“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to the disciples at the closing of their high mountain experience. These are familiar words in the Gospels. Angels often use them, as surprising God-encounters unfold. “Do not be afraid,” Gabriel tells Mary, announcing her pregnancy; “Do not be afraid,” the angel chorus tells shepherds upon the eve of the Messiah’s birth. “Do not be afraid,” says an angel of the Lord at the end of Matthew’s story, to women who encounter an empty tomb.[i]
“Do not be afraid”: those words contain both comfort and command. We might hear in them an assurance that what seems fearful is not truly a threat. They could also be a command for us to loosen our stranglehold on our current perceptions and shed the paralysis of fear, that we may take present and future action in alignment with God’s direction.
But it’s interesting to me that they are not spoken until the end of today’s story. Certainly the whole Transfiguration might be considered a hair-raising experience! It exemplifies Twentieth Century religious thinker Rudolph Otto’s idea of the “numinous,” an experience he thought undergirded all religions, for which he used the Latin phrase, “mysterium tremendum et fascinan.” It sounds like something Harry Potter shouts waving a wand, but it’s meant to describe the uncanny experience of something “wholly other” and frighteningly powerful, nonetheless draws our fascination. [ii]
In the Transfiguration, there is mysterium on the high mountain, a stand-in for every holy mountain in scripture. Something “wholly other” is revealed when Jesus’ face and clothing shine with incendiary light, and as he confers with Moses and Elijah, the heroes of scripture, the Law and the Prophets personified. Nothing in the disciples’ reason or experience could have prepared them to be eyewitnesses at this moment.
But fear doesn’t seem to enter in until the voice from the bright cloud announces “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” Tremendum, indeed. The reverberation of that voice must have caused avalanches continents away, so of course the disciples fall to the ground. But I don’t think it’s only the magnitude of sheer power that makes them tremble. It’s what the voice is saying.
“Listen to him!” It’s another phrase with both comfort and command. There is a confirmation in it, an affirmation that Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for. But there is also an imperative, reminding us what we’ve heard Jesus say and telling us to pay attention.
Just previously, in Matthew 16, Jesus had begun to teach that the Messiah must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed, to be raised on the third day. “God forbid it,” Peter responded, rejecting this plan, but then Jesus rebuked him in the strongest terms, and said “If any want to become my followers, them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
For six days, these words and their implications must have churned within the disciples, implications not only for their beloved teacher, but also for the disciples themselves. At the very least, they rule out evicting the Roman oppressors alongside a conquering hero. And no one who had actually seen Roman crosses could have any illusions that Jesus meant an abstract path of enlightenment. But the desire to deny Jesus’ words lingers. Surely the Way of the Cross could not really be God’s intention for the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel?
Last week I went to George Fox Seminary in Portland for the “Face-to-Face” portion of online coursework I’m currently undertaking. I’d been warned that the “Christian Ministry for Reconciliation” class would be emotionally intense, and it was. Day 1 began with the challenging topic of racial reconciliation; day 2 was all about reconciliation between men and women; and day 3 we studied the messy but sometimes miraculous work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Professor Laura Simmons did not want us holding any of these topics at an abstract, academic distance, and she led us into conversation in which we wrestled with our deepest feelings about our relationships with others, our hopes and fears, our grief and our longings.
Now, I must admit I had brushed off the warnings of emotional intensity, thinking myself prepared by various experiences. But I hadn’t counted on what would transpire in this group who had so recently been strangers to me. How Christ’s light would shine from the faces of my colleagues voicing their longing for a world in which their sons and daughters, no matter what their race or gender, would be equally respected and free from violence. How my heart would break anew, listening as people voiced the grief we all felt in confronting the painful realities of racism and sexism and our sinful complicity, our limitations, and our fear of change. Those were holy moments, when things were revealed to be “wholly other” than our former perceptions.
Arriving back home, I spent much of this past week frankly overwhelmed by a dizzying new level of awareness. I saw with new eyes the panorama of suffering in our world and how God redeems our relationships for grace and peace. I wondered what changes in me this new awareness would make.
