[Sermon preached in St. Luke's Church, Rochester, N. Y., Sunday, September 12, 1915*]:
IN THE seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, at the first and second verses, it is written:
"And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
"And was transfigured before them; and His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light."
I presume the interpretation of no single event in our Lord's life is a better witness to the great truth that God is ever leading His faithful servants and devout students of His word to a fuller and deeper and truer appreciation of the significance, the universal import, of all the incidents of the life of Christ. I think one special witness to this great truth is the growing significance which the church is coming to attach to the great event of the transfiguration. You would perhaps be surprised to find among the older literature that older commentators and theologians seem to be able to make but very little of the transfiguration. Some, it would seem, could view it as little more than a sort of premature removal of the veil that hides the future world; others have gone further and have pointed out that the event was one to confirm the faith of the few chief, chosen ones, and by and through them to assure and confirm the faith of those to whom they should speak.
But the great fundamental truth was that Christ came to this world not only to reveal God to man, but to reveal man to him-self; that, in other words, the essential features of Christ's life and teaching bring before us the Divine ideal and the original Divine program which God had appointed for all men in the world.
Then when, with this great truth in mind, we approach the event of the transfiguration and ask, "What is its meaning?" we can gain very little light, it is true, from the past. Because, indeed, as a separate feast it was not, even in the Eastern Church, recognized before the eighth century, and as a feast to be commemorated it was not made authoritative and universal in the Latin or Western Church before the middle of the fifteenth century. We know that even now in the English prayer book the transfiguration ranks as what is called a "black-letter day." And in our own prayer book it was not until 1892 that a special service was provided in commemoration of this great event, with its Collect and its Gospel and Epistle and Communion service.
So that when we ask the question, "What did this great event mean for Christ, more than simply to assure and confirm the faith of those who witnessed it? what was its meaning for Him?" I think we may say the true and original answer is that the trans-figuration was for Christ the term or close of His probation, His moral probation in this world as an individual man. For we must remember that Christianity demanded that Christ should be a real man, just as much as that He should be the Son of God. And to Jesus Christ, I say, the transfiguration marked the close of His probation here as an individual man, as one who had been sent to work out under the Divine program the very tasks which rest upon each and every one born into this world, every free and every rational spirit. If we look at the life of Christ from this point of view, it readily divides itself into three great divisions. There is the period of preparation, from His birth to the temptation; there is the period of probation, from the temptation to the transfiguration; and there is the period of what we may call the consummation, the latter months of His life, including the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension.
Now the transfiguration marks, then, what may be called the close of Christ's individual probation. He had won His way as God had determined that all men should win their way originally, before sin entered the world, through temptation and moral progress to holiness; it was intended that man should make his way from innocency to holiness. Christ had done that. He had won His victory. He had become the great, perfect example and pat-tern of the Divine ideal of man, morally, spiritually, and physically.
And now at this supreme moment there opened before Him two ways. He had won eternal glory and happiness by right, by right of His perfection, His moral perfection; by right of His triumph over all of life's temptations and trials, and it was His right, then, to pass into eternal glory and happiness. That was one way. And undoubtedly the overture was made to Him as a victor . . . but He did not take that choice. He chose the other way, the way of the grave and the gate of death. Had He gone at once by transformation into the eternal world, He would have gone simply, we may say, with the crown of individual glory; He would have left all His brethren in this world, so to speak, unhelped. But He would not choose that. He chose, I say, the way of the grave and the gate of death. He chose to enter Heaven not only as the great pattern and example of what God meant Him to be, perfect manhood, but He chose the way that should make his great sacrifice most efficacious, that should en-able Him to open the portals of Heaven to all believers.
It was a supreme moment, and I think the more we dwell upon it the more we come to recognize the deep significance, the pro-found import of this event, which marked the supreme choice in Christ's life. His work was behind Him; He could look up with perfect vision and say, "I have won it by right; it is mine." And in that condition He could, of course, have entered into the eternal world; not by death, because, as Saint Paul tells us, "by man came death." Yes, you say, but animals die; for thousands of years before man entered into the question they had known death. But let us distinguish. If by death we mean, as we should mean, the separation, the sundering of the rational, personal, selfconscious spirit from the material body, then death did enter by man's sin. And now Christ could have passed into the other world, not by sinful ingress, not by the way that man's sin had brought upon him, the way of the grave, but by a pain-less and glorious transformation that undoubtedly was the Di-vine ideal and original program for every man.
Of course, we realize that men must pass out from this world; we know that the world could not possibly contain them all; there would soon not be even standing room. But not by the grave and the gate of death was Christ's transformation illustrated; it was the prelude not to that painful transformation of death, but a painless and glorious passing into the eternal world.
So at this supreme moment Christ makes His choice; He re-fuses the crown of individual glory; He turns His back upon the glories of the eternal world. He says, "I will descend from the mount of transfiguration, and by the pathway to the grave, by my death upon the cross, I will win the pardon of mankind, and I will open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers."
So that when Moses and Elias greeted Him there on the mountain . . . He realized all that should be hereafter, and He spoke of His work that should be accomplished at Jerusalem. He might have said to Moses and Elias, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course; henceforth there is open for me the eternal glories and the transformation, the transition, into the world beyond." But instead, He directs His gaze downward toward the cross, and He says, "No; I will not enter Heaven simply as the pattern and example of manhood, the fulfillment of the original Divine ideal for mankind of moral perfection, but I will enter it as the redeemer of the lost, as the conqueror of sin and evil in the world, as one who brought his brethren back again to the Father's house."
Of course, these thoughts might be enlarged upon, my friends, but, if you will pardon my speaking of it today, notwithstanding that the feast of the transfiguration passed last month, but while our prayer book has provided a special service for this event, I feel I am not unwarranted in saying it has been unfortunate in the time selected. It has been set in August, the time of the year when throughout the country a great many parishioners are away, and in many cases the clergy are also away. It could as well have been put in September or October, because the event took place only about six months before the crucifixion. And undoubtedly the attention and interest of people who are devout and earnest would be greatly deepened and concentrated by commemorating the event at some time when they are worship-ping with full churches.
We take it, then, that the great fundamental revelation which the transfiguration makes, put into general terms, is that the essential features of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ present to us, in all its incidents, the Divine ideal, the original program for every man. There would have been for us in the transfiguration a prelude to our transformation from the material body to the spiritual body without passing through the grave and the gate of death.
( Originally Published 1914 )
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