Touch

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

Matthew 17:1-9; lectionary gospel for Sunday, Feb. 26, 2020.

This morning at church, a baby gripped my proffered finger, and I did not resist.  It’s been a while since I’ve had baby fist wrapped around my forefinger, I told his mother, and I tugged ever so gently, more to enjoy the feel of tiny fingers tighten their soft grip than to actually pull away.  Baby fingers have a different weight than a handshake.  I appreciated not only the treat of the baby’s hold but also how well the contact fit today’s text, as I’ve spent the week thinking about touch, and its significance.

Transfiguration Sunday.  It’s a familiar story.  Jesus and his three closest disciples ascend the mountain; Jesus is transformed — shining like the sun.  The disciples and he together are enveloped in an overshadowing bright cloud, and together they hear the heavenly voice, ‘This is my Son … Listen to him!’  

What are they to hear?

Matthew captions the mountaintop event as occurring ‘six days later,’ as if it should be read in light of whatever had happened six days before.  Jesus had asked the disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Matt 16:15) and Peter had promptly replied, ‘You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt 16:16).  Yet Peter — having correctly named Jesus’ identity — refuses Jesus’ explanation that messiah means rejection, that death comes before resurrection (16:21).  Peter cannot hear this word, protests its utterance, and Jesus rebukes him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (16:23).

Maybe this is the word they need to heed:  that having acclaimed Jesus’ lordship, Peter and the rest need to listen to their lord’s explanation of what lordship means.  Suffering.  Rejection.  Death.  And beyond ….  The heavenly voice may be heard as if its primary injunction is retrospective.  But the story continues on.

‘Listen to him!’ the voice sounds from that cloud so dense in its brightness that it casts a shadow, and the disciples fall on their faces in fear.  And the next word that comes is not aural but haptic.  Jesus comes and touches these men collapsed in terror on the ground.  Jesus touches them.  Then Jesus speaks, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’

Jesus’ touch strikes me (pun only belatedly realized) because it is unique to Matthew’s telling.  Mark and Luke tell Transfiguration.  But only Matthew tells that the disciples’ terror caused their fall.  And only Matthew tells that Jesus touched them before telling them to get up.  Matthew, the gospel of Emmanuel, God-With-Us (Matt 1:28; 28:20), is the gospel that tells Jesus come so near to the disciples that he can stretch out his arm, reach with his hand, and touch these confused but beloved followers of the Beloved Son.  ‘Get up,’ Jesus says, and because he has touched them, they can.  ‘Do not be afraid,’ Jesus says, and because they have gotten up, they can be not afraid.

I am standing in the aisle in church as Christ’s Peace is passed — handshake by handshake — all around me.  I am clinging to the baby’s hold by letting the baby cling to me.  His mother and I both watch his face and smile.  His gaze is concentrated on my finger in his fist, on the slight motion of our hands connected.  His face lights in pleasure at the play, then falls as mother and I both realize the interval is ending, and I must truly pull my finger from his grasp.

Jesus touches his disciples.  Jesus’ hand on shoulder or back or cupped around the crown of the head.  Comfort in the contact giving strength to heed the speech.  Peter and James and John get up, and they go back down the mountain with Jesus.  Their understanding is still muddled.  They will again be afraid.  But they will have ever after the recollection of that mountain and its brightness and the voice saying Beloved Son (2 Peter 1:16-18).  And maybe, persisting as well, held in skin and flesh, the weight and warmth of Jesus’ hand.  

Through confusion and willful misunderstanding, through news and rumors, through affliction and joy, through fear and boldness and doubt and conviction — from generation to generation — Christ’s touch handed on from beloved to beloved, given and received even this Sunday morning, as a baby gripped my finger.

Transfiguration

for Sunday March 3, 2019

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.  Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.

Exodus 34:29-32

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  

Luke 9:28-29; full lectionary text linked below

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+9%3A28-36&version=NIV

This has been a hard week for the people of God called Methodist, the people among whom I live and work and love, to whom I am committed, with whom I have communion. Some of whom now have been dealt the blow of exclusion.   News is still too new to know if, or how irrevocably, communion has broken.  But the specter itself aches.  I feel uncharacteristically wanting Ash Wednesday, texts and liturgy that match my mood.

But first comes this Sunday, when the church recalls Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain.  The lectionary twins the text from Luke with that of Moses’ transfiguration.  The writer of the gospel evokes Exodus motifs:  dazzling white glory, shining shadow cloud, divinity speaking on the mountain.  Jesus is about to accomplish his own (literally) ‘exodus’ at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).  Moses and Jesus. The figures are connected.  But I don’t think their comparison is the sum of the gospel’s aim.  Such reading is too facile, too swiftly exhausts the significance of the text.  If it is about no more than proving Jesus’ identity as ‘Son,’ then we the church could just recite the creed and be done.  It would be a much more efficient use of Sunday mornings.  But we’re given — yet again — a story. 

One story.  Doubly told.  A story about encounter with the LORD.  About how that transforms those who are directly there and those who encounter them.

Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights (Exod 34:28).  Moses has asked, and been granted, a vision of the LORD’s glory — an encounter so powerful that God himself must shield Moses from its full effects (Exod 33:21-23).  The LORD, who knows Moses by name (Exod 33:17), descends in a cloud and proclaims his own name:  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’ (Exod 34:5-7).  Moses has spoken with the LORD; Moses has heard God’s own mouth proclaiming God’s own nature:  ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Exod 33:19).  No wonder Moses shines with the reflection of God’s glory!  No wonder Aaron and the rest are terrified!  Moses mutes his glow, tells what the LORD had told.  Ever after, when Moses speaks with the LORD, his face again shines (Exod 34:34-35).

Do Peter and John and James shine when they came down the mountain?  Like Moses they had stood in the presence of God, been enveloped by the cloud, heard divine speech (Luke 9:33-35).  But unlike Moses, when they came down the mountain, they had nothing to say.  Not yet.  They kept silent (Luke 9:36).  Maybe because they still did not understand the encounter they had had, and until its fullness was revealed after Easter, they were unable to receive it, unable to tell it, unable to glow with the reflection of its glory.  In time that would come.  In time, maybe, they would glow.  In the presence of joy.  In the practice of love.  In the experience of communion.

I have seen that glow.  Not the overwhelming glory that tells me that I am in the direct presence of divinity but the glow that tells me the one whose face is shining has been.  And the glow of encounter has shined on my own face.  I don’t always know it, think only that I am telling of some newness I have seen, some wonder I have encountered, don’t even realize I am aflame until the person to whom I am talking lights in response and I realize.  Oh.  This is it.

Here’s the thing:  I have seen that glow on those who hold inclusion as dear as I do and on those who do not.  I have learned from them; they have learned from me.  We have disagreed about how God sees and yet at times — to our mutual surprise — we have recognized a glow of glory and lit a new sight of God for each other.  I believe the LORD has been delighted by the spark kindled, the light spread.

Transfiguration Sunday is not only about Jesus but about the church.  We live after Easter.  We are no longer to remain silent as the disciples did. We are not to turn away from each other’s light nor quench each other’s fire.  We are called to encounter God with and through each other, to shine in communion, to glow with the glory of the LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious.

May God’s mercy and grace heal those hurt, guard the glow, and restore our hope of inclusive communion, that we may all look full and loving at each other whole, ascend the holy mountain, speak with the LORD, and feel our faces shine bright with God’s glory.