“Where on earth is Lewisboro?” That was the question that I was greeted with by an officer as I attempted to navigate my way through the immigration process in New York a couple of weeks ago. When I wasn’t able to give much of a response, from my almost non-existent knowledge of the American County of Westchester in New York, even though that was where I had indicated on the arrivals form that I would be staying, I immediately raised suspicions in the mind of the official who was questioning me. Another officer was called over to the desk and I began to have a sense of what it might be like to appear on that television programme ‘Border Security’.
Fortunately the misunderstanding was clarified quickly. My Australian passport laying face down on the table had been mistakenly taken to be an American passport, and once it was turned over the officer agreed that I was no more likely to be able to describe the geography of Lewisboro than she would be able to tell me anything at all about East Maitland. I finished the process and went on my way to the baggage hall, with the all important entry stamp in my passport.
Travelling internationally raises ones awareness of what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a foreigner. When Luisa and I and our boys had arrived at Heathrow airport in London a couple of weeks earlier travelling on Australian passports, we soon became aware of this difference between how a person is treated when they are a citizen in comparison to a foreign visitor, as we waited in the queues of foreign nationals trying to enter England which we have previously simply walked past when we have been travelling on British passports.
The question of citizenship, of which place is our true home, is right at the heart of this great Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord that we celebrate together at the Mass today. Peter and James and John have gone on a journey with Jesus up a high mountain. In a sense that particular journey mirrors the huge learning curve that they have been on since he called them to follow him, that steep and mountainous process of becoming disciple.
They have had to learn that with Jesus things are not as they would have presumed or had previously understood. With Jesus they have begun to see the world in which they live very differently, and are beginning to understand that those who appear to be on the margins of things are actually at the centre, and that there is no power, no human frailty, that cannot be overcome by the love of God as people experience it through the teaching and actions of the one whom they are following.
But on this day, during this particular journey, these three disciples are to experience something that will open their eyes and their hearts more than anything that they have experienced with Jesus so far. As they reach the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them – he shines, he glows. The writers of the Gospel tell us that “his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
Imagine a new television advertisement for ‘transfiguration washing powder… whiter than anything on earth can produce’. Just as the Prophet Daniel all those centuries before experienced a foretaste of the glory of God, who he described as the ‘Ancient of Days’ as we heard in our Old Testament reading earlier in our service, so now the disciples see the glory of God right before their eyes. As he is shining, as he is transfigured before them, Jesus is joined by two great heroes of the faith, two great servants of God from previous generations – Elijah and Moses.
These disciples have been with Jesus as he cast out demons, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind but they have not really understood what all of these great acts of Jesus have been pointing to. In the drama immediately before this great Transfiguration experience in Mark’s Gospel, these disciples have been recounting to him that some people think that he is Elijah, and others that he is John the Baptist. In response to that wonderful and familiar question from Jesus, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter has proclaimed that he is the Messiah. But Peter has got into a great muddle by telling Jesus that he will never allow him to be killed, and Jesus has had to rebuke him. Now in this great Transfiguration moment they experience something more than they have understood through all that Jesus has been teaching them.
Jesus stands before them in his heavenly glory, flanked by Elijah the greatest of the prophets, and Moses the giver of the law. And right before them as they watch on, these giants of the Jewish faith are talking to Jesus. In front of them as they watch on, Moses and Elijah are confirming to Jesus and to them, that he is who he says he is: that he is both the fulfilment of the law, and the fulfilment of the prophets; that Jesus is the Messiah who was anticipated for so long, that Jesus is someone to be listened to. As Moses and Elijah stand beside Jesus, the disciples are able to see a glimpse of who he really is. As Jesus shines in glory they are able to experience a foretaste of what it will be like when he has conquered evil and death in his own crucifixion and resurrection, even though they do not yet fully comprehend what is going on.
What an extraordinary and glorious and awe-inspiring experience! It reminds me of a Church that I once visited which had inscribed in great letters on the archway to the sanctuary, “this is an awful place!” which no longer quite translates into our modern usage of language. On the top of this mountain, the disciples are given a vision of their true citizenship, of their true home amidst the glory and the majesty of God. Just as music transforms words as they are sung, so the disciples now see Jesus transformed as he truly will be after his resurrection – entirely caught up in, bathed in, the love of his father. They see, if they can only grasp it, a vision of how they will be too, in the eternal life of God’s love.
It is little wonder that Peter decides to build some dwellings, so that this experience does not have to end. In doing so, Peter expresses the longings in each one of us that those moments when we have felt closest to God, when we have known most fully that we are citizens of his Kingdom, can go on for ever. This great Church of Saint Peter in which we worship was, after all, constructed with its high arches reaching to heaven, to be a permanent reminder for all who see it, of what it means to be baptised into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. When I walked back into this Church building on Friday evening as the sun was setting, having been away for these past weeks, I was caught up in the glory that this building speaks of. I hope that you as well, when you enter this place, have a sense of all that it seeks to portray and say to us. But in trying to turn this glorious moment into a permanent monument Peter misses the point, and we are sometimes in danger of doing so as well.
The Kingdom of God of which we are citizens is much bigger than anything that we could lock into a building for our own self keeping. Just as this church building points us to the wonder of God, so the whole of creation signals and mirrors the glory of the presence of God, which we experience now only as a foretaste of the eternal hope that is to come. But the reality that we have to grapple with is that most people who live around us don’t walk into this building at all.
That is why our task as citizens of the Kingdom of God, is to both live with the hope of the glory that is yet to come before our eyes, when we will finally be in the closer presence of God for eternity with all those who have already gone before us, as the disciples came face to face with on the top of the mountain, and also to live as restless foreigners in this world, taking every opportunity to help fellow travellers who live around us to understand, to translate if you like, that the beauty of this world that they experience in creation, and self-less living, service of others, and the joy of loving, points to something far greater.
So today as we celebrate this great Festival of the Transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by his first disciples, we give thanks for those times when we have been caught up in a sense of the glory of God, and as we wait expectantly for that day when we will be reunited with all those who have gone before us in the wonder of the eternal unending life of his love, we pray that we may have the courage and the opportunity to share the joy and hope of the Kingdom of God with others.
In the words of the Collect prayer that we prayed earlier at this Eucharist, “may we have faith to perceive his glory, to listen to him, and to walk in his way, that we may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Amen.”