Walking together – being transformed: Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, 7th February
The transfiguration must be one of the most puzzling events in the gospels: Jesus, appearing to three of his disciples, in glory, together with two Old Testament characters, Moses and Elijah. It is a popular subject for iconographers: showing the terror of the three disciples, the stature of Moses and Elijah, and in the centre, the transcendent glory of Jesus.
So what is the transfiguration all about? What does it have to do with Walking with Jesus? And what does it have to do with our other reading today, of Moses and the veil?
It is worth looking at the two characters who were with Jesus:
Moses – representative of the law, tradition, rules and regulations;
Elijah – representative of the prophets, vision, justice
Both represent something very good. The law and tradition give us something solid to build on: the past, our history. The prophets give us a vision of and hope for the future. We need both.
‘Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.’ (Deuteronomy 4:9)
‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18)
Jesus himself affirmed the law and the prophets:
‘Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfil them.’ (Matt 5:17)
So, both are good, but neither of them are ultimately able to transform us completely.
It is as though there is a veil over the reality that we are seeking. So 2 Corinthians talks about the veil that Moses wore after meeting with God (this is described in Exodus 34: 29-35), and how, even then in the first century AD, a veil is worn when the scripture is read. Paul goes on to describe how a similar veil covers our minds, so that we cannot fully understand what we read in scripture: ‘Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds’ (2 Cor 3:15). In Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians, says, ‘As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part.’ (1 Cor 13: 8,9)
‘Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And [the Lord] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… But, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”’ (Exodus 33: 18-20)
Removing the veil
I think that one of the key points of the transfiguration is that now, in Jesus, that veil is removed, and we are able, through Jesus, to know God for who God is; as it were, to ‘see God’s face’.
So, in the icon, both Moses and Elijah are able to look at Jesus, in his glory, without any veil. Jesus himself said, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the father’ (John 14: 9). John starts his gospel stating that ‘Nobody has ever seen God’ (John 1:18), but that Jesus has made God known:
‘And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1: 14).
So Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians which we read today, says that ‘when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed’ (2 Cor 3: 16). It is as though he is saying, if we look at Jesus, and walk with Jesus, we will begin to see what God is truly like.
And, in doing so, we ourselves will be changed, transformed:
‘And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3: 18)
So this is about each one of us being transformed, changed into Christ’s likeness, each of us becoming more of the person God intends us to be: our true selves.
How are we transformed?
This is all about grace – we are being transformed; it is not about us struggling to change.
According to Richard Rohr, only two things in life are truly transformational: great love and great suffering.
Jesus is the essence of this transformation through suffering and love: we see this, for example, in him washing his disciples’ feet, the last supper, his crucifixion.
Four years ago, many of my friends sat with me in Holy Trinity Church, as we remembered my wife, Helen’s life, and shared our tears over her sudden death.
But Helen, in those two weeks before she died, in a beautiful retreat centre outside Manila, discovered something of what it truly means to be God’s beloved child: standing under a waterfall, making rainbows, and knowing the amazing grace of God’s love washing down over her.
And I, too, over the past four years, have experienced something of that same grace. Of knowing that I, too, am God’s beloved child. Through the tears of losing Helen, the stillness of quiet dawns in the months that followed, the peace of silent retreats in Wales, and the new-found joy of marrying Lois, I believe that I, too, am being transformed.
Which brings us to the question of how we are transformed. Both of our passages today suggest that we are transformed by looking at Jesus, contemplating his love, gazing into his face.
Tom Wright puts it like this:
‘And all of us, without any veil on our faces, gaze at the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, and so are being changed into the same image, from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18)
However, we cannot just look into the face of Jesus. He isn’t here, we can’t see him. So it has to mean something more than that.
Perhaps it is more to do with the whole concept of walking with Jesus: spending time with Jesus, getting to know him, finding out who he really is, and listening to what Jesus might be saying to us about who we really are and how we can live life fully.
This painting of the transfiguration by Sieger Koder I think captures the event quite differently from the typical icons. In Koder’s painting, the disciples, rather than falling away in terror, are portrayed in attitudes of prayer or contemplation. The transfiguration occurred in the context of these disciples spending time with Jesus over three years, listening to his teaching, getting to know him, walking with him.
So, for us, being transformed is a consequence of spending time with Jesus, listening to his teaching, getting to know him, walking with him.
As part of that, we, like the disciples, can spend time in contemplation, perhaps using our imaginations to enter into the presence of Jesus and to listen to him: to, as it were, gaze into the face of Jesus.
I want to explore briefly what it means to walk with Jesus and get to know him. I will pose three questions which I would encourage you to go away and spend time with. I will give some pointers, but leave it to you to fill in the substance.
What do we see when we spend time getting to know Jesus?
