The Transfiguration: What (Really) Happened?

Luke 9, 28-36; Psalm 99, preached by Rev. Clyde Steckel, Emeritus Professor of Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities on February 27, 2022

When I was sixteen years old, I drove to Chesterfield, Indiana, with two of my high school buddies. We had visitor reservations at a materialization séance at a Spiritualist Church camp. Located on a modest tree-shaded campus, the meeting room for the séance seemed more like a small church or school building. I was surprised about that. I had expected an auditorium where a magician would perform tricks. Visitors were seated on stiff-backed chairs facing a low platform where a medium presided. At first, we sang hymns, and then listened to bible verses and a brief message. 

Then the lights were dimmed and the medium began calling on her familiar guide, to see if there were messages from the departed. Strange voices came from the medium. One of my friends snickered. We elbowed him in the side to shut him up. Next the medium channeled voices that called people by name to come forward. Then the materializations appeared, ghostly figures who talked and walked with the believers, “as we used to walk in the park,” as one said. It was both touching and frightening.

On the short drive back to our hometown, we discussed what had really happened, how they made those spirit figures appear and then vanish. Satisfied that we had figured it out, we went our separate ways. We were so smart then, at sixteen.

I tell you this story to illustrate how hard it is to explain what really happens when something outside the familiar shakes our worldview. What’s really happening here? we ask, trying to restore the familiar, the predictable. Today, as we observe the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we ask, what really happened on that mountain top? I promise you a two-step procedure to answer that question. Stay with me.

Step one is to take hold of that word, really, and pull it out of the question, and throw it away. Now the question reads, what happened at the Transfiguration? Why so picky about one word? you might ask. I will explain if you stay with me. The adverb, really, with its adjective, real, and its noun, reality, claim a certainty, a confidence about what is real and what is unreal. So, I ask, who elected us, who elected you and me to be the arbiters, the definers of what is real? What a monstrous thought! To be fair, though, most of us have not consciously voted ourselves in as reality definers. It’s something we’ve inherited from our Western cultural ancestors, from the growing confidence in reason and science, where reality is defined in a series of mathematical equations. Though scientists and philosophers are cautious about their claims, we are not. We are sure and confident that we understand the world as it is, an understanding that rejects the possibility of a Transfiguration on a mountaintop. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries biblical and religious scholars were sufficiently challenged by the growing threat of scientific reason that they wrote books explaining biblical miracles in scientific terms. These efforts run from the fanciful to the serious. On the Transfiguration, one author proposed heat exhumation or oxygen deprivation as explanations for the visions seen by Peter, James, and John. Mt. Tabor was 9,000 feet high. Thin air! A twentieth-century hippie explanation cited the possible use of psychedelic mushrooms by Jesus and his followers. A more serious effort was William Paley’s book, Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, and usually referred to as “Paley’s Evidences.” Paley argued that scientific studies of nature logically led to a belief in God. It was a tour-de-force. Religions could keep their Gods. Scientists could keep their natural laws. Paley’s book was studied in American colleges and universities, including Minnesota, throughout the nineteenth century. Alas, neither scientists nor theologians were persuaded by his argument.

A result of this history is a misplaced confidence we have in reality as we define it, and our often-unthinking imposition of that reality on others. It is not surprising that our ancestors believed reality permitted the enslavement of Africans or the genocide of indigenous peoples. We had a better reality than theirs, and it was therefore our moral duty to replace their reality with ours. May God have mercy on us!

There you have it. That is step one in discerning what really happened at the Transfiguration—getting rid of that word, really, and all the baggage attached to it. Step one is the hard part. Now we’re ready for step two, the easier part—simply asking what happened at the Transfiguration. The answer, I think, is quite simple and straightforward, if we can forget about that word, really. Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, hiked up the mountain where Jesus glowed and was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. Then Peter suggested building three shrines, but God spoke up, rebuking Peter’s idea and demanding that they listen to Jesus, God’s beloved. There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Having established that Peter, James, and John truly saw Jesus transfigured, with Moses and Elijah, the next question is this, what did that vision mean? Such visions are open to many interpretations, so here is mine: The presence of Moses and Elijah signify the dual vocation of Jesus—he is the teacher and exemplar of the Mosaic law requiring the love of God and neighbor. The presence of Elijah signifies the prophetic vocation of Jesus, calling the covenant people to repentance and justice. Those of us trying to follow Jesus inherit those two vocations. It’s not complicated, as those annoying commercials remind us.

Speaking of complications, I want to put in a good word for Peter. He had a great idea. Erect three shrines, smooth out the path up the mountain, bring in food carts, beverages, and souvenir stands, with small carved figures of Jesus, Moses and Elijah for your home altar or windowsill. Think of the revenue! God didn’t like the idea, however, saying to Peter, shut up and listen. Maybe good advice for all of us. I apologize, God, for being on the wrong side. Please forgive me! Still, Peter, a pretty good idea!

Well, that about wraps it up. Take the Transfiguration narrative on its face value. Get rid of that word, really, always shutting off mysterious gifts. And spend your time and energy figuring out how your vocation of loving God and neighbor works in your life, with all your circumstances, and at the same time how you can deploy your prophet’s vocation of working for justice. There’s no one right answer. But if you keep open to the mystery, you will find the way, filling your life with purpose, joy, and hope. Amen.