Today we are at week ten of Ordinary Time, or as we know it- the Season after Pentecost. And one of the characteristics of the readings that we hear during the Season after Pentecost is that the Gospel tends to be about interactions between Jesus and his followers. During the summer, we do not hear the stories of Jesus’s birth like we do at Christmas or the stories of his resurrection like we do at Easter. We do not hear about Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the desert like we do during Lent. Or of the many manifestations and appearances of Jesus, like we do during Epiphany.
During this season, we hear passages where Jesus is traveling with his disciples and the crowd, going from place to place, and he sometimes stops to teach the people or tell them parables, and he sometimes goes to heal someone or feed someone.
These are not necessarily big moments in the life of Jesus, but they are huge moments in the lives of his followers. They are stories of interactions with average people who are just like us struggling to understand life and make sense of their days and find meaning and purpose and get an answer to prayer.
If this season after Pentecost were a TV show, there would be no zombies or dragons or battles. What we would see are lots of images of people, people traveling with Jesus. We would see close-ups of their faces filled with peace. We would see images of their eyes open in amazement at the things they have seen in the presence of Christ. And of course, we would see lots and lots of feet walking down dusty roads as they follow Jesus on the way. And among those shots there would be one of Jesus walking up this mountain today with three of his closest disciples behind him.
An interesting fact about this passage is that the story of the Transfiguration appears not once but twice in our yearly lectionary. One of these appearances is always the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, which was back in February. And the other time the passage appears is August 6, today, which is the Feast of the Transfiguration.
When we hear about the Transfiguration at the end of Epiphany it comes as a wonderful summary of what Epiphany is all about which is the appearance and manifestation and presence of Jesus. But when we hear about the Transfiguration now, during this time after Pentecost, it’s not so much about what happens to Jesus, but it is more what happens to those who climbed up that mountain with him.
Peter, James and John, as you know, are the first disciples, and they have been with him longer than anyone else. By the time the Transfiguration takes place, Peter, James and John are seasoned Christians, as seasoned as any Christians in the world.
I think seasoned sounds better than using the word old, but essentially that’s what Peter, James and John are- they are the old guard. They are the ones who have been following Jesus forever.
And if I were to ask you: Are you, in your Christian faith, one of the old guard? what would you say? I imagine some of you would say – yes, of course. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve had a lot of experience being a Christian. And others would say- I am definitely not one of the old guard. I’m new to being a follower of Jesus and still trying to figure out the difference between Matthew and Mark and disciples and apostles. And others, if you ask them, may say – well I’m not sure.
And the same would have been true of those following Jesus. Some were just like Peter, James and John and they had been part of the movement for a long time, and others were brand new. And throughout the Gospel we see that Jesus treats each group differently according to their needs.
For those who are new who have never heard of him, and for those who have just begun to follow him, Jesus often takes the time to explain his vision and lay out his understanding of who he is and what he has come to do. He understands that the people who are new to the faith need to be taught and formed and cared for in a special way in order for them to become good disciples.
And at church we try to do the same thing with people who are new. If we have baptisms, we take time to explain something to them about Jesus and the faith, we have confirmation programs and have had inquirer’s classes and right now Pastor Marisa is offering a Bible study especially for those who have no understanding of the Bible. Because we recognize how important formation is for those who are new, just as Jesus did in his time.
But then you have this other group of people who are the old guard, who have been following Jesus the longest. And it turns out that this group also needs special attention. And that’s what we see in the Gospel today.
Changing the subject- I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked bowling. The only time I ever really bowled was in High School- we would walk to a local bowling alley for gym class and so part of our grade was based on learning how to throw strikes and spares. In the world of bowling I never advanced beyond being a beginner. Yet for some reason recently I was reading an online article about bowling.
