by: Archbishop Charles E. Smith, OSF
As I was working on my sermon this past week I toyed with the idea of bringing live butterflies along with me to the cathedral his morning so I could let them go right about now, as an attention getter. I decided against doing that, however, because I was afraid it would get your attention so well that I might never get it back again. I had visions of all of you sitting out there spending the rest of the service distracted as you followed the butterflies around, your heads bobbing up and down after it. Kids running around the church trying to catch them. For those of you who have been here for a while, may remember the story that I told about a butterfly and an roach, well, this is a different story of a butterfly.. So rather than creating a disturbance with butterflies flying around, I'm using a printed image of butterflies, not as affective, but, in the long run, I'm sure you'll get my point.
Butterflies are beautiful, most of us, "ooh and aah" when we see them. By and large, people don't like bugs very well, but almost everybody makes an exception for butterflies because they are so beautiful. As you all know, a butterfly hasn't always been beautiful. For the first part of its life it was a caterpillar, a wooly worm crawling around on the ground looking (in some people's opinion) gross. But at a special time and in a spectacular fashion, the ugly, little, wooly worm got transformed into a beautiful butterfly. When one looks at a lowly caterpillar crawling around, it's hard to believe that a beautiful butterfly, able to fly all over on light and colorful wings, could be inside of it. But it is! This transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is something we call a metamorphosis.
The word metamorphosis has the same root in the Greek language as the word Transfiguration, the word we use to describe what happened to Jesus in our text today. This is the story of how Jesus "acted like a butterfly," if you will, and was metamorphosed into glory right before his disciples' eyes. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in all of his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of God.
The story of the Transfiguration is one of the least-known stories about Jesus. Everybody hears hundreds of times about the Lord's birth, death, and Resurrection, but very few people ever get to know the details of the Transfiguration. Even in art, this great event gets passed over. Unlike other events in our Lord's life which frequently become the subject of art, there are less than a handful of works of art to depict the Transfiguration. From the sixth and eighth centuries we have some mosaics that hint at it. And of the great masters, only the artist Raphael attempted to paint the Transfiguration. His painting hangs in the Vatican, but Raphael died before he could finish the job. It's almost as if there's a message there that no human art or genius, tongue or pen, can do justice in representing the spectacular event that happened when Jesus was transfigured.
What happened at the Transfiguration is that Jesus' physical body was metamorphosed into his spiritual, godly person. Mark tells us the Lord's garments became intensely, glistening white, like nothing else on earth could ever be. They were far brighter than the snow is on a sunny day, when your eyes burn from looking at it. This description of our Lord's appearance matches identically the description of the appearance of the angel who announced the Resurrection. Jesus had a heavenly appearance about him. Matthew tells us not only his clothes were shining, but his face also shone like the sun itself, not reflecting light, but with a tremendous light streaming out from it. For a time, Jesus was completely enveloped by the fullness of his godhood, right before the eyes of three disciples. No wonder our text tells us those fortunate men were afraid. They were tremendously impressed: they were dazzled by the glory of Jesus.
It's an awesome thing to see the glory of God. We read in the Old Testament that Moses asked God for permission to see the divine glory when he was up on Mount Sinai. God said to him, "I will let you see the back side of me, but you cannot see my face; for no one can see me and live" (Exodus 33:17-23). God then told Moses to hide himself in the cleft of a rock and to hide his face while God passed by. In spite of all the precautions that were taken, even though Moses was exposed to only a little of the majesty of God, still, his face shone so brightly from the experience that the people could not stand to look at him. He had to wear a veil over his face to darken the glow. Such an experience is what Jesus shared with his three disciples.
The message of the Transfiguration is that Jesus Christ is God. Contrary to all those who say he was only a great man, or just a great prophet, or who say even less than that about him, the Gospels tell us - and we believe - that Jesus is God. "Without controversy," Saint Paul wrote, "great is the mystery of our religion: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world and received up into glory" (1 Timothy 3:16).
The deity of our Lord has always been questioned and doubted. Even the disciples were slow to come around, slow to know him in truth. Saint John recorded for us an incident which happened shortly before our Lord's death, one that shows how unsure the disciples still were of the Lord's true identity. Jesus told them, "I go to prepare a place for you." In response to this great good news, Thomas said, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, how can we know the way?" and Philip added, "Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied!" In great frustration, Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" To Thomas Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:1-11).
