“Transfiguration” is a strange word, and we only use it once a year: on this Sunday at the end of the season after Epiphany. Epiphany is the process of figuring out that Jesus is God: revelations of wisdom in teaching, miraculous healings, exorcism of unclean spirits, and this story we hear today of Jesus’s transfiguration on a mountaintop, witnessed by Peter, James, and John, and also Moses and Elijah.
So what is transfiguration? In Greek—remember the New Testament was all written in Greek—the word for transfiguration is metamorpho-o, which is the root of our word metamorphosis, a profound change in form from one stage of life to the next. A dramatic example would be a caterpillar becoming a butterfly—that’s metamorphosis. A butterfly doesn’t even resemble a caterpillar, even though it was born that way.
Human bodies go through a lot of life stages and changes between birth and adulthood, but we don’t usually say a human has “changed their form.” So something interesting and maybe different is happening to Jesus here—he goes through a change. Now, when women talk about going through “the change” of life, they mean menopause. Menopause is probably not what is going on with Jesus in this story, but it could be perhaps similarly dramatic, or uncontrollable, or uncomfortable—if you’ve ever heard a woman describe the symptoms of menopause.
Whatever is going on with Jesus, what we know is that he’s not alone. He brings along his trusted companions—Peter, James, and John—and then he also gets encouragement from historically significant ancestors Moses and Elijah, both of whom were political leaders and prophets in their time. If God’s voice from the heavens is what outs Jesus as the Son of God, which was a politically-oriented title for the ruler of Jerusalem, are Moses and Elijah present to confer upon Jesus that kind of leadership?
In a commentary on these texts on the web page of the Human Rights Campaign, there’s a conversation between scholars and pastors Wendell Miller, Penny Nixon, and Randall Bailey. They notice in this mountaintop story there are no women present—if Moses and Elijah show up, why not Deborah and Esther, also historically significant leaders? These scholars noticed that the Greek word for prophet, prophētēs, is a masculine noun with a feminine ending, so they say “It is a transgender noun, so to speak.”
Maybe this transfiguration story doesn’t have women characters, but these scholars ask some powerful questions:
“Can one reimagine this story as including a gathering of men—with a range of sexual and gender orientations—in an encounter with God, the ultimate lover?
Could this be why the women are excluded and the disciples who witness it are told not to tell anyone else?
At those times in your life when you are vulnerable, troubled, hidden and veiled, who do you seek and see?
Who are your beloveds that surround you?
How do you see your own humanity differently?”
There are life-giving relationships that become sacred in the presence of vulnerability. If you’ve ever been the friend who was safe to talk to about the truth of one’s sexual or gender identity, or if you’ve ever been the one deciding who is safe to come out to, then you know something about the sacred vulnerability of such a revelation. You know it is an honor. Jesus is letting these disciples witness something profound about who he really is, revealing the power and the majesty of God.
At the same time, Jesus is still profoundly human. The scholars in conversation on the Human Rights Campaign site say of the transfiguration: “This is what our humanity looks like without our defenses. This is the radiant brilliance of the light of the world in us. We are connected to so much more—that which has gone before and that which is to come.”
I don’t believe anyone comes to transfiguration alone. We need trusting relationships of vulnerability to approach anything like transfiguration. And while we all would share Peter’s sentiment to set up tents and let’s just stay here for a while, we know that this moment of transfiguration isn’t going to last forever, and it isn’t going to prevent the challenges that are just ahead. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem where he will be crucified and where he will die.
Elijah and his successor Elisha make a journey together, knowing it will be their last. Elijah keeps trying to send Elisha away, but Elisha won’t leave. Elisha makes a bold request: a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, the Hebrew asks for a double mouthful of Elijah’s spirit, like a second helping at a big meal. This is a phrase also related to inheritance—Elisha is asking to be Elijah’s firstborn.
Jason Byassee, reflecting on this text, writes, “Think of key moments in leadership succession—in politics or business or the military or a family. When we lose an elder, we feel that loss. We think, ‘No one can measure up; things will get worse.’ But Elisha defies that logic. He says, ‘Elijah, whatever made you special, I want more than that. Double that.’ Scripture is saying the next generation will be just fine.”
Indeed, the rabbis credit Elijah with 8 miracles, and Elisha with 16—exactly double. Transitions can be unsettling or even frightening, and even us religious folks often trust the past more than we trust the future. But the power always belongs to God. As Paul wrote it, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord…”
What about trusting Jesus, trusting the power of God? Fear limits our imaginations, and God always has such better things in mind than whatever we can dream up. We might get stuck in fear about the cross, but God is already on to resurrection.
This is why it’s important to savor the special moments, to remember they are true. The disciples re-told this transfiguration story so many times that it made it into the Bible. They needed that reassurance, maybe even reliving the climb up the mountain. God has done amazing things in the past, and God will do amazing things again.
So are you telling your story? And to whom? And who is around you, encouraging your strength to keep going and keep growing?
One thing we’re celebrating today is RIC Sunday, which refers to Reconciling in Christ, shared by congregations together with Reconciling Works, to celebrate the welcome, inclusion, celebration, and advocacy for LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church. Gethsemane Lutheran Church welcomes LGBTQIA+ people to participate fully in the life of faith, and we’re not alone—there are over one thousand other congregations connected through Reconciling Works in the United States and Canada.
All of us are telling our stories of welcome and amplifying one another in witness—can you even imagine? Church as a place where God is present and affirming, where healing happens, where you are not alone, where the people of God shine with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Is anyone else amazed such a place could exist? And here we are.
Like last year, when we received hate mail at the church because of our commitment to radical welcome. We might have felt afraid and alone, maybe we would further isolate ourselves so we wouldn’t be targeted. But we were on a list, together with other congregations Reconciling in Christ, and a church in Hollywood, California found us, way out here in Missouri, knowing that our state was making national news for legislation against, in particular, our transgender siblings. This church sent letters of encouragement to us—an overwhelming wave of grace.
I’ll close with the blessing sent by Pastor Drew Stever of Hope Lutheran Church in Hollywood:
“May Christ’s love cast away the weight of fear that burdens hearts.
May the Holy Spirit’s tongue of understanding bring us closer
to one another and inspire us all to seek out the lost, forgotten,
May God’s divine creation stir up in us new ways of
gathering in community in God’s name.”
 Human Rights Campaign website: https://hrc-prod-requests.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/files/assets/resources/OutinScripture_Epiphany_YearB.pdf
 2 Corinthians 4:5