It had been a rough week for the disciples. They felt like they were wandering around in a fog. Up to now, it had always been so exciting following Jesus, every day a new adventure. But not anymore.
Six days before going up to the mountaintop with them, Jesus had started telling them about his suffering and death. He told them he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day be raised. And guess what? They would get to come along for the ride. This was not at all what they had signed up for, what seemed like ages ago now. They should have known there would be a catch. Jesus had come into their lives like a force of nature; when he had found them fishing by the sea of Galilee, all he had had to say was “Come, follow me” and they did, just like that.
Who wouldn’t? Being in Jesus’ company was a party for mind and spirit; one day, he had a new parable to tell, the next day, an astonishing healing, the day after that, he was feeding a crowd of 5000 with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. But he couldn’t conduct this traveling revival by himself; he needed a support staff, an advance team, someone to carry the bread and fish along, someone to run interference with the crowds. The disciples were his pit crew, the U.S. Postal Service team to his Lance, and they just loved riding downstream in his draft. They had been part of a winning team, successful by every measure. But now he was changing the rules of the race on them.
They decided Peter should be the one to tell him. After all, he should know that this new message of suffering and death was not going over. If it was too much of a downer for the disciples, certainly it would be a flop with the general public. And Peter was the golden boy, Jesus would hear it best from him. Just a few days before, Jesus had been quizzing them, “who do you say that I am?” And Peter had piped up with the right answer, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” A+, Peter, high fives all around! “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus had said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It appeared Peter could do no wrong.
So Peter, trying to be helpful, took Jesus aside now, and told him, “Look, we’ve all been talking and we’ve decided this should never happen to you, Lord.” And is Jesus happy to hear this affirmation of their affection? Oh no! “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Good feeling gone. And as if this weren’t bad enough Jesus then delivers even more bad news: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Yes, this is the fine print they hadn’t read when they had signed up for this trip. They had thought discipleship was a spectator sport, but now it turns out that Jesus wants more from them than their moral support.
So it is now, in their lowest moment, that Jesus proposes they go hiking up a high mountain, by themselves. And what they experience there will not only transform Jesus, but they themselves will be transformed. They see Jesus’ face shining like the sun and hear a voice from the cloud saying something that sounds familiar: “This is my son, the beloved.” Where had they heard that before? Oh yes, at Jesus’ baptism. But now there is another line added: “listen to him.” Listen to him. Don’t just admire him, don’t just applaud him, listen to him. Follow his example. Imitate him.
So Peter, James, John, they see it now, the good news that Jesus has been telling them about: this is what awaits them beyond the finish line. Now they see that suffering and death are not the opposite of resurrection and glory. They go hand-in-hand. You can’t have the one without the other. This is the ah-ha moment for the disciples; their moment of enlightenment. If you run from suffering, it will catch up with you. If you face it and accept it, it will lose its power over you. What had Jesus told them about taking up their cross and following him? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The light they are witnessing now is the life they will find when they deny themselves, take up their cross and lose their life for his sake. The reward for their sacrifice is resurrection glory. This light is not only what dwells in Jesus but what will dwell in them if they follow him.
For us, as for the disciples, it is easy to admire Jesus; it is much harder to imitate him. But Jesus did not say, “I will take up my cross so you don’t have to.” That is a popular view of atonement, that Jesus took our place on the cross so that God’s need for justice would be satisfied and we would be spared. But it’s not the complete biblical story. Instead, what appears over and over again in the New Testament is the message that to follow Jesus means to share in his life, in his suffering and his glorification. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says the apostle Paul, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
In other words, Jesus isn’t the only one who gets transfigured. We too are being transformed by God’s Spirit working in our lives. The light dwells with us too, but on the inside only, not the outside. Paul says, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We are participants, not just spectactors, in the divine drama of transformation. Paul claims the transfiguration story for all of us in his second letter to the Corinthians when he writes “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” He had eyes to see that glory.
And it’s not just Paul who had this amazing expectation that human beings could share in the divine life and the divine glory. John writes in his gospel, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” And in the first letter of John this theme continues, as we read in our call to worship: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Admiration of Jesus is not the goal of the Christian life. Instead, we are called to participate in the life of Christ by becoming like him.
In the Eastern Orthodox church they call this process of transformation “divinization.” This is the goal of the spiritual journey: not self-improvement through our own efforts but participation in the divine life through the grace of God. There is a story from the ancient monastic tradition that illlustrates this.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “Why not become all flame?”
Here we have Abba Lot describing the good life he is trying to live. He, presumably, does pray. He does fast. He does live in peace and tries to think good thoughts. The difficulty, the problem is not in what he does, but in his belief that self-improvement is the extent of life.
Abba Joseph does not respond by suggesting other spiritual practices he might try; he is doing enough there. Instead, he responds by telling him not to settle for a diminished view of his potential. He is telling him to believe that he can actually share in the transfiguration glory.
The goal of the spiritual life, as Abba Joseph illustrates it, is to reach our hands towards Heaven and to be transfigured by the light of God. Life in Christ is permeated by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit.
If we take up our cross and follow Jesus, then what happens within us is not simply self-improvement. It is not simply a collection of acts and activities that make us better people, but is a transformation that unites our spirit with the divine Spirit that was at work in Jesus. “Why not become all flame?”
This is the question the disciples are left with as they make their way down the mountain. The fog had lifted for a time; they have seen the light. What now? What next? Will they get on board with Jesus’ new game plan, the one that takes him to Jerusalem and betrayal and death, and beyond that, resurrection? Well, not exactly. Just because you’ve seen the light doesn’t mean you can take it all in at once. The disciples proceed in fits and starts. Their response to Jesus’ invitation to imitate him is imperfect, as they are. But they stick with him on the road to Jerusalem. They make the journey with him, but this time they are not mere spectators along for the ride. Now they have skin in the game. Now this is their journey too.
As we approach Lent, Jesus i
nvites us to journey with him to the cross also. In this season we are invited to attend to our spiritual lives in a focused and intentional way, so that we too might experience something of the transfiguration light. It is this light that will sustain us through our suffering and give us strength for the journey ahead.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.