In theater there is a move called “breaking the fourth wall”. This is when the actor turns from the world on the stage to address the audience directly. The power of “breaking the fourth wall” is that it removes the barrier of safety that stands between the world on stage and the world in which we sit as audience members. It is a moment where we go from being passive observers to being actively engaged in what is going on.
Various types of artistic performances break down this fourth wall – for instance the dances which Ayako Kato has recently done in this sanctuary where her movement goes up and down the aisle, in an out of pews, sometimes right up to where people are sitting. Or imagine a jazz set at a night club, where the band pulls instrumentalists in from the audience. Imagine the shock you might feel if I were to ask one of you to hop up here right now and take over for me. The fourth wall stands between actor and observer, speaker and listener.
Yet, I would like to suggest that beyond this fourth wall, there is an even more dangerous fifth one. This fifth wall is the one that stands between the performance and our lives. It is what stands between the role the actor plays and who the actor is, between the art we observe and the life we will go home to live. In really great art, this wall comes down, we are confronted with a person so given over to their art that the line between the part and the human being dissolves before us. This wall comes down when a musician puts themselves so deeply into the notes that they play that each one reveals something in their soul. This wall comes down when art shows us something true about ourselves and this world, when we are no longer the safe observer, but are surprised, shocked, provoked, challenged, transformed – where our sense of what is possible in ourselves and in others expands. When the form of a present, particular moment opens up and we see something greater and bigger embodied there.
This is Transfiguration – a word that means going beyond the figure or form of what is in front of us – a word that speaks to a moment of recognition that something true and eternal is present in something particular and finite, a moment where a person of many limits becomes intensely and radically present as who they really are. Transfiguration is the radical undertaking to embody our true selves in the presence of others – and it comes at the end of a journey which most of us fear even as we desire it, and avoid doing ourselves even as we demand it from others.
This Sunday, as Christians, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ in the presence of three of his disciples – the challenge that it places before us in our own lives of discipleship, and the glory of Jesus’ true identity as Son of God.
Imagine them for a moment, four men walking up a hillside, single-file: Jesus, Peter, John, James. They are possessed with a silence that had hung over them since the fierce conversation that had occurred eight days before. It was a silence that had descended on them, a moment of pause in a journey that had been growing in intensity.
You see, less than a year ago, they had just been fishers on the Lake of Galilee, and they had never heard of Jesus – when suddenly he showed up in their lives. Something about his ministry had called to them, and they had gone along, to see what he would do and who he was.
Since that time, they had been moving from town to town with him. Not quite sure at all times what they were doing. Not quite sure at all times what Jesus was doing, or who he was. But one thing had become clear. From those first days to these most recent ones, Jesus had been on a journey of intensification, and he had been breaking down walls in the world and in people’s hearts. Yet, for these disciples, there was still some hesitance about what all this meant for them. What had started as going along with Jesus for an afternoon had become months on the road. Jesus’ ministry that had started small, and peaceful, and with warm receptions had been growing larger, and more controversial. Things were getting more serious, more real. Authorities had been upset, towns had run him out. Peter, John, and James had been there, but maybe hid behind their fifth wall when things had gotten rough, present more as observers to Jesus’ risk than exposed themselves, guarding their hearts. They were not quite sure where this was leading, but they were sure that things were getting more intense.
It had begun to occur to Peter, John, James, and the others with them, that they might someday soon have to make a decision about how far they were willing to go with Jesus. It had begun to occur to them that as Jesus’ disciples they shared in his risk, the risk of failure, the risk of punishment, ridicule, or social rejection. The stakes were growing. The journey was becoming more intense not just for Jesus, but for them.
I don’t know if this was legal even when it happened, but I had a rather loopy fifth grade science teacher who once had our class hold hands in a circle, with the final link being two ends of a generator. When the circuit was complete he began to crank the generator, and you could feel the electricity running from your neighbor’s hand and into you. Everyone began to giggle, and he would crank harder and harder, and the intensity of the charge running through you grew and grew until someone would let go and break the circuit.
On the journey of intensification, we often start to wonder when to let go, when to back out, when the risk seems to be too high. This is what the disciples had been wondering about during that fierce conversation eight days ago.
