Transfiguration, Zombies and Being Fully Awake (Luke 9:28-36)

Last week we talked about making peace with the earth and part of what is needed in order to do that is to have a conversion where we go through the process of blindness to gaining “eyes to see.” That we need eyes to see the beauty in the world around us and the fingerprints of the creator on things in something as simple as the maple leaf is something we can work at, pray for and practice. As we enter Lent we will consider ways in which we can practice these things. Doing this requires that we are able to pay careful attention to the subtleties all around us. Doing this requires that, though we may be distracted, though we may be weighed down with sleep, we do the work it takes to become fully awake, fully present with eyes wide open.

When was a time when you felt fully awake, when your eyes were open and all your senses took in your surroundings? When was a time when your imagination was firing on all pistons, when you felt at peace with God, when you felt at peace with other people?


What does this tell you about yourself? About God’s work in your life?

Now what about when you think of someone who is not awake what is it that comes to mind? Any examples? Dead end jobs, something trapped in a lie, someone trapped in an abusive situation, etc? What is it that makes that person less than fully awake? For me, the first demographic I think of is…the undead, namely vampires and Zombies. “Modern zombies are depicted in mobs, flocks or waves, seeking either flesh to eat or people to kill, and are typically rendered to exhibit signs of physical decomposition such as rotting flesh, discolored eyes, and open wounds, and moving with a slow, shambling gait. They are generally incapable of communication and show no signs of personality or rationality.” (Wiki)

Know anyone like that?

Now for some reason there has been a renewed and growing interest as of late with the undead. The thing that put it on the map for me was the recent mashup between Jane Austin and a classic zombie slasher, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This old classic was resuscitated as only could happen in a zombie thriller. That zombie fan-fiction was able to break into mainstream says at least something about the public interest in the undead. Both zombies and vampires are making headway where they have not normally tread [I don’t really know why this is but it is as though maybe we see a bit of ourselves in them. Maybe we identify with feeling and going through life like a zombie, as though we’re sleep-walking, etc.]. So what interests me is the contrast between the undead, the half-alive, the sleep-walkers and the those we see in our biblical narrative this morning.

Of the many meanings in Luke 9 and the story of Jesus’ transfiguration we could cover, I want to only focus very narrowly on that this passage contrasts with the undead. The bigger picture is that in this passage we get a glimpse of Christ’s glory, we are able to see how his disciples participate and understand his coming departure (via the cross), and that Jesus is understood to be the new Moses prepared to liberate his people and initiate a new exodus.  And all of this includes repeated mentions about things the disciples can “see,” about their ability to be prepared to see what is going on around the them.

So you may have noticed that there is a motif of sight repeated in our text this morning:

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:29–31)

“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” (Luke 9:32)

“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.” (Luke 9:34) [Enclosing in around them].

Luke really wants to stress the importance of seeing and perceiving what is going on here.

One thing that really stands out to me is when Luke comments on the fact that “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” As though to comment on something else in the narrative we don’t know. Did they travel far to get to this mountain, was there something about the prayers that were making them tired? Did this happen in the middle of the night? [And what is it with Peter also being tired every time he is asked to pray? He must have been one tired dude!]

Now the text we have translates the following line as “but since they had stayed awake” but another way to read this is “they, having become fully awake,” once they shook the slumber off, and became fully awake, they what? They saw Christ’s glory and the two men who stood with him. In other words, they had a chance to see two dead celebrities. Which actually seems to be a bit trippy to me.

I like how the JB Phillips translation puts it even better, “But Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep and it was as they struggled into wakefulness that they saw the glory of Jesus and the two men standing with him.”

Within the narrative, there is this struggle to wakefulness, a struggle to attain presence and composure in a way that did not come naturally to them. If we were to make our own zombie fan-fiction out of this transfiguration scene we might say: But while Peter and his companion Zombies were undead, they struggled back to life, finding themselves once asleep they were now fully awake.

In other words if you want to be able to see, you have to be fully awake.

The story of the transfiguration reminds us that even Christ’s glory can be missed if we are caught in our slumber or are dead to the world around us. And that is what I want to invite all of us to take in this morning, as we begin the Lent season. What can you do (or not do) to help you practice being fully awake?

The season of lent presents us with the opportunity to “struggle to wakefulness” in preparation for Jesus’ departure and return on Resurrection Sunday. This struggle is to resist the pull of a detached, profane, zombie-like existence. Walter Brueggemann writes:

“Imagine an existence where the glory of God has been completely nullified. The result would be a completely one-dimensional, flattened, profane existence.  The outcome of such a profane existence is sure to be brutality in which any affront against the neighbor is possible and permitted. Such brutality ends in despair, because there is no “surplus power” to generate any alternative.” Many of us have experienced being “at the brink of such a profane existence in which there is no ray of “glory,” no power beyond self, and no opening to hopefulness.”  (Exodus 954-55).

