As we listen to the scriptures on this last Sunday after Epiphany, before we begin again with the season of Lent, we hear Jesus speak words we might associate with the angelic beings who accompany events of God appearing to human beings: do not be afraid, fear not, do not be afraid. Today we read and hear an account of the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain. Our field of view is adjusted especially on that moment, and another mountain moment that prepared the way for it. Never mind for now that Moses must descend early to deal with the golden calf debacle, and that as the disciples descend the mountain, they immediately face the demon afflicted people quaking in need of healing. We’ll get there. Today we remember the moment on the mountain, what God discloses to us there. As Episcopalians our calendar celebrates the feast of transfiguration, in common with roman Catholics, orthodox and a few other bodies, on Aug 6. But in common with Lutherans, who celebrate the transfiguration to conclude Epiphany, we read these readings today. In common we remember this event, when a voice says, ‘Listen to Jesus’ and Jesus says, ‘do not be afraid.’
Along the way, I’m curious about fear, when you listen to fear, and when not? When a friend or someone in your trust and care approaches you in a state of fear, what do you do to evaluate the fear, its roots, sources, reality, validity? This is a caring thing we can do for a friend, a family member, or at times someone we don’t know as well. Fear is neither discounted, not immediately credited; at times you better listen to that novel fear right now without thinking; and other times remember that fear will be your least helpful ally. Fear requires a discerning heart to grow in us. Fear and faith present a special case; at times we would say fear, or something we call fear, is opposed to the quality of emotion and being we experience when we are oriented by trust in God; yet that very quality of trust in God at times quakes and quivers, brings tears and songs and silence, a sense of wonder and overwhelm one might very well also call fear of the lord, yirei adonai, fear of the lord, the beginning of wisdom. And it is not always clear to us what it means, such that sometimes we need someone else to say, ‘fear not.’
Peter himself seemed to begin a struggle of discernment with some kind of fear. What he witnessed was wonderful, overwhelming, it caused him to quake for healing, and then he leapt into action- “It’s good to be here, let’s make houses for you and Moses and Elijah!” But Peter’s semi-automatic response of leadership is interrupted by a cloud descending upon the mountain. The old ways come to a stop. A voice speaks from the cloud “This is my son, listen to him.’ And the three disciples fall down in fear, something new has begun in them, they fall down amidst the glory of the Lord shining from the cloud and from Jesus. And its Jesus alone who touches them and says, ‘do not be afraid.’
We might well imagine that later in life Peter recalled that experience, having carried it about in his memory, working it over, reflecting, being changed by what he saw and heard. And can now share it with others in a way other than building literal huts around his vision.
We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Peter describes the vision of the glory of the Lord, an experience like the Israelites listening with awe beneath Mount Sinai as Moses received the words of the torah from the almighty merciful one. It is not something some clever people just imagined; it isn’t just his own interpretation of a private vision. With the common heritage of the scriptures in mind, this event, the person witnessed by more than one person, is disclosed by a process of listening, and testing and trial and error, a process guided by the Holy Spirit given to women and men. The Spirit helps us to not fear, it gives our quaking to God, it conveys the touch of Jesus, and lets us listen. And we listen, we discern together, never a matter of one person moving us forward or holding us back, we see, we move as a body, a church.