The narrative of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the gospels is a perfect book end to Jesus Baptism, and so it is always read at the end of this season of Epiphany, just as his baptismal story always begins it. And if the themes of Epiphany, as we say, are about revealing and light, this reading is particularly illuminating: the un-named mountain which Jesus climbs with his disciples, the symbolic place of divine revelation, brings back memories of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, surrounded by his closest disciples who witness the glory of God in an overshadowing cloud, and hear God speaking from it.
And so, when Jesus shines like the sun and is seen talking with Moses and Elijah, he is revealed, and we come to know, that he is their peer, their equal. And when God speaks to the disciples out of the bright cloud and Jesus alone remains, we know that Jesus is also, more, than their equal. When God speaks the exact same words on this mountain that God spoke at his baptism, which only Jesus had heard, “this is my Son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” we the reader, some miles down the road, are now let in on this secret about their relationship. And when Jesus, standing alone, “tells Peter, James and John not to tell any one about this vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” we know that this is a revealing of Jesus’ resurrection, a proleptic foreshadowing, ahead of time. In all these revelations, we are filled with a new and wonderful knowledge.
Still, knowing all this, what leaps out at me from this story today, from this theophany, is Jesus’ touching them in the moment of their fear, when they are overwhelmed and afraid for their lives. Peter’s initial reaction to the vision of Jesus’ transfiguration and his conversation with Moses and Elijah, had been joy and excitement, which led to his offer to make 3 dwellings for them, to do something constructive. But after the heavenly voice overwhelms them from the bright cloud, Peter, together with the other disciples, fall face down on the ground, feeling their utter vulnerability. And that’s when Jesus reaches out to them, and touches them, saying, “get up, and do not be afraid.”
Where are the places, I wonder, where we are touched, here in worship? We make contact and exchange greetings as we gather for the service, or as we are sent out to serve the world, and as we enjoy coffee hour. We also exchange the Peace of Christ with one another, with a hug or hand shake, a touch on the shoulder or in the ancient Kiss of Peace. And then, most intimately, we receive the touch of healing and wholeness at the healing station, both in the balm of anointing with oil, and in prayer in the name of Christ, a very sacramental-like experience of restoration and hope, that comes from the power of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus heals with physical touch often throughout the gospel of Matthew. Reaching out with compassion, he touched the leper, Peter’s mother-in-law, and two blind men, healing the ailments of each, and restoring them to the community. He offered more than good will and well wishes, Jesus, with the power of God, put his hands on them and physically touched them, made a real and holy connection, fully human, fully God.
It is no coincidence that we say to one another, ‘we are touched’ by a certain experience, in the sense of our hearts being touched, being transformed in our whole outlook, so that our lives are, changed. And this meaning is captured in our own Unity Vision Statement: “to be an urban green space, welcoming everyone into a holy encounter, where we are changed…” touched, you might say, transformed. The holy encounter in our gospel reading, couldn’t be clearer. Jesus is transfigured dazzling white as the sun, in order that we may be transformed, and changed. And being changed, touched by a holy encounter with Jesus, we are ready to turn around and go back out, the way we came in, which is basically the definition of “repentance,” “that all may be fed, as Jesus feeds us.” So, call it repentance, or call it transformation or changed hearts, but it is Jesus’ touch that makes all the difference.
The Edgewater ecumenical community is trying to make a difference, a transformation, in our neighborhood Nursing Homes. It began about a year ago, when the Sommerset Place was closed down by the state for a number of health and safety violations. The local media continue to raie up the issue, and just this week in a Rogers Park NH, another resident died due to neglect. What is the holy encounter, we wondered, that can effect change? And so we took action to train a dozen or so teams that volunteered from our Edgewater faith communities, to visit the people in our institutions, to support and hear the stories of our neighbors who are living and working there. Trudy, Lynette and I were eager to visit at the All American NH just on the other end of our block, a place where we use to visit our members Barb and Cindy. Yesterday, we made just our second visit. It had been a good initial encounter the first time, when we met a number of folks on an easy going Saturday afternoon. This time, as we entered, we could barely say hello and introduce ourselves to the hospitality person, when up ran the deaf-mute man from our first visit. His hands were extended and he ran first to Trudy, giving her a big hug, moaning with joy in his sing-song pitch! Then the same greeting for Lynette and I.
It was a touch that was full of welcome, and peace, and healing. Someone’s heart had been changed and transformed! I know mine had. And obviously our new friend’s had. I suspect the same is true for Trudy and Lynette’s as well.
When Jesus comes to touch Peter, James and John, who have fallen to the ground overwhelmed by a holy, awesome fear of the almighty, he lays hands on them to reassure and restore them, in combination with the words, get up, or literally, “be raised.” The same word is used of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the word the angel used, the angel who sat on the large rolled away stone from Jesus’ grave, whose “appearance was like lightening, and his clothing as white as snow,” to announce Jesus’ resurrection. “He is not here,” the angel said to the women trembling in fear, “he has been raised.”
Do you see what is being revealed? Jesus’ touch “raises” us by transforming our lives and changing us. Let us go down the mountain for now, into the valley of Ash Wednesday and Lent, expecting a holy encounter, because Jesus is with us always now, ‘touching’ us, that we may touch and transform others.