For us this sleep-walking, profane existence can look like all sorts of things:

* the daily grind of a routine that has become so second nature that we can go through the motions with our eyes closed
* the constant barrage of our culture selling fear, violence, and a corrupted forms of sexuality
* a job that beats the life right out of us
* to the growing feeling of defeat by constant unemployment
* an abusive spouse or parent
* constant harassment
* the slow drone of shopping so we can keep up appearances
* the noise and craziness of everyday family life
* the speed and compulsiveness of trying to achieve success and clout
* the simple desire for a good reputation that becomes an obsession

A lot of these things can start from a place of health but slowly take over to the point that they kill us. The sleepy, numbing feeling we often feel inside is because we are weighed down with things that either we put in our lives for good reasons at one time or another, or someone else puts on us (as in the case of abuse).  We need to learn how to pace ourselves, created liberated spaces where we can pull ourselves out of the rat race, abandon the American dream for dreams of the Kingdom of God, surrender our cultural values for Gospel values, and in doing this we may find ourselves far more awake and better able to see.

If we all struggle, like Peter, with being weighed down with sleep then how is it that we can struggle to wakefulness?

There are many ways but one response comes from Quaker Thomas Kelly and his classic book A Testament of Devotion. He writes there that all of this stuff I’ve described above happens on only the first level of our lives (35):

“On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings” (Ibid).

The problem is that in our world most everything around us only cultivates the first level because this is where the real business gets done, or so it is believed. And of course on one level it’s true, we have to go to work, etc. But this isn’t all of it. I like what Thomas Kelly says about this, the:

“accent must be upon the deeper level, where the soul ever dwells in the presence of the Holy One. For the religious [person] is forever bringing all affairs of the first level down into the Light, holding them there in the Presence, reseeing them and the whole of the world of [humanity] and things in a new and overturning way, responding to them in spontaneous, incisive and simple ways of love and faith” (36).

We can bring those first level affairs, down into the Light, hold them in the presence, resee them and the whole world in light of the Light of Christ. No matter what is going on around us, Kelly is arguing, we can enter an inner sanctuary where’ God’s shinning light is present and arise out of that transfigured. Another commentator writes of the transfiguration that Jesus’ “inner being was made transparent to those who accompanied him” (Green 380). Thus, this drawing on the inner sanctuary, and making the struggle to wakefulness can overflow in a way that leads to a transformed appearance. Thomas Kelly says something similar happened with the early Quakers:

“The Society of Friends arose as a rediscovery of the ever-open inward springs of immediacy and revelation [as the master of Galilee had taught (p.32)]. George Fox and the Quakers found a Principle within men, a Shekinah of the soul, a Light Within that lights every [person]  coming into the world. Dedicating themselves utterly and completely to attendance upon this Inward Lighting Christ, they were quickened into a new and bold tenderness toward the blindness of the leaders of Christian living. Aflame with the Light of the inner sanctuary, they went out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and called [people] to listen above all to that of God speaking within them, to order all life by the Light of the Sanctuary” (33-34).

He says they were “Aflame” with the Light of the inner sanctuary, we might say they were “fully awake” to the glory and presence of God. Like Christ on the mountain, we too, as we struggle to wakefulness can be aflame. The inner life can help to wake us up, it can bring us new life if we don’t suffocate it. We don’t simply have to walk around as the undead, as interesting as that might make things, we don’t have to just do what it takes to survive, we can thrive, and be fully awake. But this really does take a desire to develop patterns, practices, rhythms of life that keep us in the struggle.

So as in the narrative of the transfiguration this Lent season we are invited to make the movement from seeing but not perceiving, to seeing and beginning to perceive, beginning to be fully awake.

So what does it mean for you to really thrive? For you to be awake to life, and the Light of Christ? What does it look like for you to participate in the coming kingdom of God? To contribute to the life of this community? To find yourself really free from the shackles of fear the world gives us. Lent is a great time to take inventory on all this and practice something that will set us aflame with wakefulness.

Query: Consider one practice you can participate in during the Lenten season to help grow in the discipline of being fully awake, being prepared for Christ? What could you do to practice: bringing all affairs of the first level down into the Light, holding them there in the Presence, reseeing them and the whole of the world of [humanity] and things in a new and overturning way, responding to them in spontaneous, incisive and simple ways of love and faith” (36).