Earlier this year, based on the recommendation from a dear friend, I picked up the novel This is How it Always Is.
Now, I don’t know if this is a personal problem, but picking up a fiction book to just casually read usually turns into me packing my beach bag, grabbing some rose, spreading out in a hammock, and spending most of my time with the book at my side, imagining my new idyllic life as someone who reads novels. You know those people, the ones who don’t have a care in the world and somehow always have fresh flowers in their house. By the time I’m done playing out this fantasy in my head, the sun has usually set, and I scramble to make out a few words of the first page, promising I’ll pick the book up first thing in the morning, as part of my new person-who-reads-novels morning routine, but we all know how that goes. The book never gets read.
With this book, however, I stayed home, settled in to my bed on a Saturday, started reading, and flew through the entire thing before Monday. The book follows a mother of four boys, who in the opening chapter we find out is pregnant again, and this time, she’s really hoping for a girl. But, instead, she gets Claude, another boy. Or so she thinks. At five years old, Claude loves peanut butter sandwiches. And wearing a dress. And dreams of being a princess.
And Claude shares: “I’m a girl”
Claude’s parents, Rosie and Penn, want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. And Claude isn’t quite ready either. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.
I’m not going to share much more about this beautiful book, because you need to read it, but, as I read the Gospel passage from this morning, this book came to mind. There are so many parallels, which I hope may become more clear as I talk.
Today’s Gospel passage, the transfiguration of Jesus, is a story of revealed identity, a story of waking up, a story of beauty, and glory, and a story of secrets.
It’s a story of Jesus ushering in a few of his followers to a new way of seeing the world, giving them a glimpse of reality. Showing them, saying to them, “this is how it is. This is how it always is.”
Let’s dive in to the story a bit. At the beginning of the passage, Luke writes, “about eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John, and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”
Of course, any time we arrive at a passage that is referential to the preceding story, we need to jump back for a second. Eight days before this story, Jesus has told his disciples that he’s going to die, and then shares: “some of you who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God”
Which, let’s be honest, if I were one of the disciples, I would be pretty excited about that idea. Because up until that point, this idea of the “kingdom of God” was fairly abstract, something that the Scriptures referenced, but for some future time. If I were sitting with Jesus and he said that to me, I would probably be taken aback “oh, so you mean like….now Jesus. Like, it’s almost here? Because, finally, it’s about time.”
So it’s interesting to me that the Biblical authors put this story next, that Luke chose to follow up that statement with this story. Because, when I was growing up, I felt like we would always look at that statement from Jesus, “some of you will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” with a bit of pity, like “isn’t that quaint, they believed they would be alive to see the ‘end times’” and then we’d do some weird things with the text to turn it into some kind of distant future prophecy, because obviously we’re here, so the world didn’t end. So Jesus must have meant something else.
And yet, this story of the transfiguration comes next.
Jesus and Peter and John and James all go on a cute little hike for some prayer time. And as Jesus prays, he starts glowing, and not because he had just switched to a new skincare routine. Like, actually glowing, and he starts chatting with these two dudes who appear, who are also glowing. And, the disciples, instead of being shocked and surprised and like “omg Jesus, are you okay? Are you sure it was water in that bottle?” The text says the disciples were quote-unquote “very sleepy.”
As if this see this kind of thing every day.
I can just hear James, “Ugh, Peter, Jesus is doing that weird glow thing and talking to ethereal beings again.” Yawn.
They were very sleepy.
When I read that, something clicked for me, and I rushed down to the grad school where I work to use the library and pulled out commentary after commentary to see if any old white guys had a similar moment. Something wasn’t quite adding up.
The commentaries were like, “maybe the disciples were tired from the hike” or “maybe it was the middle of the night” or “maybe this is a clever foreshadowing of when the disciples fall asleep in the Garden during the Passion”
And, I mean, all of that could be true, but I don’t know about you, no matter how sleepy I am, no matter how exhausting a hike, no matter if it’s literally 1am, if one of my friends starts GLOWING in front of me, and if two other glowing people appear, there’s no way my sleepiness is going to stick around.
And so, I wonder if Luke and the gospel writers are pointing us toward something else. Giving us hints. Describing this glorious, dramatic, beautiful, bright event that would leave most people wide eyed and awestruck, and then telling us that the disciples were sleepy.
I wonder if they were sleepy because they couldn’t see what was happening right in front of them.
I wonder if “sleepy” in this context is not describing to us a physical state, but instead a spiritual, metaphysical state. The text says: “Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw Jesus’s glory and the two men standing with him.”
