Come, be Transfigured

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

We need to be transfigured.  We need to be transformed, changed, metamorphosed,  transmogrified.  Those are really big words.  I love big words.  Especially that last one:  “Transmogrified.”  It comes from my favorite comic strip character, Calvin and Hobbes.  Calvin was a real imp; I just loved him. He had a big cardboard box that he labeled his “Transmogrifier” and he drew a control panel on the side of it with crayons. He said, “You just dial in Monster and get inside and hit a button and ZAP, you’re a monster.  You’re transmogrified.”  And, so, he did just that, and out he came a three-headed monster.  The big, lumbering three-headed Calvin-Monster creeps down the hall of his house, banging on the walls, as he makes his way to the kitchen, where he raises up big and tall to eat his mother, and his mother turns and says to him:  “Calvin, go wash your hands for dinner.”  And, his head hung low, the great big three-headed Calvin-Monster slinks back up the hall to wash his hands.

Transmogrified.  Transformed.  Metamorphosed. The word for transfiguration in Greek is the word from which we get the word “Metamorphosis.”  It means to a change one’s form, one’s exterior appearance … to change or transform what you look like, what you sound like, how you appear. In our Biblical account, today, we see Jesus on Mt. Tabor being transfigured in the midst of the Disciples.  In many ways, he was like a stained glass window; during the daylight hours light shines through a stained glass window and you can see what the window depicts. At night, however, you really can’t see anything in a stained glass window … the images are so dimmed that you can’t tell what it is.  But, when the light comes back and shines through it, you can see the image it depicts.  So, also, with Jesus … during his life people would encounter him and it would be like looking at a stain glass window without light behind it.  He appeared to be just a regular human being: you would encounter him, you could talk with him, you could eat with him, you could laugh and cry with him. It was like being with a regular person.  But, then, on the Mount of Transfiguration it was as if the Light of God’s divine presence was shining forth from and through Christ Jesus; in other words, in the transfiguration Jesus is fluorescing with the light of the Divine Presence.  The Transfiguration message is a powerful one in the Christian Faith.  Just like the virgin birth and the resurrection, it is one of the very few miracles in scripture that occurs to Jesus himself … usually Jesus works miracles for and upon others.  Here we find Jesus being transfigured, transformed, metamorphosed for us so that we might see and experience the Real Presence of God in and through him. In the transfiguration Jesus fluoresces, like a stained glass window, revealing to the Disciples and to us that God was and is in Christ … for us.

The message of the Transfiguration gives us hope and the ability to expect that we, too, will be transformed or transfigured, that we too might fluoresce like a stained glass window so that when others look at us they might see the light, the love, and the Real Presence of Jesus shining through our acts of faith.

It is true that the Church sometimes deals with these ideas very cavalierly: we seem to think that this is so common, and a message that we’ve heard so many times, that it’s not really that important for us to deal with it. That’s a good question.  Is it important for us to look at and address this question? Or, is it just an interesting myth or a minor spiritual metaphor that we really can’t get our brains around? Are we going to accept the Transfiguration, and all that it implies about Christ and about us, or are we going to play the modernistic skeptic and say “ahhh, this was just a vision or a dream or wishful thinking!  It’s just rank supernaturalism … an empty, meaningless superstition.” There are Christians who have said all of these things, and more.  In response to this attitude, I believe that we have here an opportunity to see and know the Real Presence of God in our midst.  Indeed, I believe it goes beyond this fundamental message, providing with an opportunity to actually become just a little bit more like Christ Jesus, the fluorescing light of God, to a broken and hurting world.

In addition to Calvin and Hobbs one of my favorite cartoons involves Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny is on a trip in Transylvania and he’s going to stay at Count Dracula’s Castle.  While he’s waiting, trying to go to sleep, he’s thumbing through books on “Magic Words and Phrases.” As he reads he comes upon “several of the most common magic words and phrases, like Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus.”  He would say “Abracadabra” and something would change.  He would say “Hocus Pocus” and the thing that had changed would change back.  Then, he started getting playful and mixing up the magic words and phrases, saying things like “Pocus Cadabra” and “Abracapocus” and even weirder things would happen.  It’s kind of like in the Harry Potter Books and Films: you take your wand and you say “expelliarmus” and you disarm your opponent, or “levicorpus” and they fly up into the air.  There are all sorts of weird things you can do with magic.  Some of us treat even the things of God as if it’s magic.  We often do that when we pray.  We think that by praying in a certain way we can force God to give us something when, in reality, if we are true to ourselves and to our faith we realize that only when our prayers are in accord with God’s will do we get what we ask.