You see, eight days before we find these four in single-file silence walking up this hill behind Jesus, there had been this intimate moment, in the evening when the crowds had left, and Jesus and his disciples sat together in the calm peace at the end of a long day. Jesus knew what they had been thinking. He knew that they had been wondering where this journey was headed. He knew that they cared deeply for him, but he also knew that they were looking for him to say: just hold on one minute more and it will all be over. He knew they were willing to follow him into the risks and problems of this world, but that they were also looking for him to guide them safely out. He knew that they did not see Jerusalem on the horizon as he did. Jerusalem, where the intensity would reach its limits in the cross. And so he engaged them in a fierce conversation, “Who do you think that I am? Who do you think I am? What do you think this work is all about? Where do you think this journey leads?”
The disciples started out the safe way They told him what other people had been saying, that he was a prophet, like those of old who had come to point to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden.
Jesus pushed them, “yes, but who do you say that I am?”
Peter became more bold, “I can tell that you are something even more, the Messiah of God, the one who will come not only with a voice but with power and action. You come not only to say, but to do the work. You come not only to point to the places we neglect and forget, but to enter them. ”
Jesus responded, “You are right, but do you remember that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected and die? Do you remember that this path laid out for me means I will suffer, be rejected, and die?”
Jesus put it to them, “If you truly want to become my followers, deny your fear, your reticence, take up your cross daily and follow me. Follow the way I go. Take up the journey of intensification.”
Rather than calming their fears, Jesus presents his disciples with the reality of the journey he is on, and he raises the stakes of who he is and what his work is about. It is work that commits, that hands over the entirety of one’s life.
Who is Jesus of Nazareth to you?
This is the question that still hung in the minds of Peter, John, and James eight days later as the walked up the hill with Jesus. They questioned themselves. They asked if they were really in this. They asked if they had the strength. They thought about going home. They wondered if this was all just crazy, and Jesus was crazy, if he was a madman driving them off a cliff. They wondered if they were crazy. They wondered whether things had to get so intense. They wondered if they had found the heart of reality or completely lost touch with it.
They reached the top of the hill and Jesus said to them, “I need to pray.”
They looked at his face, and they saw that he was very tired, not just physically, but that deep tiredness that goes down to your bones. They saw his eyes, and they saw that they were set on Jerusalem, they were set on what would come, on his suffering and death. They sat with him there as Jesus bowed his head low to the ground. They watched him, they watched him with his whole body engaged in and even more fierce conversation with God, like a child clinging to their parent. The questions that had been running through their heads subsided and their eyes were on him. They saw that he was praying for strength and endurance, they saw his feeble limbs shaking, but with resolution. They watched Jesus committing his body and his life to what lay before him, and they saw that he was praying for them, that he was praying that by his own suffering and death they would see God’s victory over the powers of this world. They witnessed in this man, love beyond comprehension for themselves and for all humanity, for you and me. Love that would sacrifice for us, and walk ahead of us in that terrifying journey, to show us by his death the victory that awaits us all.
Jesus Christ was transfigured.
And they saw the power of his will in the frailty of his body. They saw the glory of his being in the risk he undertook. They saw the gleaming image of God’s beauty in the quaking of his hands. They heard the fulfillment of the law and prophets in the road he sought to undertake. They heard the loving approval of God over the prayers coming from his lips.
Peter said, “It is good. It is good that we should be here. It is good that we should see this. It is good that humanity should meet its God in the form of a fragile human being, in prayer upon the ground. It is good that God should come not in a miracle, but in the end of miracles.”
In his transfiguration, Jesus radically breaks down that fifth wall in the hearts of all who see, not just through one action, but in his whole life. He shows his followers that his life is totally committed, handed over to the work of God in this world. He shows that his entire life should become a demonstration of God’s love for humanity.
Each of us lives daily in our own particular circumstances – as members of this church, as a part of families and groups of friends, as members of this city and this nation, particularities each with their own Divine purpose. May we be moved, as the disciples were, by the love we have seen in Christ to live more fully into our own lives, and to see the transfiguration of one another, the transfiguration of this neighborhood, this city, and this world.