This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday*, when we recall the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain in the days before his final journey to Jerusalem.
The disciples had seen Jesus heal (miraculously), cast out demons, calm storms, feed the multitude, teach with authority, forgive sins, and bring lost sons and daughters of Abraham back home into the family of God. And he gave the twelve authority to do the same. That would have been incredible to experience. But despite the miraculous things Jesus did, and the miraculous things he empowered them to accomplish, it was their experience of Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration that knocked the disciples off their feet.
It was also the experience of Jesus’ glory that empowered the early church for its ministry in the world. The early church was generous, compassionate and brave in the face of Caesar’s empire, and it adopted new members into its midst at an astonishing rate. But what kept it going was the experience of Jesus’ glorious presence in their midst. The Nicene faith developed not in abstract speculation, but because Christians knew that when they worshiped Jesus they were in the presence of light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. They faced the lions and the executioners not because they had a great attachment to social service, but because they experienced Jesus to be the Son of God, beloved of the Father.
I served nearly 27 years in an extension ministry as a military chaplain. The men and women my church sends into extension ministries continue to do something like Jesus did in his earthly ministry, but in a qualitatively different manner – because, well, we’re not Jesus. But still we send men and women to heal, forgive and reconcile, to feed the hungry, to calm the storms of life and overcome the works of the devil.
But as they go, I pray that like the disciples on the mount of transfiguration, they will experience the glory of the only begotten son. Otherwise, I fear their service will overcome them, weary them and wear them down. Human effort and good intentions alone cannot sustain the way of the cross. I’m not sure that the church and its ministers can sustain a courageous and sacrificial ministry to the world unless we, too, have seen the veil stripped away and beheld glory of the son of God revealed to our eyes.
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* In Lutheran, United Methodist, and some other churches which use the Revised Common Lectionary, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday is Transfiguration Sunday. Its pre-Lenten observance dates to the Lutheran reformation. Located here in the calendar, it marks the transition from Epiphany into Lent because it plays a similar role in the gospel narratives. Catholic and Anglican churches, however, celebrate the Transfiguration in August, which is an older tradition not tied directly to the seasons of the church year. See this article on Celebrating the Transfiguration.