Luke 9:28-36 & 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | a Transfiguration Sunday reflection

by Dan Spragg

 A tale of transfiguration, of transformation, a metamorphosis visible, glory revealed, and hearts stirred. Upon a mountain top, and in a city church, different realities pointed to. Different reactions too… hold tight, stay up there, or be bold, go out and carry this difference with you. Strangeness of sight, strangeness of form. Strange promises of change and redemption of invisible things going on to be made visible and expected to reach beyond the inner circle of those individual hearts. Visible signs of normally invisible realities – I think that’s what these texts are pointing towards today. Jesus was transfigured, the normally hidden glory of God, revealed. And Paul, urges a young church to remember the source of their transformation, to see with clear eyes what was truly going on and live confidently in that.  I think the essence of what Paul is trying to say is this: We can have hope in the power of God, so we can then act with boldness and participate in the ministry of Christ, which is transformation. Bit by bit we are transformed into the image of Christ, by the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of freedom.

Freedom, what do you think of when you hear that word? It seems to me that we have a universal human problem with the notion of freedom. It gets misunderstood. I actually wonder if we in the western world have quite a perverted understanding of freedom, we don’t really get what freedom is. It doesn’t, for example, take a genius to see that while freedom has been held up as the great ideal of the western world over the past few hundred years, we still seem to be slaves to a number of things. Since the enlightenment the western world has been on a crusade of sorts towards a vision of utopia.  We have wanted a world where everyone can live long, peaceful, happy lives free from hard work and suffering of any sort. That sounds good, that doesn’t sound bad at all, it sounds very much like it could be called the Kingdom of God. A place where all is well. A place where happiness and contentment reign in the hearts of all. In the West, we’ve been progressively working our way towards this picture. The way we’ve been chipping away at this vision is with things like advances in technology, in medicine, and in economics. I believe driving a lot of these advances is an idea. If we imagine that place where all is well, the Kingdom of God, so to speak, well it seems to me like there is a large sense of freedom there. If we are happy and all is well then we must be free. Freedom must be a key component to unlocking utopia for all of us. If this is the case, then you can see what we’ve done; we make sure that there is freedom in as many areas as possible. Freedom of speech, freedom of choice, freedom to live where and how we like, freedom to do what we like when we like… the idea is that if we can just have as much freedom as possible in as many areas as possible then we’ll arrive in utopia and all will be well! I’m going to call us out on it and say it isn’t really working… are we in any more of a state of utopia than we have been before? Here’s why I think we’ve got this misunderstanding of freedom as human beings. This idea of radical freedom is highly fuelled by another idea – the idea of the individual. The thinking goes that each of us are completely autonomous individuals who are free to make choices exclusively for ourselves. It doesn’t take much to notice that it doesn’t really work, our choices always impact others. The third world, indigenous cultures, and our environment that are all exploited and displaced simply so that we can live where we want, how we want, with whatever stuff we want, well they seem to know a thing or two about the impact of our individual choices.

There is something in us that desires a good thing. Essentially, whether we name it as the Kingdom of God or not, this is what we all desire. We want a world of peace, a place where all is well, a place where we are happy and our loved ones content, a place where there is no strife or war or hunger, we want this, and this is good. I was listening to a podcast recently that was talking about what it means to be Christian and church in what is now known as the ‘Post-Christian World’. They described our situation as ‘wanting the kingdom, without the king.’[1] We desire the Kingdom of God, but we’ve tried to achieve it by our own work. We’ve left the King out of the picture.

