When Someone Shows You Who They Are

The great writer Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

It’s a reminder that has been circulating widely these last few months, in response to the troubling events taking place in our nation and our world. It pushes back against those who respond to policies and actions that abuse and oppress with insipid suggestions to “wait and see” or “I’m sure they don’t mean any harm by it.” “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” When someone shows you that they don’t care about the lives of transgender children, believe them. When someone openly declares their fear and hatred of foreigners and Muslims, believe them. When someone shows you, over and over again, that they don’t care about truth, justice, or compassion, believe them.

But that quotation took on different meaning as I encountered the Gospel text this week.
Jesus and his disciples have been making their way through the small towns and villages of the Galilee, teaching and healing and doing miracles. The crowds that follow him and gather around him have been getting bigger and bigger, and the sense of impending threat has been growing, as religious authorities come from Jerusalem to try to understand what might be happening with this charismatic itinerant preacher.

In the chapter before today’s reading, an exchange takes place between Jesus and Peter, where Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter declares that Jesus is the son of God. After that exchange, Jesus starts to prepare the disciples for what is to come: they will go to Jerusalem, and there Jesus will suffer and die. He tells them that anyone who wishes to be a disciple must take up their cross and follow. Those are hard and frightening words, and although Jesus speaks to them of the resurrection, his words of promise were likely lost amidst the warnings of suffering, conflict, strife, and death.

Six days later (a reference to the six days of the creation story, and a signal that the story is not yet complete), Jesus takes just a few of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a mountain to pray. At the top of the mountain, he is transfigured — his face shines, his clothes become a dazzling white, his physical form reflects the glory, majesty, and mystery of who he really is: the son of God, the Holy One, the Messiah. With him appear two of the great prophets of Israel: Moses and Elijah. Perhaps flabbergasted at this incredible sight, Peter stammers out a strange offer: to make tents there at the top of the mountain, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (although, strangely, none for himself or James and John).

No sooner has Peter spoken than a voice comes from heaven, much like the voice Jesus heard as he was coming out of the waters of his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Overwhelmed, the disciples fall to the ground, perhaps recalling the wisdom that no one can see the face of God and live. But Jesus, whose physical touch has performed so many miracles, comes to them and touches them, inviting them to stand, and urging them not to be afraid.

As suddenly as the vision came, it is over. They are, once again, alone with Jesus, walking down the mountain.

Jesus has shown them who he is. Jesus has shown us who he is.    

It’s been hard for me to connect with the story of the transfiguration this week. It’s a story of a literal and metaphorical mountain-top moment, of glory and transcendence and radiance and breathtaking joy. It’s a story about the moments of beauty and vision that God graces us with, moments that can sustain us, carrying us through the long, difficult slog of daily life.

Recently, life has felt more like an arduous trudge through the valley, sprinkled with relatively few of those mountaintop moments of awe and wonder. Whether in my personal life raising two small children, the life of our church community as we settle into this space and start to strategize about our future, or the life of our nation, where the daily news seems to bring more and more reports of disturbing events, even more disturbing plans, and harm done to society’s most marginalized people, there hasn’t been much mountaintop transcendence recently.

But perhaps that’s part of the point of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration: the fleeting nature of this revelation, this moment of seeing the glory of Christ, reflects the contrast between those transfiguration moments and our daily lives. We don’t spend most of our time on the mountaintop. We don’t spend most of our time face-to-face with the glory of God. We spend most of our time immersed in our daily routine, going to work and buying the groceries and taking the subway and walking the dog, attending to the mundane matters of everyday living. But from time to time, we get a glimpse beyond, a glimpse of who God really is, what life really is, how things really are, that takes our breath away. The question for us is whether we can hold on to that vision, treasure it as a gift, ponder it in our hearts, let it sustain us through everyday life, and through times of pain and struggle.

In the past week, some of those moments of pain and struggle have been around issues of gender identity. This week, as I’m sure many of you saw in the news, the executive branch withdrew policies that had encouraged schools to let transgender students use facilities that correspond to their gender identities; the Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments on a case about a transgender student who seeks to use the bathroom that matches his gender identity. Media has been full of the stories of trans people, but unfortunately just as full of talking heads pontificating on the imagined threat that trans people represent – although trans people are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, and never once – not once – has there been an assault of the kind that those talking heads fear. 

I’ve been reflecting on how the root “trans,” which means “across,” is found in both “transgender” and “transfiguration,” how Jesus’s appearance crosses over to reflect his true identity, and how our transgender siblings do the same in the face of so much danger and stigma and obstruction. This church has made a commitment to the full inclusion of transgender people in the life of the church, but we still have far to go — as a church and as a society, to fully reflect God’s love for all of God’s beloved ones, created in God’s image and loved beyond words. God’s will for the world is that we would all be able to be who we truly are, without fear of hatred or violence. God’s will is that we would embrace and celebrate all genders and gender identities. God’s will for the world is that we would know ourselves and each other as God’s beloved children.

In the transfiguration, we catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is, how things really are: God’s own son has taken on flesh and dwelt among us. We see Jesus in all his glory, and in it, the promise of the resurrection. He is not just some charismatic wandering preacher who will give some inspiring speeches and then be snuffed out by the empire. He is God incarnate, and so all that lies ahead will not ultimately be able to overcome him. The disciples see him dazzling and radiant, hear him declared God’s beloved son, and in that vision, there is a promise that all the suffering and pain and death that lies ahead will ultimately be swallowed up in victory, vanquished by a God of grace and glory. There is a promise that the power of love will triumph over hate.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

In the transfiguration, Christ shows us who he is. Awe-inducing and glorious, and simultaneously the same warm and loving Jesus who goes to the terrified disciples and calms them with a touch of his hand. This is the one we worship, this is the one we follow: a God who is mysterious and powerful and who takes us by the hand and walks beside us as friend and teacher. So no matter what lies ahead of us — in the coming Lenten season, in the challenges that face our congregation and the wider church, in the midst of the polarization and anxiety that marks our contemporary political climate, may we trust in that God. May we trust in the God who dazzles and shines. May we trust in the God who comforts and loves. May we trust in the God who calls us up to the mountaintop for a glimpse of holy light. And may we trust in the God who sends us down the mountain again, to do the hard work of being God’s people in this world.