“But when they became fully awake, they saw” — it seems to me they didn’t see the glory, they didn’t see the other dudes, they didn’t see what was happening right in front of them until they became “fully” awake.
When I was reading up on this passage, some of the queer theologians I ran across referred to this passage as Jesus’s coming out story. They drew parallels between the queer experience of coming out, of saying to the world “this is who I am.” And doesn’t that seem true? In a similar way to queer people starting the coming out process by sharing who they are with a couple people close to them, Jesus chose a couple people to reveal his true identity to, and then they all went on their way. The text says the disciples kept all this to themselves and didn’t tell anyone what they had seen, just like any good friend who knows their queer friend will continue to come out on their own timeframe.
I like this analogy, because it rings true to me, there’s something special about the idea of Jesus holding a secret about his identity and then revealing it slowly and strategically. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. But, I don’t think that’s the whole story being told.
I think something even bigger is happening.
While this story certainly is about Jesus obviously, I think it may be just as much about what happened to the disciples. It’s a story of them having their worlds fundamentally altered, a story of having reality shift in front of their very eyes, a story of becoming fully awake.
I think, on that mountain, as Jesus and the disciples prayed, something shifted for the disciples, and all of a sudden they saw the kingdom of God. Instead of physically waking up from being tired, they woke up to a new reality and saw Jesus for who he is. It’s as if Jesus said to them, “this is how things are. This is how it always has been, this is how it always is” and at that moment they saw the glory and the splendor of the kingdom of God that is right here. They saw Moses, a character who when referenced in the New Testament, often represents the past. They saw Elijah, who sometimes in scripture represents the future. They saw Jesus. And all of a sudden it became clear. Past, present, future. Surely, before some of you taste death, you will see the kingdom of God.
And as the disciples witness this fundamental altering of their perception, as they see the kingdom of God revealed to them, what Peter says next makes so much sense to me.
“What if we were to build you shelters?”
The text makes a side comment throwing shade at Peter, saying “he had no idea what he was saying,” And it’s easy to judge him, but I wonder if the text is revealing to us something about human nature when we are greeted with glory, something that we do the moment we experience reality shifts and find out that the world is different than what we had previously thought.
Peter tried to box the glory in.
I wonder if the text is revealing to us that Peter didn’t quite know what to do with what he was seeing, with the person of Jesus who was in front of him, with the glory that had been revealed. Peter tried to push the glory into something he could understand.
It makes me think of when our nonbinary siblings come out, or when someone around us says they think they’re somewhere on the sexuality spectrum. It makes me think of when people reveal things to us that are glorious and hard to understand, how often do we try to put them into the shelters of labels? How often do we try to use the shelters of our categories to take what is unexplainable, difficult to comprehend, glorious and wonderful, and try to put it into boxes?
Peter did what is natural, he offered hospitality that while good-natured, would have ultimately caused harm. The text says “he did not know what he was saying” and I wonder if those are words for us too, today, on this Pride Sunday. Peter did not know what he was saying. We, often, don’t know what we are saying. In our attempts to provide shelter and hospitality with the labels of sexuality and gender and every other box that we use in order to make ourselves comfortable, we don’t know what we are saying.
I believe this text is a challenge to us. It shows us that there is an entire world beyond the world that we see. The world of the Kingdom of God, a world where the shelters of our categories, and boxes, the world of comfortable understanding, is shaken up a bit. A world where, Galatians says, there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female. It’s a challenge to us to see what is going on right in front of us, right in front of our faces, we just have to, as a band called Everyday Sunday once sang, “wake up, wake up, wake up”
We have to have eyes to be able to see it.
I believe that the disciples that day with Jesus, on the mountain, woke up and caught a glimpse of that reality. And I hope that today, we can catch a glimpse of that reality too as we walk outside and see our siblings and sisters and brothers celebrating their glory, both labeled and unlabeled, in all their beauty.
So, as we celebrate the ways we, like Jesus, have revealed reality to those around us. As we celebrate the ways our friends have revealed their reality to the world. As we say to our communities “this is who I am, in all my glory” I wonder what it would also mean to wake up to the reality that what we are doing here is celebrating the way things are. In some ways, and I don’t want to overspiritualize it, but by celebrating Pride we are celebrating the kingdom of God. We are celebrating the fact that the world is so much bigger, so much more diverse, so much more inclusive, so much more brilliant than we ever imagined. And we hear Jesus saying, “yes, yes yes yes my dear ones, this is the kingdom of God.”
“Yes, this is how it is. This is how it always is.”