I can understand why we’ve done it this way. Following Jesus comes with some restrictions. We are to love others, which is hard work and it means we have to put their needs above our own! We are to serve – the world doesn’t exist just to satisfy our desires. We are called to give – give of our resources, to share our finances to support the church, to share with those in times of need; we are to give of our time in service to others too. It is a lot easier not to have to deal with Jesus isn’t it? If we could have the benefits of the Kingdom, without having to deal with the demands of Jesus, then why wouldn’t we? So we do, we’ve swapped one religion for another, the religion of choice. Here’s the ‘but’. Counter intuitively it seems that when we do choose the King, and come under the claims that God has on us, we seem to not have to worry about a whole lot of things. It seems that in stepping away from a life where we just simply exist for ourselves choosing whatever we want when we want it, and in stepping into the ways of Jesus, ways of service, love, and generosity, it seems that there is where true freedom is found. For it is here that we no longer have to worry about who we are, where we are in the social order of things, how many people like us, and how much influence we have over others. Being free from those seems to me to be what true freedom is. But instead we view freedom as being surrounded by as much choice as possible, and in which we find ourselves slaves to choice. While we were overseas, travelling in Europe we were having to eat out multiple times a day, in some cases, three times a day. I noticed myself getting really tired of having to choose what I was going to eat all the time. Scientists have now proven what’s known as ‘decision fatigue’. Where simply the burden of having to make so many different choices drains us and uses significant amounts of energy and we are left not feeling happiness or contentment but instead we are left drained and irritable – doesn’t sound like utopia to me.

Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message)

If we want the beautiful existence of a world where all is well, then we can’t shortcut around it, the picture of our world as it is today is proof of that. We can’t have the kingdom without the king because we simply aren’t strong enough or clever enough to resist our own egos. Paul would say that we are to give ourselves to Christ and let ourselves be transformed by the power of the Spirit, for where the Spirit is there is freedom, and in this we will awaken to the Kingdom of God present in us and around us.

Up on that mountain, Jesus’ transfiguration was a visible thing. Moses, after coming down that holy mountain was visibly different to when he went up. Paul’s own conversion was an event where his literal sight was changed and then he saw the world with new eyes. Transformation is the gift of God to us, and it is meant to be visible. The Kingdom of God in us and around us, being transformed into this visible and real thing, by the power of God, is Paul’s point but do we believe that transformation is even possible, or even necessary! If you were to ask yourself an honest question about whether or not your faith needed to grow or change what would your answer be? Do we too easily get trapped with having ‘arrived’ with faith? Is it too easy to let faith be static and not dynamic which is what Paul is suggesting the road of faith might actually be? Through the Spirit we are being transformed – to transform or to be transformed is a verb – it’s a dynamic thing. The question for us is how much do we even realise it is happening? Or how often do we pay it any attention? I bet you can look back at different times in your life and see, in hindsight, times of growth and change, times where your faith was stirred and transformed into something different – I certainly can and it is good to look back and notice these times, but how often do we seek more of these moments? Do we seek to grow again? Do we really think that we have arrived? Can we honestly say, no matter who we are, or what stage of life we are in, that the Kingdom of God in all its fullness lives in us and around us?

We can’t ever fault Paul’s sense of conviction. There’s a certain amount of passion and integrity threaded throughout his writing. Perhaps, as we live in this day and age, this day and age that so desperately longs for a world where all is well, a first step for us is to pray for a fresh boldness with which to live for our King. Our King who wishes us to turn, and be awakened again and again, who wishes to work in us and through us, so that this gift of freedom by the Spirit of God, and the transformation of our lives made whole in Christ, might be able to be seen – firstly seen by ourselves and secondly, seen by all those we come into contact with. Seen so that all may see and believe that the way to true freedom does not come by the elevation of one’s own ego and desires and the casting off of all restriction, but rather, by walking the way of Jesus, step by step, with the unforced rhythms of grace guiding our way.

A quote from the Commentator Gary W. Charles to finish. “Just as Jesus was transformed, “metamorphosized” by God on the mount of Transfiguration, so those with faith in Christ are being transformed by the Spirit of God; the veil of ignorance and bondage is being lifted. Paul insists emphatically that the transformation of Christians and the transformation of the church are a gift of the Spirit. Faith transformation is not the final result of a carefully designed strategic plan or of exceptional personal piety. It is a gift. It is a gift from God… remember that our freedom is not a result of our ingenuity, our privileged place in society, our considerable intellect, or our substantial wealth. We are free from such illusions because God in Christ is freeing us from all that obstructs our vision from trusting in Christ and following him.”[2]

[1] See season 1, https://thisculturalmoment.com/

[2] Gary W. Charles in, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Vol. 1, p310.