Our Gospel reading is the single most dramatic story about Jesus except for the resurrection itself. On top of the mountain with a few of his disciples, Jesus shines with divine glory. Great heroes from the Old Testament appear with him. A voice speaks from heaven identifying him as God’s beloved Son. That is a LOT of fireworks!
But for Christians two thousand years later, this story is not shocking. We know that Jesus was God incarnate. God incarnate can do things like shine with divine glory or talk to Moses centuries after his death. So, what’s the lesson for us here?
Let’s back up a bit. In the immediately preceding story, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. After some hemming and hawing, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). It was a good answer.
Then Jesus warned Peter and the other disciples that, as the Messiah, the Son of God, he would “undergo great suffering…and be killed.” Peter literally could not believe what he was hearing, and Peter said as much. That was not as good (16:21-23)!
In that story, Peter was beginning to recognize that Jesus was God. But Peter couldn’t make sense of God suffering and dying. Peter couldn’t hold together two such apparently contradictory truths: God, the immortal and all-powerful, suffering and death like us, who are mortal and frail.
In our story, Peter was still struggling to hold these truths together. Indeed, I suspect it was getting harder for him. Here, too, Peter recognized Jesus as God, which doesn’t take a rocket scientist during the transfiguration. Peter understandably wanted to stay on the mountain with Christ in all his divine glory.
But staying on the mountain was not Jesus’ mission. Jesus led Peter and the others back down the mountain, back into the messiness of human life. On the way, Jesus reminded them that he was going to suffer, just as he had said before (17:12). This time, Peter had the wisdom to keep his mouth shut. But I’m guessing Peter was still bumfuzzled by the fact that God incarnate was going to suffer and die.
We can learn much from this story about Christ. We can also learn much from this story about ourselves. Like Christ, we sometimes shine with God’s glory. And, also like Christ, we are called to live in the messiness of human life, and ultimately to die, before rising again in glory.
In the case of Christ, the challenge was accepting that he, God incarnate, would suffer and die. For us, the challenge is the opposite. We know all too well that we suffer and die. What’s hard to accept is that we can ever shine with God’s glory. But that is part of the lesson here.
Here’s an analogy. It’s a true story.
An aspiring musician with the stage name Sugar Man put out a couple of unsuccessful albums in the early 1970s. When they didn’t go anywhere, he quit the music business and became a day laborer. More than two decades went by.
Then, out of the blue, people from South Africa showed up at Sugar Man’s apartment to tell him that he was a rock star. It turns out, one of the few people to buy Sugar Man’s albums in the 1970s moved to South Africa soon afterwards. She shared the albums with friends, and people loved them. Bootleg copies were produced, and Sugar Man became one of the most popular musicians in South Africa.
Sugar Man seemed like an ordinary person. But all along Sugar Man had this secret identity as a rock star, without even knowing it.
I think of this as a picture of all of us in God’s eyes. We think of ourselves and each other as just ordinary people, with all the challenges that ordinary people have. And, of course, that’s true.
At the same time, we all have a secret identity. We are rock stars in our own way because we are all created in God’s own image, redeemed by Christ, and powered by the Holy Spirit. We are all beloved children of God, destined for eternal life with God. We are, as our opening prayer puts it, in the process of being “changed into [Christ’s] likeness from glory to glory.”
And, we often have a hard time seeing ourselves that way. It’s like our secret identity is a secret even from ourselves. The invitation and the challenge of the story of the transfiguration is to use it as a mirror for seeing in the glorified Christ a revelation of who we really are, or at least of who we are called to become.
And once we start looking for signs of that glory, we can see them all around us all the time. Here is one of my recent sightings.
Last Sunday Carrie and I were flying home from our vacation. The first leg of the journey was smooth. We had a long layover in the Charlotte airport. That was fine. Then we got the unhappy news that our second flight was delayed. At first it was just ten minutes. Then they pushed it back a bit more. Then a bit more. The tone of the announcements became increasingly non-committal. Finally, they boarded us. Thirty minutes later they announced that the flight was cancelled.
The airline put us all in a hotel. The problem was, it was now after 1:00 AM, which felt like 2:00 AM to Carrie and me because of a time change. It takes a while to get more than a hundred people situated in hotels at the last minute in the middle of the night. We got to our hotel about 2:30, and were expected back at the airport the next morning about 5:00.
I dutifully got up at 4:30 and was taking a shower when I received the news that our flight was postponed two hours. I wanted to kill someone. When we arrived at the airport two hours later, we learned that our flight was again delayed. Just for ten minutes at first, like the night before. Then for thirty minutes. Our anxiety was rising.
Finally, they announced that the flight crew had arrived, and that we would board shortly. Carrie and I were sitting apart from the other passengers, stewing in our exhaustion, frustration, and wild irritation. We just glared at the flight crew. But many of our fellow passengers applauded the crew with what appeared to be genuine good spirit.
I was astonished, and then moved. They were surely all just as tired, frustrated, anxious, and irritated as I was. But they were able to rise above their bad feelings to cheer the airline employees.
As challenges go, a delayed flight is not a particularly big one. But in that moment, I glimpsed the human capacity to transcend our circumstances, our ability, with God’s help, to shine with a little divine glory even in the Charlotte airport under trying circumstances. I glimpsed the secret identity of my fellow passengers. They really are God’s beloved children, being changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.
And although I wasn’t displaying much glory in that moment, I am too. We all are.
And so, on this Transfiguration Sunday, I give thanks to Christ for revealing to Peter and to us his divine glory. I give thanks for the reminder that we will share in that divine glory in eternity and that we can share in it even now. And I pray that God will help us to shine a little more brightly.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
 This all comes from the documentary film, “Searching for Sugar Man,” 2012. After learning that he was a star, Sugar Man became making annual concert tours in South Africa, where he played to large and adoring audiences. He gave most of the profits away, and continued to live an unassuming life in the United States the rest of the year.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan