17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly 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!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
God speaks only twice in Matthew’s gospel, both times to Jesus in the hearing of whoever was around him. And both times, God essentially says the same thing: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
Honestly, my first reaction, given everything Jesus has been going through up until this point in the story, is that those words are just not enough to meet this moment. Just 8 verses earlier, Matthew tells us that “from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus knows he has a target on his back for the ways he has been teaching people to resist Rome’s violence. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to those listening: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:41). That sounds a bit innocuous to our modern minds, but I learned this week that, in the words of commentator Warren Carter, “in response to… the labor Rome required from subject people, Jesus commands his followers… to carry the soldier’s pack twice the required distance… thus subverting imperial authority by putting the soldier in danger of being disciplined.” Not so innocuous after all! Jesus was actually teaching his followers methods of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to resist their oppressors! And – in contrast to the “elite practices in the cities of the Roman Empire… [which involved] distribution of benefits to social-economic inferiors that made them into dependents,” Jesus calls the rich man in Matthew 19 to “divest and distribute his wealth among the poor” as a form of “restitution and justice,” actually changing economic relationships to create equality among the people rather than keeping some in perpetual poverty. Wherever he went, Jesus was challenging any practice that allowed power and wealth to be hoarded at the expense of the people. And we know this kind of ministry of resistance fueled Herod – Rome’s political pawn – to come after Jesus’ cousin John who had been teaching and enacting all the same things… until Herod finally beheaded John.
So now Jesus, who has been trying to get time away from the crowds ever since his cousin was executed, finally gets time on the mountain top to pray, knowing that this violence is coming for him next. And that’s why, to me, God’s words to Jesus feel so disconnected from everything Jesus must have been experiencing – the fear of being executed by the state, the overwhelm at the needs surrounding him all day every day, and the fact that he just couldn’t get his closest friends to understand what was really going on. I found myself wanting God to tell Jesus in this mountain top moment, “OK, here’s what you’ve got to do next” or “Here’s the winning strategy to get through this.” But no. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
As is usually the case, I needed to slow down to really be with these words. And after I did, it occurred to me that these are exactly the words Jesus needed to hear. Because there is actually no separation between Jesus hearing that he is beloved and his ministry of resistance that was about to get him killed. Because at the very root of Jesus’ organizing was the basic belief that each and every one of us are beloved. Before we can do anything to earn it. Before we can show ourselves to be of any practical use to anybody. Before we can produce labor of any kind. What is most true about us is that we are loved by God. Period. Full stop.
And this is the core truth that Rome stood against. In the Roman empire, individuals were objects to be controlled so that a few people could stay on top. Don’t forget that Matthew’s Gospel is where we find Herod murdering all baby boys under the age of 2 when he hears that Jesus has been born, just so he can keep the power Rome had given him to exploit his fellow Jews. And at the root of that violence is the belief that a person can somehow be separated from their inherent belovedness, that some lives are worth more than others. Every interaction Jesus had with those he met was to remind them that their inherent worth could never be taken away. He reminded each and every person that they were deserving of enough to eat and restored health and connection to community. It was this love made flesh that disrupted everything that kept an oppressive empire in place. And the empire would stop at nothing to execute this disruptive love before it could bring the empire to its knees.
Beloveds, to live as those who are firmly rooted in our irrevocable belovedness – and to extend that radical love to others – is to live in direct opposition to the empire of our time. If you were present for this past Wednesday’s community meeting about the affordable housing that Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington is building on the vacant lot next to us, you know this is true. As I stood in this room with the microphone for our neighbors to ask questions and express their feelings about this housing project, my heart was breaking. I heard in so many of those questions and comments evidence of the empire’s impact on our souls, with so many assumptions that there are some human beings who can be separated from their inherent worth, and thus be less deserving of what all of us need to live. And this reminded me that it has never been more important for a faith community like this one to go to the mountain top with Jesus and hear the voice of the Parent say, “This is my child, the Beloved; with them I am well pleased.” Because the forces of empire are getting louder than ever. They are trying to convince us that some lives deserve love and some do not. And so it has never been more urgent to firmly root ourselves in the reality that God’s love for us and for all beings is the kind of love that can never, ever be taken away.
You’ll notice that when God speaks these grounding words of love to Jesus, to us, Matthew tells us that a bright cloud overshadowed all of them. A cloud is moisture – water – suspended in the air. And the word in Greek used here for “cloud” is connected to the cloud that led the Israelietes through the wilderness for 40 years, on their way to the promised land. God’s words of love were accompanied by a cloud of water that can get us through the wilderness. I don’t think there could be any better way for Jesus to be reminded of the last time he heard his Parent speak these words of love to him, which was at his baptism by his now-murdered cousin John in the Jordan River. And I don’t think there’s any better way for us to be reminded of the same baptism that has claimed each and every one of us. For Presbyterians, who baptize anyone of any age, including babies, baptism is a sign that God loves us before we can do anything to earn it. And as we have heard today, living as baptized people who believe this is true about us and every single human being, makes us very dangerous to the empire. Because our baptism drives us to be those who know so deeply that we are loved beyond measure that we cannot help but spend our lives showing every neighbor we meet that the same thing is true about them. That leads us to feed everyone, to provide free healthcare and affordable housing, to make sure everyone has access to a quality education, to make sure every single person can feel in their body that they are loved, they are valued, and that these are the things about them that can never be taken away.
Matthew tells us that, “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.’” Jesus heard that he was loved without limit, and this gave him what he needed to touch his friends, to encourage them to not be afraid, and to start walking back down the mountain to keep on resisting the lies of Rome. We are actually going to take some time right now to remember our baptism with the water of the baptismal font, that sign with water that tells us we are loved beyond measure, and that we are called to show that love to everyone we meet, no matter how the empire might try and stop us. If you’d like to receive the sign of the cross with water on your forehead, you’ll be invited forward during the music to receive, or you can raise your hand and Pastor Dexter will bring the water to your seat. Zoom worshippers, you can use water at home to give yourself or those with you the sign of the cross on your forehead. As we are marked with the sign of the cross in water, we will say, “Know that you are loved. Go share this love with the world.” Let’s take this time to remember the truly radical meaning of our baptism.
Friends, may the cloud of our baptism enshroud us as a reminder that we are loved. If you’ve never been baptized before but would like to be, talk to one of the pastors after church! Grounded in love, may we not be afraid to walk back down the mountain together, so fully aware of our belovedness that the empire knows us to be a threat and ready for the work of resistance that is to come. Amen.