Today, on this last Sunday after the Epiphany, we are asked to remember Jesus’ Transfi-guration. But just the word itself sounds daunting, doesn’t it. On the other hand, transfiguration is simply the kind of transformation with which most of us are familiar. If you think of transfi-guration as transformation – as a metamorphosis – an alteration, or change of form or appearance, into a more beautiful, or perhaps ethereal, state or condition – it’s not at all that uncommon. In fact, transformations of all sorts are active this time of year. After celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas, weight watching is in the transfiguration business. And so is psychotherapy – and so are cosmetic surgeons who transfigure their patients. And so are suicide bombers and terrorists – and preachers and teachers – and a host of other folks who mean to transform social and political environments. With examples like these, what is really uncommon about transfiguration is how we view it and understand it, and what we make of it.
Although I don’t customarily offer three-point sermons, today I would like you to think about two stories that share some similarities and some differences – and then consider what difference it might make if we choose to live by one of them rather than the other. This is the first story.
It’s probable that none of us here was actually there – but some of us can clearly remem-ber the event, now almost 73 years ago. It was August 6, 1945, at exactly 8:15 a.m. Japanese time, when the US Air Force dropped a bomb from an airplane named the Enola Gay that caused a noiseless streak of blinding light to cut across the morning sky above the Japanese city of Hiro-shima. An astonishing explosion then created a mushroom-shaped cloud that began to form and rise overhead. In the wake of this bomb, 60% of the city’s 4.7 square miles was obliterated – more than half of it’s 350,000 citizens were killed outright – and later thousands more including babies – suffered the terrible effects of radiation sickness due to overexposure of radiation. Three days later, on August 9, a 2nd atomic bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki and caused similar devas-tation. These bombs effectively ended the Asian theater of WW II – but they also introduced the atomic age which, with its offspring the nuclear age, has become a reality so irresistible, so irre-versible, and so unthinkably dreadful and hideous and horrifying that just its prospect has pro-foundly transfigured the shape of human history. This reality is currently playing center-stage in several of the world’s ‘hot spots’ – particularly in Asia and the Middle East – but, in truth, it affects all of us.
Now please hold onto that story as I invite you to reflect on another time and place where an event – again, at which none of us was actually present – yielded a reality which was also so irresistible and so irreversible that it, too, profoundly transfigured the shape of human history. This is the second story and it occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels.
In today’s reading in Mark, there are accounts in Matthew [17:1-8] and Luke [9:28-36] both similar and different . In Mark’s version, it had been six days since Jesus had laid down the stringent conditions for discipleship – saying that his followers must deny self, take up his cross daily, and follow him even unto death – and that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it. Then Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up onto a high mountain. And while he is praying, his face changed in appearance and his clothes became dazzling – almost blindingly – white. And Moses and Elijah, both long dead, are seen speaking with him about his approaching suffering and death in Jerusalem. Interestingly, two of Mark’s five differences from Matthew and Luke are that he says nothing about a change of Jesus’ face although he emphasizes the whiteness of Jesus’ garments – and that, after coming down the mountain, Jesus again tells his disciples what we call the ‘messianic secret’ – just don’t tell anybody about this.
But then, Peter, James and John had slept through most of this – and they only awoke in time to see Moses and Elijah going away. But then the miracle happened. Just as Peter was pro-posing to build 3 temporary shelters – maybe altars – to honor in one definite place the presence of Moses and Elijah and Jesus – a cloud overshadowed them – not the one that hovered over Hiro-shima and Nagasaki, but another cloud – and like those helpless Japanese people, these disciples were deathly afraid. But as it turned out, their fears were unwarranted. Instead of bringing death and destruction, this cloud brought a voice from heaven that majestically announced “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him”.
Bt now you have surely guessed that I have rehearsed these two stories – one about Hiro-shima and Nagasaki, and the other about the Transfiguration of Jesus – because the segue is that they clearly illustrate a fundamental choice before us in the modern era. In sum, the urgent ques-tion they pose to us is whether the gospel story or some other story will be the story that norms and shapes and controls our lives.
