Our Metamorphosis – Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

This week marks the end of the season after Epiphany. We began this season with a manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus with the coming of the magi, following the light of a star. And we end it with a manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus subsumed in indescribable dazzling light, atop a mountain reminiscent of Moses’ own mountaintop encounter with the inexpressible glory of God. Light has marked this season. The reason? Light reveals things that are hidden. And throughout these weeks, God has unveiled for us, in different ways, what it means that Jesus has come into our lives. You might be tempted to say it’s like light breaking through the darkness, but in fact, Jesus is the light who shines in the darkness. It’s not like, it but it is a true reality. Because of the light of Christ, we see more clearly that God loves us, and nothing will ever take that from us. The light reveals to us just what all that love means for us—both the comfort and the cost.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today we call the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Transfiguration is one of those “churchy words” that we parade out once a year, one that you probably don’t hear much, if at all, outside of church. The word, at its most fundamental level, is made up of three Latin words—trans, figura, and agere. The word “trans” is a preposition that means “across” or “beyond.” The word “figura” we have almost directly from Latin, and it means what you think—“figure,” but it also can mean “appearance” or “shape” or “form.” And then the last word, “agere,” is a word that comes up a lot in Latin. It means “to do” or “to make.” We get the English word “action” from it. Any word in English that ends in -ation comes from this word—vacation, obligation, procrastination…

So back to transfiguration. What does it mean? Together, trans, figura, and agere give us a word that means something like “making a form go beyond.” That hardly means anything to us, now does it?

But when we consider it a bit more, these three words, put together into one word, transfiguration—they mean “a change of form into a different form.” Most often, we think of this different, transfigured form as one that is more beautiful or more sublime—and perhaps even more spiritual, given this words close association with the Transfiguration of Jesus. But what does this word really matter for us, and what all does the Transfiguration of Jesus, if he’s changed in form to a different form, a more beautiful, sublime, or even spiritual form, matter for us? After all, everything that Jesus does is done because God so loved the world that for us and for our salvation, he sent Jesus to us so that we might live life to the fullest knowing that nothing will separate us from God’s insurmountable love. So if Jesus has this transfiguration, it must mean something for us…So what does it mean?

The Transfiguration of Jesus must be understood in light of Jesus’ baptism. Today, when Jesus is up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and he’s taken up in the cloud and transfigured before his disciples’ eyes, God speaks out of the light. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” These words hearken to Jesus’ baptism where the heavens are rent asunder, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove, and God declares him his Son, the beloved, and that he’s well pleased with him. At the Transfiguration, God adds the admonition to Peter, James, and John to “listen to him,” words that for centuries have produced a lot of talk among theologians as to what their significance is here when God didn’t say them at Jesus’ baptism. Suffice it to say today, we’re supposed to listen to Jesus—whether it be what he’s saying about himself, what we’re supposed do, what he’s saying is going to happen to him. Whatever the case, for us today, it’s enough to say, “listen to him.” Pay attention and do what he says. Simple and difficult at the same time, for different reasons, but not something we’re going to explore in depth now.

You recall that Jesus is baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus descends into the fullness of humanity in the waters of his baptism and becomes one with us, as one who didn’t know sin, in our sinfulness. Jesus takes on our nature and our lot in his baptism, a baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, in order that he, the sinless one, could not only identify with us, but to become one of us in yet another way. To fulfil all righteousness for our sake, Jesus takes on our sinfulness so that we might exchange it for his righteousness. Our sinfulness becomes his, and his righteousness becomes ours in baptism. So what similar thing is happening at the transfiguration?

While we’re talking about words today from ancient languages, let’s look at the language that St. Matthew uses to speak of Jesus’ transfiguration. The word we use, transfiguration, comes from Latin, but Matthew wrote in Greek. The word he uses is metemorphothe. Does that sound like an English word to you? Perhaps metamorphosis? It’s the same exact word, only as a verb instead of a noun. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain. And he was metamorphosized before them. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Light purer and more brilliant—more sublime?—than sunlight poured from his face. St. Mark tells us his clothes were filled with light, so bright “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

What happens here comes immediately on the heels of Jesus telling his disciples, all of them, that he “will come with his angels in the glory of his Father.” And now, Peter, James, and John, have a vision, a foretaste of that glory on a mountaintop where Jesus is metamorphosized, transfigured, changed completely and utterly, surrounded by figures who represent the totality of God’s historical relationship with his chosen people—Moses, in the promise of deliverance and the law, and Elijah, in the promise of steadfastness and holiness. But the question remains—what does this matter for us?

