Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, a moment commemorated every August 6 in the calendar of the Church.
Of course, we don’t know exactly when this event happened, or even if this is an accurate representation of what happened. Like so much of our faith, this event is wrapped in mystery. And mystery is what I want to talk about today; I think that mystery is at the center of our way of faith.
As you know, I grew up in Texas, as a Methodist—pretty much everybody I knew, and certainly everyone I was related to, were either Methodists or Southern Baptists. And neither of these denominations had much, or really any, focus on mystery. It was more about what we knew and were certain of—about the steadfastness of God and the assurance of salvation.
A much-sung hymn from my childhood and from those churches summed it all up: “Blessed assurance! Jesus is mine. O, what a foretaste of glory divine.” When I was growing up, church was about clearing up the mysteries. We were to learn about God and then, armed with that knowledge—that assurance—know what we needed to do to get into heaven. It was actually rather easy. Not much mystery at all.
But I am not so sure anymore. You see, there were a lot of things I learned as a child in the mainline Protestant Church that have served me very well: The Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you); the wonder of creation; the Grace of God. But there are also things I learned that were harmful: one example was the idea that some ways of being human, like an attraction to people of the same gender, were so inherently flawed that we needed to spend a lot of time condemning them—even if that meant less of a focus on the love of God.
There was so much certainty about God and how God saw the world, that as a child I was left to see myself as possibly very flawed, and very much outside of the love of God. Looking back on it now, I see how wrong that was. How could anyone know with such conviction the mind of God? What was really at the root of wanting to completely castigate so many of our brothers and sisters for the sake of this certainty?
I think that the answer to that question lies in a fear of mystery.
No wonder, then, that I don’t remember spending much time on the story of the Transfiguration when I was a child. This is a story built on mystery. First it is the event itself. Jesus and his disciples go up a mountain to pray. That should be our first clue: God often appears on mountains. Our reading from Exodus highlights a similar encounter with God in the life of Moses – on a mountain. And like Moses, Jesus’ face begins to glow. But even beyond what happens to Moses, Luke tells us that Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white as well.
Then, as if that weren’t strange enough, Moses and Elijah appear and begin speaking to Jesus. The significance their appearance is clear to those who study the scriptures: both of them had encounters with God on Mount Sinai. Moses is meant to remind us of the past—the exodus event and covenant he received from God; and Elijah points to the future, as the prophet associated with the end times. Seeing Jesus converse with these two prophets confirms for the disciples that Christ comes in fulfillment of Israel’s law and prophecies.
And how do the disciples respond? Peter suggests that they mark the event by erecting a memorial—three dwellings, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Now, we preachers are often quick to focus on Peter’s suggestion, and to declaire that his idea of memorializing the event is all wrong. Many a sermon on this passage has said that, “discipleship isn’t about adoring… mountaintop experiences, [but rather] about going back down the mountain, into the grit and grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”[i]
But interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell Peter that he has it wrong. He doesn’t respond to Peter at all – he says nothing. So we don’t know how Jesus feels about this idea of building monuments.
United Methodist Pastor Jason Micheli suggests that perhaps “Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.” He says, “In this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instance of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God [I like that phrase – the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God – hold on to that one, because I plan to come back to it], and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God”[ii]
He goes on to say that, “what Peter gets wrong is not that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build three tabernacles. Elijah and Moses maybe could have used them, but not Jesus. Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.”
And this brings me to the other big event of this day: Today [at the 10:00 service] we will consecrate and dedicate our new aumbry. As I wrote in the insert, the aumbry is a special cabinet in the sanctuary for storing the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. We have a similar cabinet in the sacristy (that’s the room back here in the corner of the church where we keep all the things we need for worship, and where those of us who lead worship vest), but I felt it important that we have a place for storage of the reserved sacrament here by the altar.
Why? Well, for me it circles back to mystery. The Eucharist—Holy Communion—is of greatest importance to us. We join in this ritual around bread and wine every week because it recalls for us the amazing gift of Jesus—God incarnate here on earth, the Word made flesh. This aumbry is a visible sign of that gift. It holds the elements of communion that remind us of the mystery of Christ, who came to earth as one of us, who walked with us, who laughed and cried with us, and who gave his life for our salvation.
I could preach an entire sermon about what might be happening when we consecrate the bread and wine, about ideas of transubstantiation, or consubstantiation, or other theological ideas around communion—I don’t really want to do a deep dive into all that right now, but I am glad to discuss it with you and learn more about how you understand this ritual.
All of that is mystery to us. And yet it is also extraordinary blessing. By having a special and visible place to store the elements of the eucharist, always attended by a lit candle, I hope we will be reminded of the enormity of that gift, and the power it has in our lives. Some understand these elements as so sacred that they venerate, or bow to, the altar when they see that lit candle. Doing so is a way to acknowledge that mystery, and to make a physical gesture toward these elements, recognizing that gift and its power in our lives. When we do this we are not bowing to the bread; we are bowing to what it contains—what it means for our lives.
But others of you may not be comfortable bowing to the altar, and that’s OK. What I invite you to do is to think about the Eucharist—to consider what it means to you, why you come here and partake in this ritual. Then every time you see this aumbry, and the candle with it, I hope you will be reminded again of what this ritual means for you, and how it shapes your life.
The ultimate mystery of our faith is encapsulated in the gift of Christ to the world—in “the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God.” God announced that mystery to Peter, James and John on the mountaintop, and we recall it each time we consecrate the elements of communion and receive them at the altar. The full meaning of this mystery is not known to any of us, no matter how certain we may seem. But we know that it holds great power for us; we know that our lives are better when we acknowledge the gift and find ways to order our lives around it.
Praise be to God for the gift of Christ, for the ritual of bread and wine made flesh and blood to nourish our hungry souls, and for the mystery that wraps around it all. May we find strength in all of it, even if we understand only a little. Amen.
[i] “What preachers get wrong and Peter gets right about the Transfiguration,” The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/what-preachers-get-wrong-and-peter-gets-right-about-transfiguration, accessed 08/04/2017.