Every summer our Gospel readings include this morning’s famous passage which describes the wondrous event the Church calls the Transfiguration. When something is heard over and over, I suppose it is natural to think that it must therefore somehow be understood better and better with each hearing, but going through it I realized that this passage leaves me with more questions than I would have thought; and once those questions start getting asked, perhaps it opens it up to further reflection.
For example, we are told that Jesus “took with him Peter, John, and James”. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? I mean, why those three? If Jesus was all about God’s love for all people, and if all people are equal in the eyes of God, and so on … why just those three? Should not they all have been invited? What was special about them? Omitting the suggestion that Jesus simply played favorites, was it because they were to have special roles going forward? After all, Peter was the unquestioned leader of the apostles and, along with Paul, foremost of the church’s early missionaries; and John’s authorship of the Gospel, protection of the Virgin Mary, advice and counsel to multiple congregations, and reception of mystical revelations, clearly indicated his need for special preparation … but James? He was not known for such tremendous contributions to the apostolic age; unless, of course, he was destined for something momentous, but which was cut short by his early martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Agrippa. Then the question may be whether or not this signified a short-circuiting of God’s plans for him, or whether that was his destiny, in which his martyrdom was the signal for the other apostles to leave Jerusalem and begin to spread the word in new territories to new peoples.
Do you see how this works? Once you start looking at the individual details and asking what they signify, the narrative starts to open up and unfold like a kaleidoscope, or perhaps like the Mandelbrot set.
“While he was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white” (the old RSV translation invented a word … ‘glistering’ white). Why? Was it because of his holiness? And does that imply that ‘white’ is good? Was it because the presence of whatever was happening affected the apostles’ perception of him in their own eyes and brains? Or were the different dimensions of our physical universe overlapping, allowing … contact? Is this verse about goodness or science?
“Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him”. Well, how did they know it was them? Did they identify themselves? Did Jesus introduce them? Did the apostles believe that these figures from their scriptures were coming back so ardently that they assumed these visitors were them? Did they make a wild type of guess?
“They appeared in glory”. Now, let’s stop there. Most readers, if they remember that someone appeared in ‘glory’ in this passage, would remember it as applying to Jesus, but that’s not what the text says. This is referring to Moses and Elijah. Now, if the identification of these two visitors is incorrect, and they are angels, or to use less poetic language, extraterrestrials, then the description of them appearing ‘in glory’ is likely much akin to Jesus’s appearance being changed; we are simply dealing with scientific questions of dimension and perception. But … assuming the text is accurate (just for fun), if it was Moses, and if it was Elijah, this opens up a whole slew of questions about what happens to the dead. Jews believed in Sheol, and human spirits did ‘survive’ in that place or state or abode, it’s rather shadowy (just ask King Saul about the prophet Samuel; he’ll tell you it’s not a place to mess with). But before we simply start talking about resurrection, we have to remember that this is taking place before that happened, before Jesus (as the Apostles’ Creed says) went and preached to the spirits in prison (meaning Hell, presumably). So what’s up with God’s servants from the past already existing ‘in glory’. Of course, if time itself is just a function of mass and energy, I suppose there are other options.
This is important because it plays into the next phrase. “They were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. Let’s assume they acknowledged that the word ‘departure’ involved his death, meaning that they were aware that he would be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and executed; otherwise ‘departure’ might simply refer to him somehow leaving, in which his Ascension might be seen simply as an exit rather than as an exultation, and all that implies. But if so, how did they know? Did God simply tell them about the future? Did they know because they truly understood the Scriptures (some of which they wrote and/or lived) and how it applied to the coming root of Jesse, prophet, king, Son of Man, Messiah? I mean, were they just really good at biblical interpretation? Or did they know something about time? And if so, were they telling him what he would do, should do, or could do? Would, should, could … they’re actually not the same thing, even or especially when applied to Jesus’s actions.
“Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory”. What this verse introduces is fodder for critics. While the entire episode involves science and perception, here there is the admission that the apostles were affected by fatigue, opening up the door for skepticism about the accuracy of their memories or discernment. Did they get it right? Yet read from another angle, it could be seen as an assertion of just how fortuitous their timing was, how the fact that they fought through their weariness allowed them to see something they might otherwise have missed. It raises the idea that our own perseverance in prayer or in faith might not open doorways for us to gifts from a generous God that we might otherwise miss out on, and as a result question or doubt.
“Peter said, ‘Master it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’, not knowing what he said”. Most of this verse is dominated by the explanatory phrase at the end. That Peter ‘did not know what he said’ rather unfortunately contributes to the stereotype of him as impetuous, impulsive, unthinking, or ignorant; you know, all those things people in the church who have issues with authority like to attribute to him. An easier out might be to simply say that this is really referring to him being both tired and overwhelmed. In either case, it seems to suggest an incongruity between the momentousness of the occasion and the banality of his suggestion. That, however, might be an error. Building booths for dignitaries, whether kings or priests or what have you, would actually be both a hospitable act, but an expected courtesy and acknowledgement of their position. In other words, his offer made more sense than any non-Jew reading the text hundreds of years later would likely ever understand. So the point here might just have been not that Peter’s suggestion was silly, but rather that he was more or less speaking on auto-pilot, saying what his conditioning would inspire him to say, but without necessarily realizing or processing all the ramifications of what was actually happening. In other words, the question that follows is, was he not simply trying to grasp as best as he could something that was obviously much more?
“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them”. Those who remember a past Good Friday sermon will know that I’ve preached for a complete hour on this one word … the cloud. In Jewish memory the cloud always accompanied God’s glory, God’s presence … called the ‘Shekinah’. Leading them away from Pharaoh to Mount Sinai … leading them through the desert and descending upon the Tent of Meeting … leading them into the Temple and the Holy of Holies … enveloping the High Priest Isaiah in his vision of God on his throne … (and it nearly a dozen lesser known episodes) … the cloud brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven”. At least, that’s the way the stories went. We are still left wondering what the cloud really was. Was it a parlor trick for effect, biblical dry ice? Was it the exhaust from a divine … uh … chariot? Or was it the blurring of spatial boundaries, a fuzziness of perception that accompanies the merging of different laws of physics?
“And they were terrified”. Readers often, I think, forget just how frightened people were when encountering things divine; and how necessary it was and how common it was for either angels or God to begin with words of comfort. Whether that affects the tone of voice in which God’s words are to be heard is, I suppose, up to the reader. Still, we are not told weather the words “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” are to be heard in the majestic and royal tones of Sean Connery, the ominous yet melodious tones of James Earl Jones, the acerbic and haughty tones of John Cleese, or the gentle and friendly voice of Burl Ives. Take your pick, but know this; if you choose Whoopie Goldberg …
Of course, the real question being raised here is … how do we hear the voice of God? How do we read and hear biblical texts in which it is said that God spoke. Do we hear with these ears? Do we hear in the heart? Does the voice come from … everywhere?
And from this question follows … do the actual words that were heard matter? If the divine voice was not so ineffable as to be incomprehensible beyond the general impact, what do we make of the words? “This is my son”. Does this validate the Virgin Birth? Does this mean that Jesus is thereby different from others? Does this son ship indicate genetics; so that St. Paul’s later analogy of us being children via adoption is actually not really an analogy at all? Does the word ‘son’ rather indicate something to do with King David and the Jewish monarchy? Is it just a term of affection? And does God ever use ‘just’ terms of anything?
And what do we make of the term ‘my chosen’? Literally the text said ‘agapetos’. We know the word agape. Does agapetos mean ‘beloved’ … the object of sacrificial love … or perhaps the embodiment of sacrificial love? If so, how did the translators choose the word ‘chosen’? Was it because Jesus was chosen to be the love sacrifice given by God on behalf of the world, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have eternal life? Was he beloved by God because of his obedience to him, as suggested in the Letter to the Hebrews? If the word is ‘beloved’, does that mean that he is loved by God differently than how God loves us? Or are we being invited into that Trinitarian way of loving, if we are in fact also ‘beloved of God’, which we can infer because St. Paul used the very same word to refer to us?