- Not our usual image of success/power/beauty: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him… like one from whom men hide their faces; a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:2-3)
- Jesus knew that he was God’s beloved child. There are two accounts in the gospels of God speaking directly about Jesus. Both record God speaking of Jesus as his own, beloved son:
- At his Baptism: ‘This is my son, my beloved one, I am delighted with him’ (Matthew 3: 17)
- At his Transfiguration: ‘This is my son, my chosen one’ (Luke 9:35) or ‘This is my son, my beloved; with him I am well-pleased’ (Matt 17: 5)
Ideas for contemplation:
Read through one of the gospels. As you read, make a note of what it tells you about Jesus: what was he like as a person? What were his priorities? How did he interact with other people? How did he relate to God?
How do we walk with Jesus?
- Through stillness and silence (but beware, this can be painful)
- Read, with fresh eyes, the life and teaching of Jesus (e.g. Beatitudes, Sermon on the Mount)
- Encounters with those who are suffering, those who are broken (Matt 25: 31-46)
- Embracing our own suffering and brokenness (2 Cor 4: 7-12)
Ideas for contemplation:
Take some time just to be still; find a quiet place where you can be uninterrupted. Try a centering prayer or one of the approaches to contemplative prayer on this website, and allow God to speak to you in the silence.
What happens when we walk with Jesus?
- We see something more of our true self
- We recognise that we, too, are God’s beloved children
- We are transformed to become more like Jesus (our true self) = beatitudes; fruit of the spirit (love-inspired transformation, not 8 Essential Qualities!)
Ideas for contemplation:
Write a letter to yourself, as if from God. What would God want to say to you in a letter?
Spend some time with the following Examen questions:
- In what ways have I been transformed to be more like Jesus over the past few months?
- In what ways might God be wanting to transform me over the next few months?
‘But remember: that transformed version of you is known and present to God right now. God dwells in eternity, and is already intimately acquainted with this version of you. If you can trust this, then you can reach out and allow God to help you step through the veil between time and eternity. On the other side, in the hidden place where he waits for you, you can be your truest self. That is the self that can be naked and unashamed, that can look, unflinching, straight into the face of God. And when we look into that face and know ourselves beloved, it will be the most natural thing in the world to lay all that we have and all that we are at his feet.’ – Susan Pitchford, The Sacred Gaze, p50
It is by spending time with Jesus: walking with him, gazing into his face, taking his life and teaching seriously, and above all, by knowing that we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved children, that we are transformed.
I want to finish with an amazing tale of transformation from two of our friends in Servants, who spent 16 years living in a slum area in Cambodia.
Amongst our neighbours in Chbaa Ampou in Phnom Penh, the person in whom we most saw all this worked out was our friend Om Khuen. A deeply sincere Buddhist, she was the most gracious, caring person we knew in our community. And yet, there was no earthly reason she should have been. Like most Cambodians, she had suffered enormously under Pol Pot’s regime. Moreover, she’d been press-ganged into a forced marriage by the Khmer Rouge, and was trying to make the best of it even though he was a hopeless alcoholic, more often drunk than sober. She worked hard, running a shanty “grocery store” in our slum (really a bamboo bed with a tarp strung over it), but she never made any money – mainly because her clientele were so poor, and out of her big heart she kept extending them credit. She struggled almost single-handedly to keep her family of three girls and a boy together.
And then, during our first year in Cambodia, another horrible tragedy struck her family. Vibol, her son and oldest child at 21, the apple of her eye and as an apprentice gold-smith, part of the family’s hope for a better future, was murdered. Not far from where we lived, he’d been mugged for his motor scooter, and had fought back. He was stabbed multiple times and bled to death.
Life moved on, as it always does. But below the surface, deeper things were putting down roots in Om Khuen’s heart. One day, seven years after that horrible murder, Om Khuen dropped by to see us, her voice quivering with emotion. She told us that after all these years of observing the Christians in the village, seeing how they behaved, and weighing it all up, she had decided she wanted to become a follower of Jesus, too. We were, of course, both thrilled and stunned. But then, a few weeks later, our excitement over Om Khuen’s decision—and our respect for her as a person—grew even greater.
Om Khuen had been eagerly attending the cell group (Bible study) gatherings in our neighbourhood, and one evening Om Kheun dropped in to share with Susan and me something she believed God had spoken to her. She had read in the gospels that Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us (to forgive their debts). With this new insight, she had examined her heart and found that there was
something tainting her relationships in the village. Over the years, she had extended so much credit to other families that it now amounted to hundreds of dollars (a huge amount in a little slum economy). Om Kheun realized that she felt angry and frustrated with those who owed her so much, because she would be so much further ahead in life if they paid their debts. But she also realized that those poor families were deeply ashamed of the debts they would never be able to repay, and they avoided her as much as possible. She neither wanted to feel bitter, nor to be avoided. Inspired by what she read in the gospels, she decided to wipe the slate clean. Taking her record book in hand, she went from family to family, and before their eyes, drew a line through their debt, declaring it ‘forgiven.’ At the stroke of a pen, they were set free—and so was she.
Kristin Jack (Servant’s Quarters, November 2015 p9-10 www.servantsasia.org)
I want to be part of a church in which we are seeing that kind of love-inspired transformation.