I’ve said before that sometimes the church uses fancy words for things that don’t need fancy words. Today’s a good example of that. Today is Transfiguration Sunday in the church, and if you’re wondering “what is that?” You are not alone. Transfiguration is one of those fancy words that we use for something that really isn’t that fancy.
I’ll explain why, but first, the story. Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, John, and James up onto the top of a mountain. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen there. They probably thought they were just going on a hike or something.
But at the peak, suddenly something happens to Jesus. He appears to be filled with light. Scripture says he glowed a “dazzling white”. Strange enough for the Peter, John and James, but then Elijah and Moses appeared there with him too. And a voice rang out, “This is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”
So, this is what the church calls “The Transfiguration”. I assume we went with that because, “That time Jesus glowed like a ghost on top of a mountain and two dead guys showed up” is a little long.
Transfiguration literally means “a change in form or appearance”. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, think of Professor McGonagall, the transfiguration professor, and how she could change from a person to a cat and back again. I’m not saying that Jesus was an animagus, but I’m saying the same basic root is there: he changed his appearance in a profound way.
Transfiguration, really, is just a fancy word for change. And change is at the heart of today’s Gospel. Because Jesus physical change in appearance is striking, but I’m not really convinced that’s the point of today’s passage.
I say that because I don’t think Jesus was the only one changed up there on that mountain that day. He took three disciples up there, and he did it because there was something he wanted them to see. He wanted to show them something that would change their lives. And when Peter and John and James saw it, things changed.
They already knew that Jesus was something special. And when they got to the top, Jesus showed them who he was. Jesus didn’t change in any real, fundamental way. Only his appearance did, and for the first time they looked at him and they were able to see him as he had always been. For the first time they understood that this was the son of God.
There are times in our lives when something so profound happens to us that we are never the same again. We fall in love. We lose someone we love. We welcome a new child to our family. We step out into the world on our own. We suffer from a great unfairness. We receive a diagnosis. Or we celebrate a great victory. From that point on, our life changes. We can never go back to life beforehand. We can only decide how we will live now.
For the three disciples, something profound had to change in them right about then. They had to know in that moment that the course of their whole lives was about to change. It must have been incredible, and terrifying all at the same time. Because once they saw Jesus change, once they understood who he was and they realized that they couldn’t help but follow this man from now on, they must have realized that the world as they knew it was all about to change.
Now maybe that has happened to you. We all have different spiritual experiences. Some have top of the mountaintop moments where they really see who Christ is for the first time, and they are amazed. And they stand on that mountain and they know that everything has been changed.
Others of us don’t have that big, dazzling experience with the light and the voice from heaven. But we have a still, small voice that speaks to us and gradually pulls us in the right direction. Maybe over the course of years, we come to be convinced that we can do no other than follow the path of Christ. We become changed people.
So did Peter, John and James. Do you wonder what they were thinking about on the hike back down? Do you wonder if they were trying to figure out how to go back to the day-to-day life they had after knowing that everything had changed? After knowing who Jesus was and knowing that that was all that mattered?
Maybe you have had the experience of having some kind of spiritual experience that stirred you so deeply that you have left thinking everything made sense for the first time, and everything in your life was about to change for the better. And then you went back to your house, and there was still laundry to do, and bills to pay, and the car still needed an oil change, and gradually that mountaintop feeling slipped away and things felt just like they always had. In the back of your mind you remembered, but the change didn’t seem to last long in the real world.
I believe I’ve shared the Buddhist saying with you before about what happens when you finally achieve enlightenment. It goes like this: Before enlightenment – chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment – chop wood and carry water.
I think that’s what the spiritual life is for most of us. We have our mountaintop moments where we feel God’s love and have the best of intentions. And we have our time in the valley of the day-to-day where we sometimes act like we’ve never known Jesus a day in our lives. But when we are given reason to hope again, we come running because deep down we believe.
In other words, it’s not the world that changes, it’s us. We are transformed, and we meet our days as transformed people. And while our daily tasks may not change, our way of facing them just might. And because we have been changed, because we have been transfigured, we might just change the world.
Every year we read this same story on the Sunday before Lent begins. Ash Wednesday, when the season begins, is just three days from now. After that, for forty weekdays, we will be on a journey with Jesus first to the cross, and then out of the tomb.
When the disciples came down from that mountaintop, completely changed by what they had seen, they were about to begin a journey of their own. They would see the man they now knew to be the son of God persecuted, killed, buried, and then resurrection. And then, the greatest challenge of all: they would become the ones who would tell the stories about Jesus, and what they had seen. They would build the church that you and I know today. But none of that would have happened, had they not once see change on top of a mountain, and been changed by it. After that, they could never be the same again.
Later in the service, something is going to happen that will leave one of us never the same again. A new baby, five months old today, is being brought to the baptismal font. Her parents are going to make promises, as are we, and we are then going to splash water on her head, and name her as Christ’s own.
This child will not remember her baptismal day. But, rest assured, she will never be the same again. Christians believe that you only need to be baptized once. No matter what happens in your life, there is never a need to come back to the font. Once this happens, once Christ claims you in the waters of baptism, there’s no going back. You can never be unbaptized. You are changed.
Our job, as people who share in this baptism, will be the same as it is with every child who comes to this font. We will teach her what it means to live our this baptism in the world. We will be her examples when she wonders what a Christian life looks like, we will be examples of transformed people transforming the world. We will be agents of change, because we have been changed.
And then, after the joy of the baptism, we will go down to the vestry, and do something a little less dramatic. We will sit in rows, focus on a powerpoint presentation, and vote on things like the church budget. Because, after enlightenment, we still chop wood and we still carry water. In fact, after enlightenment, we understand just a little more clearly why those things matter too.
And so, having been changed, let us head back down the mountain, to a world so in need of change. And let’s get to work.