For us the cross is no longer an instrument of execution; but to take it up and walk Christ’s Way means following him, wholly and willingly entering into the darkest, messiest places, relationships, and experiences of life, carrying nothing but the light of Christ’s life within us. It may not mean our literal death, and let me be unequivocally clear that following Christ is not about passively submitting to abusive relationships! If you are in such a relationship, Christ wants to lead you to a place of peace and wholeness! No matter what, following Christ to that place is a messy journey, working through old patterns and stepping out in courageous faith, and the Way of the Cross takes us into risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty again and again. The Cross is the way Jesus closed the gap between us and God; it is the way we must go if we would minister in his name.
Still, my mind rejects it. Surely there’s a better way to hope and healing. Surely there’s an easier way!
Maybe that’s what Peter is longs for on the mountain. We like to fault him for thinking he can freeze-frame the moment or capture God in a box, but his impulse to build shrines actually comes from the Festival of Booths, Israel’s celebration of the Exodus, in which people build “booths” as remembrance of God’s mighty acts in the desert, when the bright cloud dwelt in the tent of meeting. This is a “ramped-up” version of the wonders in the wilderness, and Peter wants to be hospitable to the holy presence. Maybe he wants a stable way to carry it forward.[iii]
But Peter’s desire reminds me of folks in my group last week who wanted immediate solutions to the problems of racism or sexism. They sought to “fix” things without really coming to awareness of their personal stake in those issues. They sought to be agents of transformation without being themselves transformed.
I think our rush to “fix” multi-layered problems can be an effort to stay in control and manage the discomfort of risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Following the command to “listen” to Jesus is to be called away from quick fixes and enter a long, slow way, in which change starts with our own conversion.
This past week, pondering my own new awareness, I found myself face to the ground. I was in “child’s pose,” if you know yoga; like a small child, forehead to the floor, knees curled up underneath. It’s a good stretch for the back and shoulders! And it was a good position to contemplate fear of change—the disciples’ and my own.
It was also a good position from which to imagine the next part of the story, something we often miss: Jesus the Christ, the One in whom all the power of the universe has just shined forth, simply comes to each disciple and touches them. I love that detail! Before he says another word, Jesus touches: a gentle hand, warm, real, tangible, true. It is a gesture which physically grounds the disciples, reconnects them as human beings in relationship with a fully human man who loves them. Only then does this One we’ve been told to heed say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid”: there it is. I think it comes here in the story, because it doesn’t so much speak to the mysterium tremendum as it does their fear of what may come in the journey ahead. Let’s not kid ourselves: the way of the Cross is fearful. But to hear Jesus clearly, we need to listen to the words which precedes this “do not be afraid.” “Get up,” Jesus says, and it’s not simply a command to stand. Jesus is literally saying “Be raised;” he’s using the same word the angel will use with the women at the tomb at Jesus’ resurrection. “Do not be afraid…He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”[iv]
“Get up; be raised.” These are resurrection words, my friends; “Do not be afraid” must be heard alongside that powerful hope. On the mountain we’ve gotten a glimpse of resurrection light, which lies through and beyond the Cross. We get up and follow Jesus into dark places, holding onto it, as 2Peter says, like a shining lamp, holding onto it until the day of resurrection dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts, trusting that suffering and death are not the end of the story. We are raised up from overwhelming fear and failure to new life and new possibilities we can scarcely imagine.
My friends, we are about to enter the Season of Lent in which we examine ourselves, our relationships with God and others. We ask to see how God has been displaced from the center of our lives, and we repent—we turn around—from destructive attitudes, habits and practices, so we may follow Christ anew, relying on the Holy Spirit’s guiding. Our hearts may be broken open with new awareness. How have we become resigned to a world of sin and violence? Where can we make amends?
These are hard questions, opening us to change which is never easy. But the grace of resurrection lights our way, as Jesus comes alongside us, touches us, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” God is at work in the darkest places of our lives and our world, reconciling all things to Godself, transforming us first, so that as Beloved Children, we might shine forth and share the peace of Christ, the healing of all Creation, Have courage, friends; Be raised and Do not be afraid. Amen.
[i] Borrowing from David Lose’s summary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3085
[iii] Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol 2., 65.
[iv] Matthew 27: 5-6