On several occasions the Lord testified to his Godhood. "I and the Father are one," he said (John 10:30). "All things that the Father has are mine," he added (John 16:15). And on the night before he died, he prayed, "Father, glorify me now with the glory which I had with you before the world was" (John 17:5).
The enemies of our Lord heard his confessions about himself and understood clearly what he was saying. He told them, "Before Abraham was, I am ..." They knew he called himself God and because of it they kept trying to kill him until they finally succeeded. He died, but he came back to life again, proving with power to rise from the dead that he is God (Romans 1:4). Saint Paul said it well when he wrote, "In him dwells all the fullness of God bodily" (Colossians 2:9). Saint John said it perfectly when he wrote, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1).
We joyfully confess that Jesus is God because it means that we have a perfect Savior. If Jesus had been anything less than God, then he would not have been good enough, nor could he have done enough for our salvation to come true. Mere humans, dying for their sins, do nothing to merit God's forgiveness. But Jesus is God and because of it he is our perfect Savior. "By the obedience of this one person, all who believe in him are made righteous" (Romans 5:19). By his one, solitary life and death, all the sins of the world are paid for. By his death and Resurrection, death and hell are overcome for all who believe in him; eternal life is ours. "Thanks be to God," Saint Paul wrote, "who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57).
Earlier I made reference to some mosaics of the sixth century that hint at the Transfiguration of our Lord. One of those mosaics is at the Basilica of Ravenna. This mosaic particularly connects the Transfiguration of our Lord with our salvation. In the mosaic there is a jeweled cross set in a circle of blue with golden stars. At the very center is the face of Jesus, our Savior. From a cloud close by, a hand reaches out, symbolizing God's voice, and points to the cross. The message of the mosaic appears to be that at the moment of the Transfiguration, God spoke to his Son and pointed him to the cross, to his mission in life. God called his Son to die in payment for the sins of the world so that the world might be saved.
Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glory. They were the privileged three who shared in so many extraordinary experiences with the Lord. They were there when Jesus brought Jairus' little girl back to life again. They were there also with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asked them to pray with him. They were there on the mountain when Jesus was in his glory. Peter was beside himself because of the moment. He didn't know what to say, but he said what he felt: "Lord, it's good for us to be here...."
One gets the feeling that what Peter felt in that moment was similar to the feelings described by some people who die momentarily and are brought back to life again. The experiences of what we now call "life after life." To be honest with you, I am very skeptical of those reports and I don't think we should put much stock in them. Yet, some people report experiencing feelings of great peace and tranquility. They feel so good on "the other side" that they are angry for being brought back to life again. That's how Peter felt up on that mountain. It was good to be there; he wanted to stay up there forever; he didn't want to come back down ever again.
With Peter we also confess that it is good to be with Jesus in his glory. It is good to know who he is: The Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior. It is so good to know him that we don't ever want to turn back from knowing him. We never want to go away from his glory.
Sometimes I wonder how well we know what is good for us. From some of the things we do to ourselves one can get the distinct impression that we do not know what is good. Just recently I heard from a psychologist that the formula for success in our society is the classical formula for a nervous breakdown as described by psychiatry. We complain about our lives but we do nothing about them. We keep on spending and rushing and moving and doing. We keep on looking for what is good for us but we never seem to find it or to be satisfied with what good we find. People move in and out of houses, cities, cars, jobs, marriages, sometimes even life itself, hoping the next one will be good. But all we ever seem to find is what we left behind.
In all this confusion, there is one true good, the greatest good of all. "It is good, Lord, to be here ..." Jesus is our greatest good. The more we look to him for good in our life and the less we look in all the wrong places, the more good we will find; the more good we will have. Saint James explained why: "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights ..." (James 1:17).
The good never ends. The metamorphosis that happened to Jesus is happening to us also. It's true! In the Second Letter to the church at Corinth we read, "All who reflect the glory of the Lord are being changed into his likeness from one degree to another ..." (2 Corinthians 3:18). You and I, all who believe in Jesus, are going to he in glory also, all because of Jesus, our God and Savior, who is the greatest good for us, now and forever.
That's worth celebrating!