‘He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.’ Matthew 17:2
Looking back from a distance over years of parochial ministry, there come moments when I often ask myself if the words I said made much sense to anyone. Did the Sunday by Sunday sermons mean much to most of the people who had to sit in the pews and listen?
There was a colleague in Belfast, a man far more learned than myself, a man who had a chaplain been at a college of Cambridge University and who had presented a regular BBC radio programme who first sowed in me those seeds of self-doubt. He told of standing in the pulpit of his parish church and suddenly pausing mid-sermon, ‘I told them, ‘I don’t know what I am talking about, and if I don’t, I’m sure you don’t. Let’s sing a hymn instead.’
He was a man of undoubted scholarship, a man of an assured evangelical faith, and yet he was prepared to admit that he had reached a moment where he did not know what he was saying.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a story where the disciples did not know what they were saying and where an honest preacher today will admit that these are things of which they do not know how to speak. Anyone who stands today and says they understand this moment described in the Gospels is being foolish or dishonest or both.
Jesus appears to his friends as something other than how they had previously seen him. Being transfigured, he appears to them as something other than the human Jesus with whom they had walked up this lonely mountainside.
Anyone who says they can understand or describe that moment is telling you a lie. If it were something that could be described in human words then it would be something humans could comprehend and it would not be a transfiguration.
It is a moment so profound that the three fishermen who are with Jesus are captivated. Fishermen were used to tales, they were used to superstitions, they were used to tricks of the light. Had the moment been something natural, then the fishermen would have recognized it for what it was. They weren’t impressionable youths who might be swayed by illusions.
The Transfiguration is a moment that is disturbing for Christians because it is a moment which cannot be encapsulated, it cannot be expressed in any words. The Transfiguration is a moment when Jesus is seen for who he is.
The Transfiguration is troubling because if Jesus cannot be captured in words, if he is beyond all comprehension, then who gave the church the right to define him? Who gave bishops the right to tell people that they must believe sets of words? Who gave clergy the right to rebuke people who did not match the definitions of Jesus that the church had made up?
The dry formulas that the church insists are expressions of God do not come from Jesus, they do not even come from the time of Jesus, they come from three hundred years later.
If you hear a preacher today stand up and say that the Transfiguration was this or that the Transfiguration was that, then be prepared to tell them that they do not know what they are talking about. They do not know, because no-one knows. If anyone knew, then the Transfiguration would not have been the moment it was.
The disappearance of the power of the church does not diminish the power of the story of Jesus. The disappearance of the church does not mean that the story disappears. The story has all the power it always had. Freed from the centuries of additions, freed from its use by those whose only concern has been their status, their power, their dominance, the story recovers its power.
The Transfiguration was a moment that changed the lives of those present, it was a personal moment.
Seeing Jesus as he is will always be a personal experience, for no-one else can see for another.
Seeing Jesus as he is means seeing beyond the distortions and misrepresentations of the centuries of church history. It means trying to imagine oneself on that mountainside confronted by something beyond every word.