Texts: Exodus 34.29-35; 2 Corinthians 3.12–4.2; Luke 9.28-36
This Wednesday the church enters the season of Lent. The Ash Wednesday rite sets the tone for the season by calling the church to a time of prayer and reflection, inviting all who will to go on pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of his suffering, his death and, ultimately, his resurrection. The point of the pilgrimage is revealed in the passage immediately prior to the one we read from Luke this morning: that in walking with Jesus to his death, we might experience our own death—the death of our most alienated selves—and be raised glorious new selves with Christ, selves able to experience the joy and peace of God’s freedom. So today, immediately before the pilgrimage begins in earnest, we read a story from Luke’s gospel which may be taken as a key statement about the meaning of everything that will unfold from here on in, both for Jesus and for pilgrims like us. It is the story of Jesus’ transfiguration before Peter, James and John. It is a story that, if read carefully and with discernment, is able to shed a great deal of light on what the Christian pilgrimage is all about.
The first lesson to be learnt from this story is in its first line: ‘Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.’ Here we learn that pilgrimage is about going where Jesus goes, and doing what Jesus does. Simple to say, but not so simple to do, hey? A number of hurdles stand in the way. The first is the fact that some of us may not, in fact, want to go with Jesus. The text says that Jesus took the disciples with him, which implies that they were going and doing, not according to their own wills and desires, but according to Jesus’ will and desire. It may be some of us, even amongst those gathered here today, are not so keen to do that. Some of us may have other plans—to make enough money to purchase a comfortable lifestyle, for example, or to secure the respect and admiration of family or society. If these are your plans then, of course, going on pilgrimage with Jesus is not going to be an attractive option. For Jesus would ask that you put such plans aside in favour of his own plan. Jesus would ask that you be able to say, ‘not my will but yours.’
This is the good news, though: if you risk this way, you’ll find yourself in a better place than if you stick to your own plans. Because our own plans tend to make us miserable, do they not? Isn’t it true that, even for those of us who actually get what we want (not that many of us do), we often do so only to discover that what we want is not what we need? That is the difference between God and ourselves you see. We are into smoke and mirrors, deceiving ourselves into thinking that what we want is what we need; but God is into truth, cutting through the advertising to what we really do need. Being our maker, God has the inside running on these things, strangely enough! So listen to what Jesus says, all you people who know what you want, or think you do. ‘Those who want to save their lives will lose it, but those who forfeit their lives for my sake, will gain it.’ (Lk 9.24). The promise of Jesus is this: “if you go where I go, and do what I do, even unto death, you will find what you are looking for; unlike you, God actually knows what that is!”
That brings me to a second hurdle that often stops us from following Jesus. The fact that it is very difficult to go where Jesus goes and do what Jesus does if you know very little about what kind of person Jesus is, and therefore the kinds of things Jesus is likely to do. You may have seen the bumper-sticker, or read the paper-back emblazoned with the question “What would Jesus do?” It’s a great question to ask yourself, but only if you happen to know a fair bit about Jesus already. Now, unfortunately for some, knowledge of Jesus can’t be downloaded into your brain from the Net. Nor can it be necessarily absorbed from books, in that slower, more old-fashioned, process called reading. Don’t get me wrong, the main source of our knowledge about Jesus is, in fact, a book, a book called the New Testament. And one can never pretend to be a follower of Jesus unless one is listening to the words of the New Testament on a very regular basis. But there is more to knowledge of Jesus than reading about him. There is also that personal communion with a living Jesus that is called, very simply in the Christian tradition, prayer. Which brings me to the cusp of a second lesson from Luke.
