When I discovered that the reading set down for today was the story that we have come to know asthe transfiguration the first image that came to my mind was the well-worn and defined path that goes from JC Slaughter falls to the top of Mt Cootha. For those of you who have walked on this path you will know that it is well signposted, it is wide, and for the most part quite smooth. In parts there are steps and handrails.
As you come close to the top of the mountain you leave the forest walk to traverse the last few hundred metres on the side of the bitumen road and then on to a cement path to the shop where you can buy an ice cream or cold drink. Clearly the journey to the top of Mt Cootha was not always like this. It is only through our human intervention and inventiveness that we have domesticated the mountain and made the journey easier for ourselves.
What has all of this to do with the story of the transfiguration?
Just as we have sought to domestic the walk to the top of Mt Cootha so too when we hear again the story of the transfiguration, and in a sense follow Peter, James and John up the mountain with Jesus, it is not an untraveled road. There is a well-worn path of centuries of theology, historiography and spiritual reflection on the story. Even if you are hearing your first sermon on the story it is a story that has been and is filtered through the theological teachings and insights of the preacher.
For me this reality of the domestication of this familiar story is emphasised by the association of this story of the transfiguration with Mt Tabor. Whilst none of the scriptural stories say where the transfiguration occurred a tradition developed suggesting it was at Mt Tabor. This became more strongly cemented, around 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the great theologian and thinker Origen claimed that this was where the transfiguration took place.
However, there are more than a few reasons that this may not be the place it occurred. There are two key ones that I want to mention. Firstly, the long distance of Mt Tabor from Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were 6 days earlier. And, secondly, the fact that it is known that there was a long standing Roman fort on the top of the mountain at the time. Despite these issues which put the location of the event into question if you go to mount Tabor today what you will see is this –church of transfiguration.
Any attempts at an historical reconstruction of the event or theologising of the moment can miss something that is entirely vital and confronting about what occurs. In Douglas Hare’s commentary he puts it quite simply, “For modern readers, the story of the transfiguration is one of the most difficult in the New Testament… its content is so otherworldly that it is hard for us to accept its historicity.” The story, as well worn and domesticated as we might try to make it, takes us to a mountaintop where something occurs that we have absolutely no control over and is completely foreign to our common experience.
Christ is transformed! Moses and Elijah appear! God speaks from a cloud!
There is nothing ordinary here. There is nothing that can make this any easier to believe. There is nothing that we can domestic about a Christophany or a theophany – and I admit to using these theological words deliberately precisely because I want to emphasise the foreignness of what is occurring. It is not only the foreignness of an event in the disciples’ lives when Jesus identity is confirmed but the foreignness and mystery of God becoming present in the span history as in and through Jesus God reconciles the world with its Creator.
The difficulty of apprehending and comprehending this spiritual experience on the mountain is highlighted in Peter’s response which is to offer to make three tabernacles, or tents: one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He is grasping at spiritual and liturgical straws to try to make sense of what he is seeing. And, moreover, the instruction by Jesus to Peter, James and John not to share this experience until after Jesus’ resurrection. This seems to indicate that Jesus well knew that the disciples had not quite got it.
An experience of the divine, a personal vision, or revelation, whether is as spectacular as the transfiguration or as ordinary as having an spiritual insight pop into your head, does not mean that you have arrived and that you have all the answers. The disciples obviously struggled to understand Jesus presence and teaching, a fact which is further emphasised by the stories on either side of the transfiguration.
6 days earlier Peter had hit the nail on the head when he identified that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Ironically, he had then gone on to deny Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. Jesus call Peter both the rock on which he will build his church and satan. The contrast could not be any greater! The gospel writer leaves a long pause in the story and it is not 6 days later until we heat what happens next.
The liminal space between that encounter between Jesus and Peter and the amazing events on the top of the mountain interest me immensely.
We are told nothing about these intervening days. Is it because of the awkwardness Peter and the other disciples felt around Jesus correction of Peter? Is it because they were trying to process what Jesus had said about his death? Were they just a few quiet days where no miracles occurred or nothing of significance was said? The awkward silence on these days are for me very much about the journey of faith that most of us are on. Days when we think about whether we have really understood God at all. Days when we doubt God and Jesus. Days that we reflect on how we can get our faith so right and so wrong. Days which seem to blend into our existence and just pass by and before we know it another week has gone.
If this is what was happening before the event of the transfiguration what comes after is even more perplexing. The disciples are told not to share with anyone their experience. And, based on their track record of getting things wrong or not fully understanding them we might well understand this. But, then, Matthew goes on to tells us that when the group re-joins the crowds a man shows up and tells Jesus that the disciples had failed to heal his son. Jesus heals the son and then admonishes the disciples for their lack of faith.
On both sides of the transfiguration are stories that remind us that the disciples’ comprehension of what God was doing in and through Jesus was limited at best. Even with the spiritual high of the Christophany and theophany the disciples are exposed as having a lack of faith. If we fast track a bit further through Matthew what we find is that it also Peter, James and John who fail to say awake and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
First and foremost the good news is not about how well the disciples understand, it is not about how well they healed and participated in Christ’s mission, it is not about their faithfulness – and, might I say, it is not first and foremost about our faithfulness and participation in Christ’s mission either.
It is about who Jesus is – the Christ, the Messiah – and about what God does in and through him and continues to do in and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our task is not to look at the disciples and scoff at their incomprehension because through 2000 years of history we think we have domesticated the story and have a better faith. No our task, like theirs, is with humility simply to acknowledge Christ’s presence with us and give thanks to God for what God has done for us in Christ.
Even if and when we have our moments of spiritual closeness to God our theophany, or a moment of revelation we should remember the time on the mountain and the disciples’ response. The moment of revelation is something that should be accepted as mystery and gift. It is beyond our control and beyond our full comprehension. Yes, those moments can keep us going in our faith, they can inspire and incite us to action, and they can encourage to stay on the journey with Jesus. But they should be tempered by the disciples experience and the more mundane reality that more often than not our journey is through the liminal space, the six days, the moments our lack of faith is exposed, or we are found sleeping in the garden. Regardless of where we find ourselves the promise of the story we find is Matthew is that in Christ and through the Spirit God remains with us.
I began this morning’s sermon with that image of the walk up Mt Cootha. We have sought to tame the mountain and we seek to tame the story of the transfiguration. Yet whether we make the journey up the mountain easy or hard in the end the presence and work of God is not something that we can control. Like the disciples all we can say is in Jesus, God is with us, and hope that between the liminal spaces of our lives God will intrude into the ordinary existence of our realities and make more clearly known for each one of us the hope of following Jesus.