The article itself was pretty boring and I skipped much of it. But the part that fascinated me is still with me. Because it was about bowling in the context of learning. Or better yet, it was about learning in the context of bowling. The author talked about how he went from having no bowling skills to being fairly proficient in a matter of months. And then, he said, just like that, he leveled off. He stopped getting better and reached a plateau. And, after a while, he said, he stopped being interested in bowling.
So he went into a whole analysis of the process of being introduced to something, how you learn about that thing, practice it, get good at it, and then reach a plateau. And on that plateau, he said, you’re kind of comfortable. You pretty much know what you’re doing and you have some success. But on the plateau you’re just staying there.
And he said one of three things can happen – you either challenge yourself and maybe try something more, something new, or you become complacent and you stick at it for a while and just keep moving along, or you quit. And he said that he became complacent and satisfied with the whole bowling thing and he started to realize that he was just skating along, so he quit.
Of course, in and of itself there is nothing wrong with being complacent. We all need to be somewhat complacent and accept things, even though they are not perfect. Otherwise we would be miserable all the time. I think we all need to say on a regular basis – well maybe it’s not perfect, but I’m okay with the way things are. So let’s just stay here on this plateau.
And this, the author said, is what happens with those who have been bowling for a while. And you could say it is the same thing that happens for those who have been doing anything for a while – those who have been playing guitar for a while, those who have been in the choir for a while, those who have been married for a while. Or for those who have been Christians for a while. We hit this plateau. And once you’re on that plateau, you can stay on that plateau, or you can quit, or you can do more and grow. And those are your choices.
Imagine if there’s nothing more or nothing new for our choir and they end up singing the same hymns every Sunday, and they’re not being challenged or being asked to do something that stretches them a little, how bored they would be. The same in your marriage or relationship. You all know how important it is to do new things to keep your relationship alive.
Today, Peter, James and John – the old guard – are literally on this plateau with Jesus. They have been faithful followers and companions for so long and it’s easy to imagine that they have become a little complacent, or, at least, a little bit ready for more. Jesus knows that they are the old guard, and that the old guard must from time to time be given something new otherwise they will become stagnant, or will disappear. And so he takes them to this plateau and gives them this new vision – the Transfiguration.
As we see in the Gospel, Peter wants to stay in the complacency. He wants to stake his claim and build his hut there on the plateau. And I understand because it’s comfortable to be where we are. We don’t like to be challenged. We don’t want to have to do new things, or learn new skills, or go too far out of our comfort zones. We don’t like change. And I think Jesus understands that. But he’s also not content to let things be.
So the question for those of us who have been doing this for a while, is this: how are the members of the old guard getting our needs met through Jesus today? And in particular, our need to grow? Not just come here week after week but come here so that we can have this experience of Christ which leads us into the next iteration of our faith.
Transfiguration is an invitation that says, there’s more. And we are invited in so many ways, all the time, to these new things. Do we seize upon these moments as invitations? Do we see in these moments opportunities for our faith to be renewed? Are we ready to cast aside some old things for the sake of new things to come? And are we ready to be like Peter, James and John today and have a new experience of Jesus Christ. I think that’s what this Gospel is, an invitation to a new experience of Jesus Christ.
Volunteer opportunities, new people to talk to, new ways to pray, a new appreciation for the scriptures, a retreat – there are so many places where the transfigurational power of Jesus is to be found, and it will touch our lives and it will give us a wonderful push not to disappear or give up, but to grow.
I know you are active Christians who love Jesus Christ and that your faith is strong. But I also think about all the people I have known who have drifted away from the faith because at some point they said – I know this. I know how to do this. I can bowl pretty well. I know these stories and this music and these prayers. And they thought they were fine, but what they really were was complacent. And what they really needed was that moment where suddenly the presence of Jesus became for them an invitation for more, an invitation to transfigure their own lives.
That is his love for us. And all the time in my prayers, I can hear Jesus say this: you are too valuable to leave as you are. So here is something new. The truth is that God loves us too much to let us stay where we are. May we have faith in the invitations Jesus presents us this week. And may we know ourselves to be blessed.