The story says that Peter, James and John went with Jesus for a specific purpose, to pray. So, pilgrimage is about being at prayer. Now, prayer is not something we are able to do by ourselves, from our own resources as it were. Note the story’s emphasis on the prayer of Jesus. Not once are the disciples themselves said to pray as independent agents of decision. Rather, they are caught up in the prayer of Jesus, as he asks his Father for guidance about the journey ahead. What the disciples then see and hear is a consequence of their own prayer, certainly. Yet, that prayer is enabled and made possible by participating in the more vital prayer of Jesus, a wider and deeper prayer that is able to envelop and carry the disciples along, as it were, even to the very dwelling-place of God. The prayer of the Christian, then, is not a reaching out to God from the depths of our own, native, apprehensions and resources but, rather, a participation in the priestly communion that Jesus already enjoys with his Father. In him, and only in him, are we ever able to speak with God face-to-face.
From this, a number of other things flow. First, that Christian prayer should be modelled after the prayer of Jesus. Only by doing as Jesus does, do we learn how to pray as Christians rather than pagans. Note that Jesus does not address the Father immediately and directly, but rather listens for the Father’s voice through a mediated engagement with the historic figures of Moses and Elijah, who, for Luke, represent the two most important strands of Jewish tradition—law and prophecy. Now, hear what Luke is telling us here. If you want to pray after the way of Jesus, he says, you must do as Jesus did. Instead of addressing God directly, like pagans do, because they imagine they already know what God will say, sit down and listen to what God has already spoken in the stories and traditions of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Listen to the Scriptures, to the liturgy, and to the sayings of the saints and doctors of the church. For God has spoken already, which means that we may never hope to discover a new word unless we seek it in the old word. We shall discover how to question God, in other words, only by first allowing God to question us through the word already spoken to saints and apostles and prophets of old. We shall find the answers to our questions by communing with the answers others have found by praying as you are praying.
So let me return to the point I made earlier, that the pilgrimage of prayer is not simply about learning about God from books. It is rather about communing with God through the face-to-face of human bodies, just as Jesus did with Moses and Elijah. For in approaching a text or a liturgical symbol like the icon, we are really approaching not a mere object, but a living body or a community. We sit down with that community’s struggle to live the faith in the midst of the trials of their place and time, so setting up an imaginative conversation with them, a conversation that is not so different to the conversation you may have with the brother or sister who sits next to you this morning. The conversation is about the way in which God addresses the nitty-gritty details of our lives, the way in which God reaches out to show us how to live. By staging that conversation, we learn (paradoxically) that God is not so very distant from us, that God is as alive and present in my own community as he was in theirs. By listening to their stories, I discover that God addresses me in and through the ordinary human faces I encounter today. So, finally, I learn that a communion with the presence of God is nothing like the pagans imagine it to be, some kind of mystical encounter with a disembodied spirit. No, communion with God is exactly what Jesus is—the shining forth of a divine presence in, through, and as the lines of story and experience that mark a human face. For Jews and Christians the face-to-face with God is at one and the same time a face-to-face with human beings—those who have gone before, as well as those who belong to my community right now.
And so we arrive at a third lesson about pilgrimage. You will have noted that the disciples in the story began their journey not as individuals, but as a company. Peter, James & John were regarded as the three pillars of the earliest Christian church. Luke uses them to represent the church as a whole. Therefore, we undertake the Lenten pilgrimage not only with Jesus, but with our brothers and sisters in faith. Which is great, because things can get pretty scary along the way, and I don’t know about you, but when I get scared I feel kind’ve comforted that others are there with me, and may be just as perplexed as I am.
One way to realise the communal dimension of the pilgrimage is to join a small group in which you can explore the tradition with others, asking the questions that perplex you in a safe environment where no question is a dumb question, together looking to Jesus for strength and encouragement. Small groups can be a place in which you share your struggles and experience the support and solidarity of others who struggle as well. There are no experts in this form of church, only some who have lived the pilgrimage a little longer or a little more intentionally. In small groups all are learners, and there is only one teacher: Christ.