It goes back to baptism. Just as Jesus’ baptism helps us understand his transfiguration, so too does our own baptism help us understand what the transfiguration means for us. Did you know that in order to become a butterfly, a caterpillar’s body dissolves almost completely and is rebuilt from its own juices? This process is called metamorphosis. After a caterpillar has grown enough to support itself through the metamorphosis process, a special hormone is released that triggers the caterpillar to form a cocoon and inside that cocoon the metamorphosis takes place. All the caterpillar’s muscles, fat, and other tissues almost entirely liquefy. Only a few special cells remain like the heart cells and brain cells, which are interestingly enough called “mushroom cells.”

Once the caterpillar’s metamorphosis is complete, what’s now a butterfly crawls out of the cocoon, and it’s free to fly away. Even after such a dramatic change, a butterfly still retains some memories from when it was a caterpillar, though. Entomologists believe it’s likely the mushroom cells of the brain carry important knowledge from the caterpillar over to the adult butterfly, so its former life isn’t completely lost, but it is completely transformed.

The same can be said for us in baptism.

In baptism, we are completely changed. We take on a new identity. Baptism is our metamorphosis, our transfiguration. The font is our cocoon full of the liquidy juices to transform us into something beyond ourselves. Our old self is completely dissolved in the waters of baptism, and we are rearranged, reformed in Jesus Christ—our Lord and our God. We’re no longer who we once were, but we become something new because we are united with Jesus. “Anyone in Christ,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians and us, “is a new creation.” We, baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, united with God’s Chosen, his Beloved, his dear Son—we get a fresh start, are created anew. In baptism, just as Jesus died, so too do we die, and likewise, just as he was raised to newness life, we are raised to newness of life to the glory of the Father.

To the glory of the Father…Did you catch that? To the glory of the Father? Isn’t that what Jesus told the disciples would happen when he returned? He would return with angels in the glory of his Father. And then immediately, Peter, James, and John get a vision of what this glory is? This is the what the transfiguration means for us—it means that Jesus’ glory is likewise our glory. United with Jesus in baptism, we are united with him in all things, and his glory is no exception. Just as Jesus was transfigured in this life through the glory of the Father, so we too are we transfigured into glory. We are changed, fundamentally. We are made new creations, in order that we no longer live for the sake of ourselves alone, but listening to Jesus, we heed his words, and live our lives as he lived his—for the sake of others. Just as Jesus lived his life to the greater glory of his Father, so we who are made one with him through baptism, must also live our lives to the greater glory of God in Christ Jesus.

Baptized into death and resurrection with Jesus means that our lives are fundamentally changed. We are no longer who we used to be. We share with him in all things. And so we share with him in his transfiguration. We share with him in his metamorphosis. Jesus is transfigured for us in order that whatever shame we carry with us, whatever insecurities, whatever worries, doubts, or misgivings about ourselves might be transformed, might be changed so fundamentally that they no longer hold us back from living in the glorious life God envisions for us.

But like Christ, we are transfigured, we are changed, so that we who share in God’s glory might share that same glory with those who, knowingly or unknowingly, desperately pine for wholeness. We who’ve been lifted out of our shame, out of our insecurities, out of worry, doubt, and uncertainty are sent like Jesus to reveal the glory of our Father with those who are pushed to the side for not fitting into society’s ideal image. We are called not to bask in the glory for ourselves, but to share it as Jesus came down from the mountain and continued healing the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, and sharing God’s love.

The Transfiguration of our Lord, the Metamorphosis of Jesus, shows us that we have been changed, that we share in the glory of God, that we are called to live lives, not to our own greater glory for the sake of ourselves, but to the greater glory of God for the sake of Jesus Christ—who did not regard his own godliness as something for himself, but gave himself up completely in obedient love to the will of his Father. This is glory. This is Jesus’ glory. And this is our glory. May the same mind be in you that is in Jesus our Lord, who gave himself up for your sake.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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