This is the last week of our summer season. On Wednesday, the new season of Lent begins. We will kick off with an austere service which calls us to humble repentance. We will name how we have fallen into disobedience, disillusionment, despair, darkness, even hell; we will seek God’s forgiveness; and we will commit ourselves to the Lenten journey to Jerusalem.
Of course, none of us are getting on a plane to Israel this week. Instead, this journey to Jerusalem is a journey inward. It’s a time of intense prayer and reflection as we seek to share in Christ’s own pilgrimage from the desert to the city to the cross and beyond. For such a difficult journey, we’re going to need a roadmap: and this is what tonight’s story provides.
It opens as Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain to pray. As he prays, Jesus’ face and clothing become radiant. Moses and Elijah appear, and so does the cloud which marks God’s presence. Now, Peter, James and John together represent the church. Moses represents the law; and Elijah, the prophets. And so straightaway we learn a couple of things.
First, that the church finds itself in the presence of God when it’s in the company of Jesus. For Peter, James and John aren’t doing their own thing or calling out to God in their own words. Instead, they are going where Jesus leads them, and praying simply by being with him as he prays. And Jesus promises to be among his disciples even now when two or more are gathered in his name. In other words, if we want to walk with Jesus, we do not travel alone. As we journey to Jerusalem, we do well to travel in the company of others.
Second, notice that Jesus is praying here in conversation with the two great strands of the Jewish tradition: Moses and Elijah: the law and the prophets. He doesn’t take instruction here direct from heaven. Instead, he trusts that God has already spoken through Scripture and tradition, and he enters into dialogue with these strands. This suggests that we, too, will hear from God not by direct speech, but by attending to Scripture and tradition. Like Jesus, we read the law and the prophets; but we have more. For our scripture and tradition include the New Testament, as well as the continuing revelation through the liturgy, and the work of saints, theologians, activists, poets, artists, songwriters, storytellers and many others. We discern God’s voice by listening to these voices, and by discerning the strand of love.
This points to something else. Scripture and tradition didn’t just drop out of the sky. Instead, they are the result of centuries of reflection by real people living in real communities just like ours, grappling with who God is and how God acts in this world. So, just as Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah about his journey to Jerusalem, we, too, are called to dialogue with real people and real communities about our journey. Sometimes the dialogue is between us and a text generated by a community in another time or place; sometimes the dialogue is with living witnesses: people in this congregation; the person sitting next to you; the child who makes a perceptive comment; the friend who knows and loves you; the enemy who names something painful, deep and true.
Because, while some of us may have mystical experiences some of the time, ours is not a disembodied hyper-spiritual faith. God has always spoken, and continues to speak, through people; and our faith is storied and re-told and dissected and built up through conversation with this great cloud of witnesses: the community of the faithful, both living and dead. As we journey to Jerusalem, then, we do well to listen to real people, whether through reading scripture or engaging with tradition or performing the liturgy or talking with others or reading the Lenten reflections which so many of you have so graciously shared with us all.*
As we listen, and read, and talk, and pray, we seek of course only one voice: the voice of Christ. Not all voices are equal: and the story makes this clear. When Peter sees Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah, he wants to build three booths: one for the worship of each of them. The problem is, Moses and Elijah are not Jesus’ equal; their teachings and actions were not always Christ-like. When Moses came down the mountain with a shining face, he found the Israelites worshipping an idol; and so he commanded that 3,000 of them be slaughtered in sacrificial punishment. Elijah could be similarly bloodthirsty: he murdered 400 prophets of Baal on an altar to God; and he rained down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town.
Jesus is different. He preaches peace. He says things like “I came not to condemn, but to save” and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In his eyes, Samaritans are friends. The first person to recognise him as Messiah is the Samaritan woman at the well; a Samaritan is the hero of one of Jesus’ most pivotal stories; and when his disciples ask if they, like Elijah, should command heavenly fire to burn a Samaritan town, he rebukes them. He never calls for slaughter or the sacrifice of others. Instead, the only human sacrifice that is acceptable to Jesus is his own self-sacrifice, a gift which puts an end to the sacrificial system altogether.
So when Peter suggests building three booths, the cloud which marks the presence of God enfolds them; and a voice from the cloud speaks: “This is my son, my chosen one: listen to him.” Not Moses, not Elijah, but Jesus. And Jesus was standing alone: Moses and Elijah had disappeared. This doesn’t mean that the law and the prophets are eliminated from the picture altogether. But it does mean that Jesus’ voice takes priority. We listen to all the sources: law, prophets, New Testament, witnesses living and dead, church insiders and church outsiders; but Jesus is the litmus test: the indicator as to whether a voice is good spirit or bad: life-giving or death-dealing. As we journey to Jerusalem, then, we do well to remember this, and to critique any voice which contradicts his witness of good news for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, love for the enemy, and forgiveness for everyone.
When Jesus and the disciples come down off the mountain, they walk right into pain. A child is devastated by seizures; echoing the voice from the cloud, his father calls, “Look at my son!” And Jesus looks, and heals. On our journey to Jerusalem, then, we do well to remember that any mountaintop experience is not for our benefit. Instead, it is given to us to equip us to notice and alleviate suffering.
So that’s the roadmap for the journey to Jerusalem: to gather with others in the name of Christ; to listen to scripture and tradition; to dialogue with the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead; to seek always the voice of Jesus Christ; and to offer ourselves up for the pain of the world.
This journey is necessarily intense, dark, sombre: for we are heading to the cross; we are heading into death. But we take this journey in confidence, for we’ve done this before, and we know what lies on the other side: in the death of our ego, our ambition, our illusions, our violence, and everything else that we hold so dear, we are not only crucified with Christ, but are raised with him into resurrection life. Transfiguration isn’t a once-off event. Instead, it is happening and it keeps happening to us. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All of us, seeing the glory of the Lord face-to-face, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.”
This Lent, then, let us journey together through wilderness, conflict, trials, death and beyond; let us die to sin and come alive in him; and let us keep our eyes fixed on the wide open spaces and healing and wholeness which are the glory of the Risen Christ.
*Our Lenten reflections will be posted online here starting this Tuesday: one reading a day for the 40 days of Lent (which never includes Sundays).
A reflection on Luke 9:28b-36 (37-45) given to Sanctuary, 3 March 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash. I love how it picks up the idea of dialoguing with scripture, tradition and living people: zooming in reveals they are reading a book on prayer!