding on the idea of Transfiguration, J. K. Rowling invites us to see the Biblical story with new appreciation. She invites us to think deeply about the power at work in the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration and the implications of that power being unleashed on earth.
You might have expected the story of Jesus’ transfiguration to stand at the climax of Jesus’ power and prestige. It does not. Instead, the Transfiguration story is sandwiched neatly between two statements by Jesus predicting his death. The Jesus who brings the glory of God to earth is the Jesus who will die on the cross at the hands of those he came to save. Only God could have written such a story!
It happened when Jesus was praying. People went to the mountain to pray because on the mountain they stood closer to God’s heaven than at any lower place. Luke often made note of Jesus spending time in prayer. Jesus may have taken flesh and walked up on the earth, but he was not disconnected from the Father. Through prayer, they were in constant connection and conversation. And, through Jesus’ example, Luke reminds us that we are invited to stay in constant contact and conversation with God.
Now, Luke describes the Transfiguration: “**the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white**” (v. 29). That’s it. Luke describes the Transfiguration with less than one full verse. Clearly, J.K. Rowling added a lot with her imagination. In contrast to this simplicity, the rest of the passage, and maybe the rest of the Gospel outlines the response of the disciples and others to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Luke knows that our response to the Transfiguration is much more important than any scientific explanations we might design. So, we should read what follows as an example for our own response.
A. First, Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Jesus. In their appearing, the entire history of Israel, which is embodied in their lives, came to honor Jesus. Moses is the great lawgiver; he is the one who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the Land of Promise. Elijah was the greatest of the O.T. prophets. He was the prophet who confronted both Israel’s enemies, who would destroy the people, and Israel’s kings, who would undermine the people by leading them away from God. The appearance by Moses and Elijah fulfills the prophecy in Malachi 4 which foretells the Great Day of the Lord:
4 Remember the teaching of my servant *Moses*, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Lo, I will send you the *Prophet Elijah* before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes (Malachi 4.5f).
Thus, in the Transfiguration of Jesus, the promises of the O.T. are completed. It is as if all history comes to focus in this moment of Jesus’ Transfiguration.
B. The second group who responded to the Transfiguration is the group of disciples: Peter, James and John. Luke tells us they woke up because they have been sleeping – a foretaste of the night of Jesus’ betrayal when they slept through Jesus’ time of trial in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, they did awaken and they did see Jesus Transfigured, standing with Moses and Elijah.
Peter immediately tells Jesus, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It appears that he wants to hold on to this moment and freeze it for all time. Any of us would want to do the same, of course. We understand his impulse. Faith is a lot easier in church surrounded by all the sights and sounds of worship. Faith is harder outside where the faith that we carry within us may be all the evidence we have. So, Peter wanted to hold onto the moment.
[MOMMA AND PAPA]
There is an old story of a family reunion in which my grandfather Chisam’s brothers and sisters wanted to gather at the homeplace, which was all that remained of what was once a sprawling farm. Over the years, the farmland had been sold off and by that time the house was falling down from neglect. Because there was nothing left to inherit, the lost farm was a source of disappointment rather than a source of proud memories.
When the idea of this family reunion was announced, someone asked what they would do when everyone arrived. The oldest sister, in a state of confident denial, announced that they would sit in the empty homeplace and tell stories about Momma and Papa (my great-grandparents). According to the one who told the story, this family reunion idea crumbled along with that dilapidated old house.
Like Peter, my grandfather’s big sister wanted to hold onto the moment, but the moment was soon old and lost its energy. If Peter had built his shrine to the moment when Jesus was Transfigured, that would have grown old, too. With Luke, it is far better to focus on our response to the Transfiguration and the living faith that we will carry because of it.
C. The third witness to the Transfiguration now spoke from the cloud: “**This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!**” That the disciples were terrified, that the voice spoke from the cloud, that this third witness made itself known in an unmistakable voice all identify this third witness as God the Father. This is the Divine Father, announcing that in Jesus, the divine has come to walk upon the earth.
There is in almost all of us a wistful hope for such an encounter. We imagine ourselves called up short by the overwhelming coming of God. Pulse racing, glory surrounding, we imagine a spiritual certainty that will never leave us. Keep watching; it does happen.
The voice of God demands our response; the coming of God is indeed a fearsome thing. To meet God face to face will mark you for the rest of your days.
[SUM:] Each of these witnesses to the Transfiguration shows how we might respond; you see, now we also know what happened there on the mountain.
II. Then, the next day Jesus has come down from the mountaintop. There he is met by a distraught father, coming on behalf of his son. The son is possessed by an evil spirit which seizes him, throws him into convulsions, and mauls him. We know this father’s pain.
In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, one of the daughters, Sybil, died in childbirth. The episode showed the helplessness of the family as they realized that that she was dying. This is the great horror that we all have for our children and others whom we love. What if they are dying but there is nothing we do? Like the father in the Biblical story, the family of Downton Abbey could only stand helplessly and watch as the condition takes her life. It was soul-wrenching for them (2).
So, this father from the crowd comes to Jesus – the most logical thing for any father to do. Does this father have any idea what happened on the mountain? We do not know. Did the father know Jesus before this moment? Again, we cannot know. It appears that he has heard of Jesus’ other miracles of healing and in his desperation appeals to Jesus.
For Jesus and for his disciples, this moment and the father’s anguish stand as a reminder that the work of Christ does not end in the story of Transfiguration. The life of Christ, and thus the life of every follower of Christ, will take us to the glory of the mountaintop and call us back to the hard work at the bottom. At the foot of the mountain we will find people living their lives; there we will find human need; there we will find those who need the Savior. In other words, we cannot stay at the top of the mountain.
Last month, after Alabama won the BCS Championship Game against Notre Dame, Head Coach Nick Saban sat for a press conference. Among the usual comments about how the offense and the defense played, he made said this: “We will take a couple days to celebrate this, and then it will time to start a building toward a next season" (3).
The work of Christ and of those who follow him is not finished, regardless how many times we may stand on the mountaintop. As soon as the voice fades, as soon as the cloud of God’s presence lifts, there is more to do. And the work waiting for us is at the bottom of the mountain where the people are found.
The Transfiguration story barely tells us what a Transfiguration is; it tells us much about the response of those who witnessed what happened. The point is the same for us. How do we respond to the Lord who was Transfigured: who stood at the focus of Israel’s history with Moses and Elijah, who was seen by three disciples, who was announced and affirmed by God the Father. “Listen to him,” God said from the heavens. And so we must. How will we respond to this Jesus? And how will we live as followers of Jesus?
1. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Transfiguration. “Transfiguration,” Harry Potter wiki site.
2. Lady Sybil’s death, Downton Abbey, Season Three, Episode Four. Masterpiece Theater.
3. Nick Saban, comments following Alabama win over Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS Championship Game. http://www.abc3340.com/story/20527378/nick-saban-quotes-following-bcs-championship-win