Luke 9: 28-36
The transfiguration has been strangely neglected in our Christian calendar, perhaps because it is so ineffable. This account of the Transfiguration is the nexus of Luke’s Gospel account, a hub that links past and present and future together in God’s salvation history, that connects creation and creator, law, and grace.
And it starts with prayer.
Luke pays particular attention to Jesus’s practice of prayer – in chapter 5, he explicitly tells the reader that Jesus prayed as was his custom.
9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
Jesus is again at prayer, just as he was before the spirit descended at his baptism (3:21), as he approached the temptation in the wilderness (5:16), before choosing the twelve (6:12), before asking the disciples to identify who he was (9:18) and now, Jesus is at prayer when he is transfigured. The pattern is clear – each time Jesus needed to discern, to speak, and each time his divinity is revealed, Jesus first prays.
The other thing that is notable is that rather than retreating alone, Jesus took his trusted inner circle and closest friends with him. Jesus had them retreat in prayer. This event was not just for Jesus, but also for those with him – his identity as the son of God is confirmed for humanity.
9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
His appearance, his clothes, his body changed in appearance while he was praying. The transfiguration showed those present, right then and there, Jesus’s full identity as the incarnate God.
Remember Paul talking about a Spiritual Body – two things that should be opposite, but are brought together in God? Here we have light – the very presence of the divine – and Jesus’s very human body together.
9:30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Luke deliberately starts verse 30 with the phrase “two men” – two human figures.
In the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Jesus’s salvation work is firmly grounded in Israel’s historical past. Moses and Elijah are amongst the greatest of the scriptural heroes, and both figures represent prophets and the Law. Jesus’s salvation is not a deviation from Israel’s journey with God, but a continuation of it.
But great as they are, in their lives, Elijah and Moses simply reflected God’s glory; Jesus’s entire being radiates his own divine glory. The men appeared in glory, and Jesus himself inhabits and exudes glory. This scene vividly illustrates the great commandments “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus’s love, truth and divinity illuminates and is the intent of the law of Moses and Elijah. (Matthew 22: 37-40).
These great prophets, Elijah and Moses, were speaking also of the time soon to come – of Jesus’s departure. “Departure” was an unusual word for Luke to choose – in the Greek, the word is Exodos which literally means “road out”. These keepers of the law were discussing with Jesus his “road out”, that he would “accomplish”. For the first time, Jesus has peers in his journey.
He is in conversation with them – he’s not teaching them. These people hold the law, after all, and know where Jesus is to go.
These figures of the Law point Jesus to the Cross – the Cross is the “road out” that will be “accomplished”. We will see Jesus with two figures again, as he is crucified with two men found guilty under the law, and pays the same price. At this time, the boundary between Creation and Creator will again be breached, the veil tearing from bottom to top, and creation will finally be released from sin. There, the division between humanity and God that humanity could never resolve will be finished. No more will humanity see violence as God’s requirement and response. Instead of war being humanity’s experience of God’s power and correction, and humanity responding with sacrifices, Jesus enters into and takes upon himself all human violence and sin. The Greek for accomplish (plēro-ō) is a strong verb – literally, it means to fill as full as is possible – ful-fil. The road out, the exodos, places this time as the centre of salvation history. The law’s intent – a call to self-sacrificial love – is revealed and accomplished. Death itself will not be able to hold this magnificence, this glory.
We’ll encounter two figures again, outside an empty tomb, and this time those figures will tell us Christ has overcome death itself. Christ’s transfiguration points forward to that time when Jesus is once again bodily present, yet transformed. Fully human and fully divine. The first of the spiritual bodies of the resurrection.
9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
Peter is singled out here, as being weighed down with sleep, with John and James, the Brothers of Thunder. This inner circle will also be sleepy but unable to stay awake as Jesus prays in distress the night before his death. Jesus wants his friends to be with him in prayer, even though they don’t yet have the ability to persevere nor the spiritual perception to understand. They’re still invited.
Notice that Peter’s suggestion of tents comes just as Elijah and Moses were leaving. And that Luke says Moses and Elijah were leaving Jesus, not “them”. Peter seems to jump from observer to participant. Don’t go, he seems to say. Why? To keep these powerful figures close? To freeze this moment time? Or to hold this moment longer, to stay in that glory and goodness, in an attempt to remain there and perhaps to begin to understand.
9:34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
This desire to house and contain the moment is clearly not what is required, because God’s presence comes, providing a glorious and terrifying tent of cloud to overshadow them, correcting and silencing Peter.
The word, overshadow, is also used by the Angel Gabriel in his promise to Mary, that the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will by Holy; he will be called the son of God (Luke 1:35)
The parallel to the birth narrative shows us the enveloping presence of the Holy Spirit throughout Jesus’s life, and those that love him. The presence of God invokes fear and awe, as it always has, and yet it embraces those that understandably can’t comprehend God’s presence, from the beginning to the end of Jesus’s life – Mary, Peter, John, and James.