We treat, especially, the deep Mysteries of the Faith as if they were magic.  Look at the Table of the Lord: more discord has occurred over the Table of the Lord – its meaning and its practice – than any thing else in the life of the Church. Yes, it is true: the Eucharist has been the focus for more strife and fighting than anything else in our common history.  That’s a shame, because in Holy Communion we have the preeminent example of the Real Presence of Christ Jesus our Lord in our midst. And, yet, we fight over this as Christians! Even within the same denomination, we are at war over this subject. I’ve been teaching the “This Holy Mystery” Study – The United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion – for the past 6 years across the denomination. It’s been a fascinating experience to see how Methodists across United Methodism understand – or don’t understand – the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  One of the things I hear when I go to the southern regions of the United States is: “Oh we don’t have to look at that Ca-tho-lik thing again, do we?”  Or, when I go out to the west coast, I frequently hear: “Oh, this is just ancient mumbo-jumbo!  It’s just superstitious stuff! Find us something modern to look at.”  I can’t believe it, and yet I hear this kind of thing frequently: a refusal to experinece, and a fear of approaching, the mystery of Holy Communion.  And, it comes from misunderstanding its meaning.

In the Roman Catholic Church, in the Latin Mass, the words of Institution have served as the basis from which … when people mess with it … they come up with the magical phrase “hocus pocus.”  In Latin, it’s really: hoc est enem corpus meum.  “This is my body.”  It is the proclamation of a reality that goes beyond our vision, beyond our understanding, beyond the everyday experience of the bread and wine, and proclaims: “this is my Body”  “This is the body of Christ!”  Now, some people looking at that think its “magic!”  It’s a magic phrase!  You say it and BANG, it becomes it.  No!  No!  It is proclaimed as a statement, as an affirmation, of faith! Just as when I pray that prayer in English, “this is my body,” “this is my blood.” Just as when I pray the consecration:

“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.  Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” (Word and Table I)

This is not a magic phrase!  This a proclamation of Faith.  This is an affirmation of Faith that the Holy Spirit would pour out a mysterious working of God’s power right here.  When we come and eat and drink with eyes of faith, with ears of faith, with hearts of faith, with hands and lips of faith, God’s real presence – the Body and Blood of our Lord – will come into us and transfigure us so that when others look at us they might know and experience the love of God.

My brothers and sisters, when we come to the table of the Lord, we’re coming not to a magic trick, we’re coming to a sacrament; we’re coming to a means of grace; we’re coming to an act of faith, trusting in the Word of God, trusting in the Promises of Christ that when we eat and drink, when we feast on his presence, his word, his grace, his love, we become one with each other, and one with God in ministry to the whole world. Hoc est enem corpus meum is not a magic phrase, it’s not spell or incantation.  “This is my Body broken for you” is a proclamation that we, too, when we partake, are yet again made part of the one body of Christ.  We need to be transfigured, we need to be transformed, we need to be metamorphosed, we need to be transmogrified, changed into the hands and the feet and the eyes and the ears and the lips of Christ, so that we can go out there … into the world … and the world and can see and know the love of God.

My sisters and brothers, Christ Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration fluoresced with the love of God.  The Disciples saw it, Peter tried to become involved – “lets build a shrine here, three dwelling places for you, for Moses, and for Elijah” – and God said “this is my son, the beloved, listen to him.”  We’re called to listen to the transfigured one, to the one who fluoresces with the love of God for the whole world.  We’re called to come to the Table of the Lord and be transfigured in order to become the light of the world.

All of us bring to the Table of the Lord broken bits, broken lives, broken families, broken spirits, broken minds, broken hearts, broken dreams, our fears and concerns.  We all bring our bits to the Table of the Lord and here, as we eat and drink, God transforms and transfigures us, and our broken bits, into the Body of Christ.  Come and have your substance, your broken bits, transformed today. Come and eat and drink with faith and allow the Transfigured One to transfigure you.

Preached on Transfiguration Sunday, March 6, 2011

© 2011 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from