“Listen to him”. I cannot help think of the little boy whose video went viral earlier this year … some of you may know this … “Linda. Linda. Honey … no you are not listening to me!” Thus saith the little boy. You either know that one or not. Still, all parents know this much. When we say ‘listen to us’ we do not mean simply ‘hear us’ (which by the way, is what the Greek actually says … ‘hear him’); we mean what? Obey. But even here, is that really just the essence of this command. Obey Jesus. Obey his moral and ethical teachings. Learn what he wants us to do and apply them in our centuries, our cultures, our politics, our personal moral lives? Clearly it does mean that! But is there more? Is it also that we are to learn from him? Does it mean that what he says is true … is true? Does it mean that his teaching is the center of truth from which his followers are to base their philosophy, their history, their science, their economics, and their politics? In other words (let me state it this way) … is Jesus’s subjective reality … objective reality? And if so … at what peril is he excluded from public discourse or education? Or put another way, how can a secular world ever arrive at truth if they do not go through him?
“When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone”. Often I point out in sermons this effect … when all was said and done, there was just Jesus. Is ‘there was just Jesus’, then, the answer … or perhaps the question? And does this actually apply to our lives in their entirety?
“They kept silent in those days and told no one any of the things they had seen.” This is a bit of a coda, an epilogue. But it speaks of something important, the question of ‘now what’? You see, we who hear these scriptures every week (or as often as we get here or open a bible) have to ask, did this happen? If so, does it matter? What does it mean for this to be sacred text? Is it a sacred memory of a particular culture, in which we remember it for nostalgia and as expressions of God’s care for us in days gone by? If so, its primary benefit is to provide feelings of security and comfort. Or is it an effort by which one culture attempted to make meaning, just as others do, telling its story so as to define the general tone by which their spiritual descendants are expected to live in the present? If so, we have to read it so as to get a sense of how it might make us see the world, and thereby apply the teachings of this first century teacher to the truly important issues of the day … how to best provide health care, how to relate to questions of immigration, race, and personal differences and uniqueness, and how to begin impeachment proceedings?
Or do we rather then ask for advice on how to interpret these stories? If so, who better to seek such advice from than one of the very people who were there, the very ones who chose to be silent ‘in those days’, but who, years later, after having denied Jesus, and after having seen him resurrected, and after having been forgiven by him, and after having been sent by him to make disciples, wrote the following … “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his glory”.
If we choose to believe that this person saw what he said he saw, then it is up to us to decide if we will follow his advice as to what to do about it. And so St. Peter wrote, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place”. Synonyms for ‘be attentive’ include ‘concentrating, observant, alert, focused, intent, rapt’ … from there perhaps process, apply, change, grow, obey, persevere, witness, endure, go! There is a mission implied; one that will not be easy … because also implied … is the darkness. You have entered the light. You have seen the light. You have been given the light. Go be the light … in a dark world … literally a ‘dark cosmos’.
And then Peter finishes with the promise; we are to do this “until … the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”. There still follows some questions. When will the day dawn? Are we working towards a more just society that will eventually come about? Is the question of good and evil so eternal that the striving for justice and goodness and kindness is the everlasting task for which God has created us? Or will we be released from all this nonsense when we leave this ‘veil of tears’?
Yet whatever the answer to these questions may be, the promise is all the greater. The ‘morning star’ shall rise in our hearts. And we may still ask, does this mean that we will simply come to peace through our love of him? Or does it mean that we will actually get to know him in our hearts? Or does it mean that we will be united with him in ways we do not yet comprehend?
We may not know how this will play out … but for those of us who follow the Lord, we press on towards this goal. This is our path. This is the mountain we climb, because for us “there was just Jesus”. Amen. ... See MoreSee Less
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