Genesis 12:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:8-10, Matthew 17:1-9
On the Gospel, Stop Being Afraid
There is a mysterious story in 2 Kings that can help us understand what is happening in the transfiguration. Israel is at war with Aram, and Elisha the man of God is using his prophetic powers to reveal the strategic plans of the Aramean army to the Israelites. At first the King of Aram thinks that one of his officers is playing the spy but when he learns the truth he despatches troops to go and capture Elisha who is residing in Dothan. The Aramean troops move in under cover of darkness and surround the city. In the morning Elisha’s servant is the first to discover that they are surrounded and fears for his master’s safety. He runs to Elisha and says, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” The prophet answers, “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” But who would believe that when the surrounding mountainside is covered with advancing enemy troops? So Elisha prays, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opens the servant’s eyes, and he looks and sees the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). This vision was all that Elisha’s disciple needed to reassure him. At the end of the story, not only was the prophet of God safe but the invading army was totally humiliated.
This story can help us understand what is going on in the transfiguration because at this stage in his public ministry Jesus is very much like Elisha, hemmed in on every side by his foes. His disciples, and Peter in particular, feel very much like the servant of Elisha, afraid and anxious for their master’s safety. Remember that just before the transfiguration Jesus asked his disciples whom the people and they themselves think he is. When Peter gives the correct answer that he is the Christ, Jesus congratulates him and then proceeds to warn them and prepare them for his unavoidable suffering, death and resurrection. But Peter is so unprepared for this that he protests visibly. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he says. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus sharply corrects him, telling him that he is seeing things from a purely human point of view (Matthew 16:13-23). Like Elisha’s servant, Peter needed a vision from God’s point of view, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over the head of Jesus, God is still with him, God is still in control of events, God will see to it that in the end he triumphs over his foes as Elisha did. What Peter and his fellow disciples needed was for God to open their eyes and them give them a glimpse of God’s abiding presence with their master Jesus. The transfiguration is that experience.
A certain missionary on a study trip to the Holy Land was visiting Jaffa (Joppa) where Peter was residing when he baptized Cornelius (Acts 10). The breath-taking beauty of this small seaside town was such that it inspired him to come up with this joke:
At the transfiguration Peter offered to build three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Jesus said, “And what about you, Peter?” And Peter replies, “Don’t worry about me Lord, I got a better place in Jaffa.”
We tend to think that when Peter said, “It is good for us to be here” he was thinking about the beauty of the place. But Peter was probably thinking not of the beauty of the mountain top but its safety for his master. He was preoccupied for the safety of his master just as the servant of Elisha was. But when his eyes were opened at the transfiguration and he saw his master Jesus bathed in the glory of the divine presence his fear evaporated. And Jesus turns to him [them] and says “Get up now, stop being afraid.” This is a more exact rendering of the Greek present tense imperative of prohibition.
Every time we gather for the Eucharist we experience a moment of transfiguration where our divine Lord is transfigured before our eyes in the forms of bread and wine. May the reassurance of God’s loving presence with us at communion take away all fear and doubt from our hearts and strengthen us to get up and face with courage the challenges and trials, sufferings and, yes, death, that we must pass through before we can share in the divine glory.
On the Epistle, Join with Me in Suffering for the Gospel
The pages of our newspapers are full of advertisements inviting readers to buy a product, subscribe to a service or enrol in a membership programme. Such ads try to present their products and services in such attractive ways that readers will find it hard to ignore or turn down. Imagine an ad for membership in your community church with the heading, “Join with Me in Suffering for the Gospel.” What impression will such an ad make on the average reader? How many readers are likely to enrol as members in such a church? Yet those are the words of the invitation that Paul extends to Timothy in today’s second reading. Why did Timothy accept such an invitation? More importantly, why should we accept it today? The simple answer is: because there is no other way to human fulfilment, which the Bible calls eternal life or salvation.
The Bible often describes human life as a choice between two ways. The two ways are described in Psalm as the way of sinners and the way of the righteous. But perhaps the most graphic description of the two ways of life is found in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus spoke of himself as the only way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). By this he did not mean that there was absolutely no other way. What he meant was that for those who want to come to God, for those who seek eternal life and happiness, there was no other way. Obviously, for those whose destination in life was anything other than God, eternal life and happiness, there was a way, but that way only leads to eternal disappointment and death.
Jesus walked in the unpopular and unattractive narrow way of saying yes to God and no to self. He invited Paul, and Paul accepted the invitation to walk in the way of self-denial and suffering. Paul, in turn, invited Timothy, as we see in today’s reading. Timothy accepted and walked in the narrow way. All these holy men testify that the way that leads to life is not easy but in the end it was worthwhile.
Today the Church extends the same invitation to us. This invitation to evangelical suffering is certainly counter-cultural, given the growing materialism and secularism that characterise our culture today. This voice of Christ through the Church is often drowned in the cacophony of other voices, including those of other churches and Christian ministries that promise a life of pleasure, possessions and power rather than suffering. Some call it prosperity gospel, but that is a contradiction in terms since accepting the gospel means accepting that “he (God) must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30).
The fact that we may not be able to bear the cross of suffering may hinder us from answering yes to the invitation. But this fear is based on the mistaken notion that we bear the cross by dint of our own human ability alone. That is not correct. We are called to bear the cross of God by the strength that comes from God. This divine empowerment in us is what we call grace. As Paul tells us in the reading, “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:8-9).
With the assurance of divine grace to help us, let us throw all hesitation aside. Let us resolve today to walk in the narrow way, the way of the cross, the way that leads to life. As we devotionally walk the Way of the Cross every Friday of Lent, let us resolve to practically walk the same way of the cross every day during this Lenten season and, indeed, every day of our lives.