Do you often feel like it is very hard to be a disciple of Jesus?
It is pretty normal to live with some ideas of what we should do and how we should live as a follower of Jesus. And so often when we arrive at a time when we look back a little to see how we have been doing, we can see again and again how we failed.
Now of course this would not have happened to those great twelve apostles Jesus had in his leadership team – would it??
Well, maybe we need to look at the stories again.
You are probably very familiar with this story of the Transfiguration – and we generally focus on the amazing things that happened to Jesus and the two people – Moses and Elijah – who appeared with him in this amazing event.
But let’s have a look at these three Apostles who Jesus took with him.
These three became the premier leaders of the Church, but on this occasion, having been taken by Jesus up to a high place to pray, they fell asleep. And they didn’t just doze off – they were “sound asleep”. When I try to read a book after lunch, my head wobbles a bit and my eyes need matches to prop my eye-lids open. But these guys went sound asleep.
Consequently, when they were awakened they were a little bit incoherent. Peter sees the guests and suggests to Jesus that maybe a few tents might help mark this occasion. The text even says as an aside that Peter did not really know what he was saying.
I imagine that later when Peter had some time to remember what he did he might have gone a bit red in the face.
But wait, there’s more.
In the very next story, a man brings his sick son to Jesus to be healed. His epilepsy was thought to be demonic possession. Did you notice what the man said to Jesus?
“I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.”
At the beginning of this chapter, Luke tells us that Jesus had given his disciples the “power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases.”
So how come they couldn’t do this?
Well, I don’t know, but it seems to be just another example of these disciples failing to be what Jesus expects them to be.
So, when you are feeling a bit like a failure as a disciple of Jesus I want you to remember these stories.
Now, the question is, does the story of the Transfiguration which we are celebrating today have anything to say to a wayward bunch of disciples who struggle a lot to follow in the way that Jesus is calling us?
Well, let us look at how Luke tells us the story.
Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s pattern so there must be a reason for this structure.
Just before he tells us this story, Mark tells us about Jesus forewarning his disciples about the fact that he is heading towards his death as he travels towards Jerusalem. And while he is at it, he tells his disciples that they must be prepared to die as well – metaphorically as well as literally.
Then he tells them about the Transfiguration, followed by the story of Jesus healing the boy with the diabetic demons.
Did your eyes follow on to the next bit? Jesus speaks again about his impending death. Mark says the disciples didn’t understand him but were too afraid to ask. Matthew says they were sad. Luke says they didn’t understand because it had been hidden from them intentionally.
So, here we have the Transfiguration book-ended by Jesus speaking about his impending death and throughout the narrative we have a bunch of rather confused and inept disciples.
When most people look at the Transfiguration story they take meaning from the presence of Moses and Elijah – Moses the giver of the law; Elijah the first and greatest Prophet who did not die physically and whom the people expected to return.
When I look at these little structural things about the narrative, I have a few ideas that might answer that question about what does it all mean for us as wayward disciples. I hope they help.
Paul had a lot to say about the Law –all too complicated to go into here – but I think we all get it that the LAW was a failure as a means of enabling us to satisfy God and live in relationship with God.
We also can look at much of what the prophets said over the centuries – calling the nation back to living with justice and in peace – and the most frequent response to the prophets was to stone them. Even Jesus noticed that. So the voices of the prophets did not bring the people back into that relationship with God.
This leaves us with Jesus. Here he is in the middle of these two greats in the history of Israel, but whereas these two greats failed to give the people a way back to God, Jesus was successful. He provides a WAY that works where all others failed.
Since earliest times, Christians have known that the death of Jesus was central to this success. Something happened in that which was like a key that unlocked the door. Maybe this KNOWING was born out of the way stories like these were told.
Over the centuries we have developed explanations for this which we call Theories of the Atonement. There are many of them – some more widely accepted than others, some cast aside as no longer meaningful. Each theory tries to make sense of one thing or another as we try to understand why Jesus had to die. Some raise more questions than they resolve.
By way of example, the theory of the Substitutionary Sacrifice (Jesus died in our place) as an explanation of what was happening, is embedded in many of our thanksgiving prayers in the Prayer Books, but it is not the only way to make sense of it. We might explore some of these over Lent but it is enough, I think to say today, that the execution of Jesus by the political and religious authorities when he was guilty of nor crime or heresy changed to cosmos. God acted in the face of this injustice by raising Jesus to life and in doing this, God declares his preferential option for us all and offers his grace as a welcome – welcome into his presence even though we are all a bunch of wayward pilgrims who fail him again and again.
This is the secret to the success of the way Jesus calls us to follow. It was the faith of Christ that saved us by God’s grace – Paul says that somewhere. And the reason this had to rely on the faith of Jesus – rather than our faith – was that otherwise we would have been stuck in another system of works, of law-keeping, of requirements and rewards, all of which depended on our own effort.
And the reason all this was necessary? Because we were doomed to be failures from the start. The Law couldn’t make it for us. Following the prophets couldn’t make it for us. Only God’s grace given freely works, and it is given because Jesus had faith in God and us.