Transfiguration C: Worship Transfigured

Dear Partner in Preaching,

You may be tempted to read just the primary verses of this Sunday’s appointed passage – Luke 9:28-36 – and save the remainder (37-43) for another time. That’s understandable, as the two discreet scenes appear to have little to do with each other. The first, after all, is about the transfiguration, Luke’s take on the dramatic mountaintop encounter between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah while the second is a more ordinary scene of Jesus responding to human need back in the valley. Little wonder you may be thinking of focusing on the former and saving the latter for another Sunday. If this is how you’re leaning, however, I’d encourage you to reconsider, as I believe these verses actually have everything to do with each other and, more importantly, how we imagine what we do on Sunday morning. Allow me to explain.

Christian tradition typically describes Luke as a physician. Perhaps that’s true, but I tend to think he may also have been a pastor. A pastor keenly interested in and attentive to the life and worship of his community. Notice that from the beginning of his Gospel, Luke is interested in inviting his community – in this case in the person of Theophilos (perhaps an early leader or patron of the Christians for whom Luke is writing) – to a deeper engagement with their faith. Luke is writing his whole Gospel, he says, so that his community may be confident of the things they have already heard and learned (1:4). (“Confidence” or “certainty” is probably a better rendering of the Greek word often translated simply as “truth”.) Luke, that is, writes for people who have heard the faith and come to believe but want, yearn, and hunger to understand more deeply. He’s doing depth catechesis.

Near the end of the story, in Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I think that Luke not only describes, but actually makes a confession about, the nature of Christian worship. Writing to a community that has not seen Jesus, Luke narrates a scene that all but lays out the four-fold pattern of Christian worship – gathering (Jesus meets the disciples on the road and draws them into conversation), word (Jesus opens up the Scriptures), meal (Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread), and sending (the disciples are eager to trek back to Jerusalem to tell of what they have seen and heard). Luke is promising his community, I believe, that if they want to see Jesus and have their hearts set on fire with the good news, they should come to worship.

Similarly, here in nearly the exact middle of Luke’s Gospel, I think he is again instructing us in the nature of worship. Notice that Luke alone, for instance, describes Jesus as going up the mountain to pray. Moreover, his retreat is on the “eighth day after these sayings” – the eighth day came very quickly in Christian tradition to refer to Sunday, the day of resurrection and worship, the first day of a new week and era. Jesus discusses with Moses and Elijah his impending crucifixion. And the voice from heaven is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples with the injunction, “Listen to him.” While not the clear pattern of worship outlined in the Emmaus story, this combination of prayer, discussion focused on the cross, and the command to listen all taking place on the eighth day at least kindle our liturgical imagination, reminding us of what Sunday can be like.

Which is why the next scene and second half of this week’s passage is so important. Because the retreat to worship and the time to listen to the Word, be immersed in the cross, and be gathered in prayer leads inevitably to a return to the “everyday world” of human need where Jesus heals the sick and opposes the forces of evil. If worship is a retreat, in other words, it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.

This, Dear Preacher, is what worship is meant to be, a moment of reflection, immersion, companionship, and prayer in order that we might embrace our callings in the world to respond to the needs of God’s beloved children with renewed energy, confidence, and determination.

But do our people see their hour on worship each Sunday in these terms? I wonder. How many come out of routine or obligation? How many just want to hear good music or a brief escape the from hectic pace of their lives? While wanting to honor the fact that there are a variety of motivations people have for coming to church, I also want to life up a vision that church can be so much more. Worship can be the place where we hear God’s voice, focus on the nature of grace as we experience it in the cross, meet each other in prayer and song, and leave renewed for lives of meaning and purpose that come through service to neighbor.

A number of years ago a young couple that was relatively new to the church I was serving explained to me how important church had become for them. Whenever one of them could not make it – if, for instance, of their children was sick – they’d do a quick two-minute drill to check in on the week they’d just been through and the week about to come to determine, as they said, “who needed church more.” “Church is what helps us make sense of our lives,” they explained, “it’s that pick-me-up that connects us with God and our calling and sends us back into the week.”

Can you imagine if half your congregation felt that way? Or maybe just a quarter? What a difference that would make to your people and, even more, to all the corners of the community and world they touch! Well, that’s the opportunity we have before us, to remind people each and every week that they are God’s beloved children, that God has in Jesus’ cross and resurrection revealed just how much God loves us and that this love conquers all, and has called, commissioned, and equipped us to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Just imagine, Dear Partner, what will happen as more and more of our people hear this message and catch this vision. It may just be that our worship – and along with it the whole Church – is transfigured by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Thanks for your good work to make this vision a reality.

Yours in Christ,