February 7, 2016 Transfiguration of the Lord Luke 9: 28-36
Rev. Catherine Purves
When I read the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, a familiar phrase popped into my mind. You are known by the company you keep. Where did that saying come from? Using the source of all wisdom, the internet, I found out that there was a 2012 film called The Company You Keep, starring Robert Redford. I never saw it, and it didn’t get good reviews. I also learned that this was the moral of one of Aesop’s fables about a donkey, but I don’t think that’s where I heard it before. Continuing my Google search I discovered someone who attributed the quote to Thomas Jefferson – couldn’t prove it by me. And the original source may have been a line from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, though the wording was clearly different. So I was left with something of a mystery. But wherever that familiar phrase came from, it did seem to summarize well Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. You are known by the company you keep.
This account of a very unusual event in the life of Jesus describes a number of different people in rather surprising company, and that tells us something important about them. They are known by the company they keep. We are going to look at some of those very telling relationships, but let me suggest at the outset what is, I hope, quite obvious, that we too are known by the company that we keep. The relationships that we have with others shape who we are, for good or for ill. The quote from Proverbs that may be the original source of this familiar saying reads, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” As we look at the various relationships that make up the story of the Transfiguration, think about the relationships that you have and that you invest in. How are you known, and how are you changed, by the company that you keep?
The first little group that Luke mentions was made up of three favored disciples: Peter, John, and James. This trio was also asked to accompany Jesus when he entered the house of Jairus and raised his daughter, and they were the ones who were with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Their closeness to Jesus was not without risk. Remember, Peter was afraid that he would be in danger himself when he lingered in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house after Jesus was arrested. A servant girl accused him three times of being a disciple, but he denied it. “This man also was with him,” she said. He was known by the company he kept, and his close association with Jesus put him at risk.
But those three disciples also saw things that the others did not see: a girl raised from the dead. They heard things that the others did not hear: Jesus praying to his Father in Gethsemane, struggling with the sacrifice he was about to make. And they learned things that the others did not learn: they witnessed Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah and they saw him transfigured in glory. This intimacy with Jesus changed the three disciples as they came to know the true identity of Jesus, his purpose, his coming sacrifice, and his future glory.
How do you keep company with Jesus? How well do you know him? Have you taken the risk of being a known associate of Jesus, a Christian? Have you discovered through your relationship with him the true purpose of your life? Have you been changed by being a disciple, someone who was called and chosen to be a follower of Jesus? You will be known by the company you keep. Keep company with Jesus.
Luke then tells us the purpose of this hike up the mountain: “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” It was while Jesus was praying that the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus now was keeping company with his Father. The glory that Luke describes radiating from the person of Jesus is very like the description of what happened to Moses when he ascended Mt. Sinai to speak with God and to receive the Ten Commandments. When you keep company with God in prayer, the sheer glory of the Father has the power to transform or transfigure you. Jesus, of course, was a perfect mirror for the Father’s glory, but even we can be changed through time spent in the company of God in prayer.
How much “quality time” do you spend in prayer each day? As you recite your prayers, are you conscious of being in the very presence of God? Have you seen yourself change through the power of prayer, that is, the power of God that transforms us when we pray? Have you ever experienced something like an afterglow, that may quickly fade, but that still confirms that in prayer we encounter the Almighty? You will be known by the company you keep. Keep company with God the Father in prayer.
Just as the disciples were witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus, they were also surprised by the sudden appearance of two other companions: Moses and Elijah. They too were glorified, just like Jesus, and their presence placed Jesus at the very center of God’s salvation history. Moses was the Lawgiver and Elijah was the Prophet extraordinaire. As the disciples witnessed Jesus in the midst of such illustrious company, they knew that he must be more than a great religious leader, more than just another prophet, more than an amazing teacher, more than a holy man. Everything that went before, that was symbolized in the persons of Moses and Elijah, was leading up to the salvation that God would accomplish in and as Jesus Christ. Peter, John, and James had been following a rabbi, a miracle worker, a healer, possibly even the messiah, but now they saw and knew Jesus in all his glory as the Son of God, one who was even greater than Moses and Elijah. The disciples came to know Jesus in a new way by the company he kept.
How do you know Jesus? Do you accept that he truly is the culmination and fulfillment of God’s salvation history? Is he far more than a teacher for you? Is he more than an ethical guide? Is he more than a martyr, an example of sacrifice? Is he more than the stories about him? Do you know him as your living and glorified Lord? And do you believe that he will come again to complete his overarching work of salvation as the only Son of God? The disciples knew him by the company he kept, though he was far superior to Moses and Elijah. You will be known by the company you keep. Keep company with all of the people God has used to prepare the way for Jesus as you read and study the Scriptures.
If there was any shred of doubt left about who Jesus was, that doubt was dispelled when a cloud descended upon the mountain and overshadowed the disciples and Jesus. Moses and Elijah had departed. Peter, John, and James were terrified, because they knew that the cloud represented God’s presence. And a voice from the cloud confirmed that. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That first radiant proof of Jesus’ relationship with God that was revealed at the beginning of Luke’s account as Jesus prayed to his Father, was now reconfirmed by a divine declaration. They had heard something like this before, on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, but now as Jesus kept company with Moses and Elijah, discussing his upcoming sacrifice, and as he prayed to his Father, the disciples were reminded once again that they were to keep company with Jesus and that they must listen to him.
How closely do you listen to Jesus? When you pray, do you hear as well as speak? When you read Scripture, are you listening for the fresh word that is meant for you today? Do you hear the promises of Jesus, and do you know that you can trust them? You will be known by the company that you keep. We cannot keep company with Jesus, the only Son of the Father, unless we listen to him.
On the last Sunday before Lent begins, we always read the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In this story, we are reminded that as disciples of Jesus we are called to keep company with him, to know who he is, through prayer and Bible study to draw near to him, listening to all that he would tell us. We are now preparing to begin our Lenten journey to the cross with a sure and certain hope in the resurrection. Let us, then, keep company with Jesus. You will be known and you will be changed by the company you keep.