I know, of course, that many among us believe that alongside atomic and nuclear power there are natural powers that threaten to destroy the world. I can remember the frantic efforts of homeowners in my Mississippi boyhood to build underground storm cellars for protection against tornadoes and other devastating storms. And I can recall being part of the large commit-tee in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was charged with creating bomb shelters among the serpentine net-work of tunnels beneath Duke’s campus – and agonizing questions about who might be kept out. Nowadays there is considerable evidence that – alongside terrorism and sectarian political strife – fear of the prospect of nuclear holocaust not only controls international negotiatons between war-ring nations but is precisely the fear that is the pivotal consideration in religious endorsements of peace. From politicians and even from pastors and ecclesiastical bureaucrats, the basic argument claims that we must work for peace because nuclear power is the greatest power in the world.
I think that knee-jerk argument needs more serious examination. We need to notice how its major premise is crafted – that nuclear power is the greatest power in the world. The further argument deduces from that proposition that the threat of nuclear destruction of the whole world is so great that if we don’t intercede on behalf of peace, the awesome power for making nuclear war bids fair to annihilate all life on this planet. The underlying assumption, which Christians should want to question vigorously and reject, is that it is plainly within our power by one means or another to destroy God’s creation.
Now lately there has been a spate of movies for both television and movie theaters that exploit the theme of the threatened end of the world – with a savior who rescues it from almost certain destruction. I’d reckon that Orson Welles may have initiated this genre in his 1938 radio broadcast called “The War of the Worlds” – a story about earth invaded by alien-tripod-fighting- machines and how one family fights for survival. But if you saw something more recent – like the Superman movies – you may remember dialogue lines which struck me as expressing the hope of a world in despair and paralyzed by the threat of nuclear holocaust. “Effective immedi-ately,” said Superman, “I’m going to do what our governments have been unwilling to do – rid our planet of all nuclear weapons”.
So on this Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus, it is my happy duty to point out that Christian faith affirms another power as the greatest power in the world. Christians are a people who say that Jesus’ resurrection has transformed all of history be-cause this event has transformed our relationship with his Father. And we say that, because of his resurrection, we – you and I – are transfigured – no longer the bastard offspring of a faithless Adam – but the daughters and sons of the almighty and sovereign God. We say that you and I are transformed from God’s enemies into God’s friends – that we are a people who believe that God has reclaimed our human nature – and transfigured it – transforming it in Christ’s own image. We also say we are a people for whom God is at the center of transforming what appears to be defeat and darkness and despair, transforming it into light and life and victory.
Insofar as we get re-membered – re-connected – to Jesus’ faithful life – to his suffering and death and resurrection – we say that the final flash of blinding light across the heavens will not signal a man-made holocaust but God’s complete and gracious reign – and the salvation of all life to the glory of the Holy Trinity. We say all that – but the perpetual question before us is “do you really believe what you say?”
Among many awards these days, the CLIO award consists of a statue, something like the Oscar and Tony. But this one honors the name of the Greek muse who celebrated great deeds and accomplishments and, specifically, it pays tribute to commercial advertising. In 1987 a CLIO was awarded to a television ad that opened with a young man in army fatigues – crew cut, almost a skin-head – walking along a street. He stops abruptly and runs to the right, toward the camera along a side street, as a car with 2 men in it pulls up behind him. The voice-over says, “An event seen from one point of view gives one impression”. In this brief scene, the impression is that the young man is running away from the 2 men in the car.
The camera then shifts behind the young man – and he is seen running toward a business-man with a briefcase. The young man in army fatigues reaches out to grab the businessman who, in turn, raises the briefcase as if to defend himself. Then the voice-over says, “Seen from another point of view, the event gives a different impression”. In this scene, the impression is that the young man is about to attack the businessman.
The camera then lifts to an aerial shot, and from overhead one can see the sidewalk, the street, and the building – and the young man is grabbing the businessman and pulling him against the building. At that moment, a lift carrying bricks to higher floors on the building breaks and the bricks crash onto the sidewalk. They would have killed the man with the briefcase – except he is saved by the young man who pulled him out of danger – and then the voice-over announces, “It’s only when you see the whole picture that you fully understand what is happening”.
Understanding comes from putting together perspectives of continuity and contrast from the past with perception and appreciation of the present. That’s how understanding helps us to lean into the future. And that is why the transfiguration of Jesus is an important part of our new optics – seeing the whole picture – seeing more accurately who God is, what he is about, and who we are called to be when we follow him. Unlike the cloud of death that hovered over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cloud which enveloped Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguraion was a cloud of life. In these rancorous and fearful days, I believe that is a timely meaning of the transfiguration of Jesus for us – that life, not death, is God’s last word about who we are and our human history. Accordingly, our job is simply to live by that promise. Soli Deo gloria – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.