Transfiguration Sunday has some of the oddest readings of the year. The centerpiece is the Gospel reading about the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It is baffling enough, and it is probably the easiest of the readings for the day! The readings are filled with mystery, and even the theme I have chosen, that of transformation, is hard to get a hold on.
I didn’t read the Old Testament reading but I need to mention it because it is important for understanding Paul’s passage in II Corinthians. After receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus, Moses met with God regularly in the Tent of Meeting. And it says that the experience of meeting with God transformed Moses so that when he finished his face was shining. This frightened the rest of the people, so Moses began veiling his face when he came out of the tent so his countenance would not scare everyone.
In a similar manner, when Jesus went on the mountaintop to pray with Peter, James, and John, his appearance was transformed, transfigured. The appearance of his face changed and his clothing became dazzling white, and there were two more men talking with him, Moses and Elijah. Peter started babbling about building three booths to commemorate this great occasion, but a cloud engulfed them all and the disciples were terrified and they heard a voice from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then, just as suddenly, everything was back to normal and the disciples must have wondered if they had just dreamed it all. They didn’t even talk about it with the others when they came down from the mountain.
In the passages from Exodus and Luke, Moses and Jesus are the people who are transformed or transfigured. Everyone else is afraid and not quite sure what to make of it. I want to spend most of my time this morning talking about Paul’s development of this theme of transformation to apply to our lives.
As you remember, Paul began life with the name of Saul, and the transformational event which changed the direction of his life as well as his name happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Saul was a Jewish leader, a Pharisee, who had studied and prepared himself for this role much of his life. As did many of his brethren, Saul saw the Jesus movement as a serious threat to Judaism. Instead of killing the movement by crucifying Jesus, it had picked up steam as his followers had begun preaching and attracting large crowds who began to follow them. So Saul became a leader of the movement to suppress these followers of Jesus by intimidation and even death, if necessary. They stoned Stephen to death to be an example.
Next Saul was authorized to go to Damascus and begin the same intimidation campaign against Christians there. But on his journey to Damascus, Saul was stopped in his tracks. He had a vision of the transformed, transfigured, resurrected Christ, and he was struck blind by the glory. He heard a voice saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do next.”
Saul was transformed instantaneously from a powerful, fire breathing intimidator to an absolutely helpless blind man who had to be led by the hand and had to trust others to take care of him and provide for him. This was but the beginning of an even more remarkable transformation. The persecutor of the church became the great missionary apostle of the church, with the new name of Paul. The conservator of the Mosaic law became the apostle of Christian liberty and freedom. That did not happen instantaneously but over time through periods of preparation, through trial and error and successes and failures and hard knocks. Paul learned a great deal about being changed, about being transformed.
One of the big issues Paul deals with in his letter to the Corinthians is that other missionaries came through after he left who tried to undo what he had done. These were Jewish-Christian missionaries who had a stronger desire to hold on to Jewish things than Paul did. Paul said that when Gentiles became Christians they were not obligating themselves to follow all the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws and purity and cleanliness rituals and so forth. Those preachers who came behind him said that was not true and that to become a Christian meant fully embracing all of Judaism.
In today’s passage, Paul begins by transforming the story of Moses putting on the veil because of his face shining into an allegory for his day. For Jews, using the name Moses is synonymous with talking about the law, so when Paul talks about Moses being read he is talking about the Jewish law being read and studied. He says, “Wherever Moses is read a veil lies over people’s minds.” As Moses covered his face so the people would not see its other worldly shine, so the law, the old covenant, obscures the truth from people. Only when people are willing to let go of the old covenant, let go of the old legalism, are they able to fully turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the veil is removed. He says, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
This is a radical step, moving away from the legalism and judgmentalism that we so often associate with Christianity, to living by the Spirit of the law rather than its letter. Jesus told another Pharisee, Nicodemus, that such a step required no less than being born again, from one way of thinking and living to a totally different one. Jesus intervened in Saul’s life, stopping him dead in his tracks of legalism and judgmentalism and turning him around into a life of grace and gratitude and forgiveness. It was as jarring as being born again. It is a full transformation. As they would say on tv, it was a “total makeover.”
Next Paul addresses his readers in Corinth and all of us today, saying, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Transformation may begin at a point in time as it did for Paul on the Damascus Road, but it is a lifelong process as we are transferred “from one degree of glory to another.” That is a really helpful image for me. None of us are finished products. None of us are fully the people we would like to be or that God would like for us to be, but that doesn’t mean we are failures or that the story is finished! Robert Prim writes, “No one falls head first into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ. The work of God’s justifying and redemptive Spirit moves in human lives from one degree of glory to another. This is wonderfully good news! No one sails through life without setbacks, without rough seas, without hardships and doubts. Yet for the follower of Christ, the setbacks or hardships are not the defining events of life. For the followers of Christ, the defining event is the freedom offered through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 451)
To continue with metaphorical mysteries, Dean Jackson has a great example using caterpillars and butterflies. He writes, “When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she had always been. But she had wings.” Paul’s fellow missionaries wanted him to change back into what he had been as a strict adherent of the Jewish law, but he had been transformed into something different. He had wings, he had Christian freedom.
Today we are recognizing and giving thanks for Scouting. Of course the bottom line of Scouting is transformation. In Boy Scouts, the goal is that you come in as a boy and you leave as a man, a man who has learned many life skills, many life lessons, endured hardships as well as victories, learned leadership skills, recognized the value both of God and country in his life. There are similar goals for girls entering Girl Scouts.
Transformation is what church and living the Christian life need to be about as well. David Kinnaman writes, “Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends. They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ… Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.” (What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters)
The goal is transformation, change, from one degree to the next toward the image of Christ. What does the image of Christ look like? We find it in the Scriptures as we read the stories and teachings and observe the endless love of Jesus for others.
Max Beerbohm wrote a great story called “The Happy Hypocrite.” It is about a gambling, drinking, womanizing scoundrel named Lord George Hell who falls in love with a young, innocent dancer. In order to win her love he purchases the mask of a saint’s face and wears it as he courts her. He changes his ways as well, transforming his life in every way in order to be what she wants in a man. She falls in love with him and they marry. A month after their marriage an old acquaintance shows up and demands that he take the mask off and show his wife what he is really like. A fight ensues and the visitor tears off the mask, only to find that the scoundrel’s face, like his life, has become that of a saint.
For the last hymn today we are changing to a hymn which ran through my mind as I wrote this sermon on Thursday, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” This is the prayer for transformation offered in the last stanza: “Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.” May it be so for all of us as we make this journey through life.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 7, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church