9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
We have the tangible presence of God on that mountain top – in the cloud, the voice, and the incarnate Christ. The threefold God was present at Jesus’s baptism and the beginning of his ministry in dove, voice, and body, and is present again at the end of his earthly ministry, in a closing bracket that reveals Jesus’s full identity. There is no doubt that the divine inhabits this earthly body.
This same Jesus, fully human and fully divine, the chosen and loved, will go to the cross, and become separated from his father – as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, the one that knew no sin will be made sin for us. We will recall God’s glorious declaration of love for his son on Good Friday, when we hear Christ mocked by his torturers with his Father’s own words – God’s Chosen One 23:35.
This is the one we must listen to if we want to follow the road out from sin and death, God’s son, God’s chosen one, the incarnate, transfigured, crucified, and resurrected Christ.
9:36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Jesus’s three closest friends were silent in the wake of witnessing this ineffable epiphany and prophecy.
The revelation of Jesus’s goodness and undeniable divinity, his fulfilment of the law, and the failure of the disciples to understand, begins the road out to the cross, where this beautiful son of God, the chosen one, will be handed over to the worst of humanity’s cruelty.
On that mountain top, Jesus’s transfiguration is a dual revelation.
The light of the source of goodness, of creation, now shines on what the law exposes – the sorrow of human sin. The transfiguration is the presence of the past communicating with the present Jesus and pointing to the future events – past and present come together to begin the journey to the Cross – Elijah and Moses from the past affirm Jesus’s identity in that moment and his departure to accomplish in the very near future. The intent of the law was always to provide a road out.
Jesus’s friends couldn’t understand – after a brief attempt to hold the moment, they were silent. Humanity can’t cope with the fullness of God. Perhaps this is why Jesus’s transfiguration has slipped from prominence in our church calendars? There’s no neat and easy formula we can apply to understand what was revealed on that mountain top. Like Peter, perhaps we like things we can hold still, put in a tent or a box; that we can control and understand? It is far easier to comprehend applying the law than it is to follow the ineffable love that is the intent of the law – but only one of these paths is the road out that God has filled to the brim in love.
Like Peter, humanity fails to understand God’s intent over and over. We take things into our own hands. This need for control, to possess power, to limit God, to tell God what to do and what to think, would have us cling in ignorance to the law that enchains and limits us.
If we try to limit God to what we can understand, we will never experience the fullness of the grace and goodness that is intended for us.
But if we wakefully approach and reverently listen to God’s son, the transfiguration shows that divine goodness can transform us. Because God knows humanity needs transformation right now. We are faced with a pandemic and vaccine inequity, the evil attack and occupation of Ukraine, the coup in Myanmar and takeover of Afghanistan, a widening gap between rich and poor, and ecological crises of our own making. We can either attempt to baton down in our tents and cling frozen to the good we once glimpsed or follow God’s movement on the road out.
And there is a road out. The transfiguration shows us the wonderful potential of humanity. Christ’s appearance when transfigured changed, yet he remained fully human. Despite our human frailty, our human bodies have the potential to be so filled with God’s spirit, that God’s light and love emanate.
That light, that love, that divine human walked the road out, and took all human sin on his very human shoulders. The crucifixion was the worst of humanity, it was lies and betrayal, fear and violence raging against truth and love. It was the worst ever example of turning away from God: the execution of God’s own son and chosen one.
Violence, hatred and death itself could not hold God’s love, nor could it provoke retaliation. Never again will we think that war is God’s judgement, because Christ took his light and truth and love into injustice, violence and cruelty, and took upon his body and self all sin and violent judgement.
It is finished.
God’s love transformed everything, for everyone, forever. God’s intent for us was accomplished, full-filled.
When Peter attempted to hold the movement of that light and truth, God silenced and yet embraced them all in the Spirit’s powerful presence. Listen to my son, said God. God calls us in the same way – silence: listen to my son. Luke shows us over and over how we might encounter Jesus on God’s own terms. In every holy encounter, Jesus was at prayer as was his custom, united with his father. Luke emphasizes Jesus’s unity with God by making explicit his practice of prayer. If we’re looking for Jesus, yearning for the road out to grace, we should not be surprised to find him in his father’s house, in prayer.
So, shall we pray?
may we follow Peter, in shedding our desire to limit your movement
and your ability to transform us and your world.
May we encounter your son with you in prayer,
may we attend to your transforming holy spirit,
so we may enter a transcendent understanding of your love,
and take that same love into the hurt, sorrow, and injustice of our world.
In the name of Christ,