One of my favourite Gospel passages for preaching from is Matthew 17.1-9,
‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
‘As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’’
Note what Jesus does, the action words: he took…he led…he touched.
The Greek word translated ‘took’ is paralambanó, to take or receive from. Jesus receives Peter, James and John.
The Greek word translated ‘led’ is anapheró, to offer up as a sacrifice. Jesus carries his friends and presents them to his heavenly Father.
The Greek word translated ‘touched’ is haptomai, to lay hold of and, by touching, to change or modify. This is the power of touch: think of a fearful animal calmed by a vet, or a distressed child held by a loving adult.
The pattern we see here in this passage is the pattern we rehearse Sunday by Sunday in the eucharist.
On a table near the door, sits the ciborium containing the wafers for Communion. There is, approximately, one for everyone. This is part of the gifts of the people, a symbolic representation of our offering ourselves to Jesus and being received by him. At a certain point, the mid-point of the service, the ciborium is carried up the nave to the altar, along with the flagon of wine, and the (financial) collection plate. We then pray over these, the person who presides taking the bread in their hands and asking the Holy Spirit to do something transformative, that this bread may be for us the body of Jesus. That we might encounter Jesus here. Neither the bread nor the one who consumes it are changed in their substance; yet both are transfigured, such that the true body of Christ in the Father’s glory is revealed. When the one administering Communion places a wafer on the outstretched palm of the communicant, saying, ‘the body of Christ,’ they speak to a mystery that encompasses unleavened bread and recognises Christ in one another, the giver who is now receiving back and the receiver who is now giving away. This is Mystery, not to be laid bare by the understanding of the mind, but entered ever more fully into, heart and soul and mind and bodily strength.
Peter wants to prolong the moment, the ecstatic experience. But Jesus intends to receive and lead them back down the mountain, and give them for the healing of the world. For its transfiguration, the revealing of God’s glory in the human. Ultimately, he is heading to Jerusalem, and to torturous death, and resurrection. Immediately, he is going to bring peace to an anxious father and his troubled son. But his friends have been overcome by fear at hearing the voice of the living God address them from the luminous cloud, and so pre-eminently Jesus declares, Do not be afraid. Only then does he send them out.
Christ is our peace, the one who reconciles us to God. The one who receives us, lifts us up, transforms our lives by his touch, and sends us out into the world to love and serve him.
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