Harry Potter books are one of my favourite books. Initially the idea of reading books held little appeal. But over time a number of people said, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!” So I read some of them and watched the movies, and they were pretty amazing.
One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. This is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.
You might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.
This Sunday, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two important figures from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”
Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. To be fair, I think I would have been too. The disciples are, understandably, scared, they fall to the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “Don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.
Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, saw the figures of Moses and Elijah from the past, and heard what was probably the voice of God talking to me. I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. But apparently the three came down and didn’t say a word.
They had literally just had a mountain-top experience like no other, and they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.
But something had happened and it had changed them. I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their unchanged everyday lives.
Sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t, it remains the same. And that is very difficult and it can even make us want to try to go back to the way things have always been.
There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply involved in the evil of slavery. One night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started taking in water. He was about to die and he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.
From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.
But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where this was still acceptable or perhaps he didn’t know how to get out. In fact, it took him 30 plus years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist.
When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” it seems he understood in a real way what he had done; he truly repented, and truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough for many slaves.
Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed, rather Jesus was clearly shown as the holy son of God, and Peter, James, and John got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even though Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.
Even so, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by the son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.
Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration (change) of us. We can see the truth, and like Newton drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. In Jesus we see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us.
Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”
I think that one of the reasons myself and others enjoy Harry Potter is because the stories are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.
Turning back to Peter running away, that is of course not the last of his story. In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even to death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint. It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.
And so here’s where Jesus’ words: Get up, and don’t be afraid ring true.
We have all experienced God’s grace or love at some point in our lives and the transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving. But Jesus is urging us to go ahead and take that next step anyway. Jesus says, “Get up, and don’t be afraid”. Amen