‘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… 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.’
The spiritual life is confusing. And confusion is scary.
The religious and political climate is fierce right now. Christians are standing on opposite sides of so many issues and we’re all holding Scripture verses and hitting each other with them, every single verse turning into a “clobber passage,” striking everyone in arm’s length with our exegesis and turns of phrase. We’re all raw. We’re all angry.
If you’re someone who is on the fence about any theological, political, cultural issue, it can be terrifying to stick your head out of your hole and ask for help in figuring it out. It can feel like throwing your body into the crossfire, begging to be shot by both sides. At least if you pick a team, you won’t be hit by everyone.
When you encounter a new thing, something that you don’t understand, it’s hard to discern what to do with it.
When you experience something culturally that is different from categories that you’ve created from your own life experiences, you either have to reject the new thing, or build new categories, and both of those things make you anxious and afraid and maybe even a little bit angry.
When you hear something from Jesus that you don’t understand, it can be frustrating, irritating, and scary. Admitting that our spiritual discernment is failing us means admitting that we have come to the end of ourselves. Coming to the end of ourselves means sacrificing control. And control is the scariest thing to give up.
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground
and were overcome by fear.
This story of the Transfiguration went from being my least favorite Gospel story to one of my all time favorites, ever. It used to be a weird little story that was theologically weighty but not very personally inspirational. I was unimpressed.
Then, two years ago I was asked to preach on the Transfiguration, and since then, since being forced to wrestle with this story that I didn’t understand – I can’t shake the image of the disciples, terrified, face down in the dirt, who were also wrestling with something they didn’t understand.
And when I read the Transfiguration account in Matthew, my eyes keep being pulled back to Jesus.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
I feel kind of perpetually confused these days. I have so many new ideas that sit all cozy next to old ideas, and sometimes it takes months or years for me to realize that these ideas are actually contradictory, and something needs to shift or morph or be rearranged for them all to fit.
When I make that discovery, the discovery that something in me has to go, or when I encounter a new thing that troubles or disturbs my soul, I usually pull a Peter – hey, here’s a plan. Here’s a bullet list. Here is an action step to cope with the new thing. Here is a way that I can re-assert control into a situation that I actually have zero control over.
And every time I whip out my bullet points, and every time I use exegesis to sort through words from Jesus that I don’t understand, and every time I use my own assertiveness and leadership to avoid just being present to a mystery that I don’t and can’t understand yet…
Every time, Jesus comes to me.
No matter how many silly blueprints I throw up in the face of mystery, no matter how much paralyzing terror I fall into, no matter how much I refuse to release my own plans and control to the baffling and hidden will of God, Jesus continues to come to me where I am, and reach out to touch me, and tell me not to be afraid.
Because it’s always fear, isn’t it? Our aggressive need to be right? Our anger at our sisters and brothers, made in the image of God? Our fierce protection of our own understanding at the expense of listening to the Other? Our refusal to see something new?
Instead of battling us, instead of accusing us, instead of correcting us, Jesus comes to us – touches us – and tells us not to be afraid.
Lent is coming. Ash Wednesday is just a few days away. It’s repentance season in the Church, which is a good and holy and healthy thing. But healthy repentance isn’t based on self-hatred, shame, and fear. Healthy repentance is grounded in the salvific love and grace of Jesus Christ that always, always, comes to us and tells us not to be afraid.
However you practice Lent this year, repent without fear.