Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 27, 2022
Luke 9:28-36 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
Given that this passage is often on the Sunday that immediately precedes Lent, I have often thought of it as a story that is mostly about Jesus giving his disciples a strong picture of him to hold on to as they enter the dark days of his suffering and death in Jerusalem. As such, it is a bit of a “courage” for the journey event, something that they could return to ground and center themselves so that they could push on through the bleakness with hope. It fits the motif of the mountaintop experience of power, exhilaration, and joy that we can return to when we need a little pick-me-up in dryer times…
I think that that reading is meaningful and good, but I’ve been reading a lot about the glory of heaven lately, so some of the details about what happened to Jesus stood out to me in a different way. And, having spent just about all of the Sundays after Epiphany in the Gospel of Luke, I noticed another detail we’ve seen before: an important epiphany between Jesus and heaven takes place during prayer. Of course, plenty of people have already made these important connections… It’s right there in the text! But when taking a look at the grammar (see the textual point below), I looked again at the Transfiguration text and kept Christ not only right at its center, but as the person whom the event was for (rather than identifying first and foremost the disciples).
Consider how difficult of a time Jesus has had with the disciples. He’s begun to be much clearer with them about what is to come and the cost of discipleship, and yet, they are resistant. The preceding pericope included Jesus predicting his suffering and death. And here, like when he will pray in the garden, his closest earthly friends are depicted as being too tried to really stay present and awake with him while he prays.
But it is while he is praying that friends from heaven come down, and he is transformed into a dazzling display of the glory that fills heaven. Similar to the experience at Jesus’ baptism, when another sign of love and blessing and power came down from heaven, Jesus finds his prayers being answered in tangible ways—even upon his very person. Like many times in the gospel of Luke, Jesus turns to prayer for communion with his Father. No wonder the English Puritan Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) wrote that prayer is the “highest form of communion” with God and heaven available to us while we are here on earth…
Moses and Elijah speak with the Christ about his upcoming suffering and death—which Luke describes as Jesus’ departure, a theologically significant choice of words. Death is not the end, and Jesus will be departing in order to be able to return to heaven. We have no other details about the content of that conversation, but it doesn’t seem a far stretch to me that it was full of love , and that it encouraged the Son of Man to be able to talk with someone he could see about what he had been trying to talk to the disciples about along the road.
Then Luke turns our attention back to the disciples, focusing in on Peter who says things even though he has no idea what he is talking about! (Thank God for Peter, always giving us someone to relate to…) When it would have been better for Peter to have woken from his half-sleep and simply stayed silent, Peter instead tries to keep it all the same. Is he hoping to catch up on what he might have missed? Or, can he see how comforted and happy, glowing even, Jesus is, and does it fill Peter with a desire to keep this moment going so that Jesus can have it for just a moment more? Peter tells Jesus that it is good that they are there, but maybe that’s more of his gentle way of saying primarily that it is good that Jesus is there, and that the benefits to the rest of them are also real, but less important…
Then they all get swallowed up into the cloud of mystery and a voice booms out the command to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. When the mist settles, it’s all over and there is their rabbi, standing there alone again. Unlike at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke, this voice from heaven the people hear! The command is to listen to what Jesus says, but the detail we are given is that the disciples stayed silent about what they saw. Perhaps they are considering all of the things that Jesus has said about the way of the cross, and wondering if this is what heaven wants them to obey…
Partially rooted in this story is the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, and specifically in the Orthodox church, the hesychastic prayer where one encounters the divine uncreated light—the light that came upon Christ and gave him the glorious and dazzling appearance of heaven. The first step to such a prayer is stillness and silence, or what should have been Peter’s response on the mountain. As inner prayer, you pray a simple, repeated phrase, and you might encounter the light of heaven, a light unmade by any creature, the light and guidance of Christ himself.
And if Christ is our pattern, then we trust to receive encouragement from heaven. We remember to turn to prayer, stillness, and silence when we are discouraged by the ways of the world. We expect the possibility of being overcome by something beautiful and full of love.
Depending on what modern translation you use, verse 30 might give you a different sense of who the Transfiguration is for. The NRSV implies that Peter and the other disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and that they were aware and witnessing the entire affair. The NIV, on the other hand, doesn’t mention them again until after describing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about what he is about to experience in Jerusalem. The difference comes down to interpretive choice, as the NRSV inserted “they” into their interpretation of the Greek demonstrative word translated as “saw”. In other places in the New Testament, the word idoú is translated as “Behold” and it’s more of an indicator to pay attention to what comes next than a regular verb (it actually only has the one form). So, the NRSV’s translators appear to lean towards the Transfiguration being something more for the disciples, whereas the NIV’s translators lean towards emphasizing Jesus as the target audience.
In one of my seminary classes, I read an excerpt from Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). Symeon recorded the story of a young man who had had an experience of the “uncreated light” come upon him. I believe that the experience will be familiar to some of us, while it will probably make others more than a little uncomfortable. However, even in my research of English Puritans, I have found a number of examples of people sharing their experiential knowledge of God’s love. (It might help to know that words like “ecstasy” didn’t necessarily mean the same thing as some of our more fantastic modern definitions.) Here’s the young man’s account from 1200 years ago:
Once I was so greatly moved to tears and loving desire for God that I would be unable to describe in words the joy and delight I then felt. I fell prostrate on the ground, and at once I saw, and behold, a great light was immaterially shining on me and seized hold of my whole mind and soul, so that I was struck with amazement at the unexpected marvel and I was, as it were, in ecstasy. Moreover, I forgot the place where I stood, who I was, and where, and could only cry out, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ so that when I came to myself I discovered that I was reciting this… there was poured into my soul in unutterable fashion a great spiritual joy and perception and a sweetness surpassing every taste of visible objects, together with a freedom and forgetfulness of all thoughts pertaining to this life… Thus all the perceptions of my mind and soul were wholly concentrated on the ineffable joy of that Light.
Experiences of God’s love await us everywhere, including if we wait in stillness and silence.
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