Another way to share the pilgrimage with others is through the face-to-face of conversation with a spiritual guide or director. Lent provides an opportunity to bite the bullet, to stop drifting about like a rudderless ship, and seek God’s guidance for the way to profit for your soul. Some of you are wondering, no doubt, about jobs and careers. Others are wondering about how you can best contribute to the ministry of Christ’s church. Some are perhaps struggling with relationship issues, you know, should I stay or should I go, should I let go or should I hold my ground. That kind of stuff. Lent is an opportunity to take all that seriously, and make some serious progress. A spiritual guide can help you do that, if you will let them. They won’t have all the answers, but they can help you listen to the One who does have the answers. I know it’s a little scary to bear your soul to another human being, especially someone who works for God. But bearing one’s soul to another is really about becoming more honest with yourself, about facing the truth and letting God help you. Your spiritual guide is there to help you to be honest with yourself. But always with a view to helping you grow up into the recognition that you are loved and treasured by God, no matter what kind of shape you are in. Being honest is the beginning of a pilgrimage to healing or transfiguration. That brings me to the final lesson I wanted to speak about today.
When the disciples arrived with Jesus at the top of the mountain, they began to pray with him. In the middle of their prayer, according to Luke, an amazing thing happened. The appearance of Jesus face changed and his clothes became bright as lightening. He became like Moses when he encountered God on
. He became a conduit or image for the divine
glory. In the Greek text, Luke actually
says that while Jesus was praying, “the aspect of his face (prosopon)
was changed (heteron) and his clothing became white as lightening.” This means that his face was, literally, othered—that
the glory of his divine self, usually hidden from human eyes, suddenly shone
out through his human face, without at the same time making that face or
humanity into something false, a mere mask or disguise for something more
real. Note that in Luke’s story, this
event—usually called the ‘transfiguration’—has a particular purpose. It shows the disciples, those who are about
to join Jesus in his pilgrimage to Mt.
that their journey shall not be in vain. Yes, there will be very difficult times. There will be misunderstanding and suffering,
there will be the fracturing of the community of disciples, and there will even
be torture and death. But the
transfiguration assures them that for all this, God will not abandon them. God will be as present and active in all of
this as he is in the human Christ they see before them. His glory may be hidden, even to the point of
feeling completely absent at times, but it is real and present
nevertheless. Out of death will come
life, out of crucifixion will come resurrection, out of darkest night will
spring the glory of resurrection. Jerusalem
The transfiguration is, you see, primarily a testimony to the possibility of transformation, a promise directed to any who would accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, as we intend to do during the season of Lent. In the reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul assures his listeners that all who turn to face Jesus will witness a divine glory that can never, finally, be hidden. Indeed, it is a glory that, like grace, spills out beyond the boundaries of its own containment, transforming and ‘glorifying’ those who so contemplate to the very core of their beings. For the glory of Christ’s image is not simply an impression, like sunburn, left on our faces after a long exposure, but fading with time. Rather, it is an image that spills out to takes residence in our very souls and spirits, radiating as if from the inside, changing us (as Paul says) from ‘glory into glory’ so that our human selves are ever so slowly absorbed into the body and soul of Christ himself.
That, my friends, is the glorious promise of the Lenten pilgrimage: that mere human beings, tossed and broken like small vessels on an angry sea, might nevertheless reach safe harbour. The storm is the suffering and death of crucifixion, the loss of property and status and ego, the loss of our oh-so-human plans and desires. But the safe harbour is Christ. By preparing ourselves to die with him, we are raised and transfigured, new people with a new vocation. In Christ, Paul tells us, we remain the human vessels that we are, yet we bear now, not our own plans and purposes, but God’s unfathomable ambition to make the whole world new in justice and peace. In that is our glory. In that is the reason for our pilgrimage. So I encourage you this morning with the words of that ancient hymn from the book of Timothy (2.11-13): “if you die with him, you shall also live with him; if you endure, you shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he shall also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Have a blessed pilgrimage, one and all.