Last Epiphany, Year A
The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, "Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them."
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
2 Peter 1:16-21
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 majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
From a strictly critical viewpoint, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is incredible. It falls into the literary category of fiction, legend, myth. It is a misapprehension of a totally explainable rational phenomenon. It would be tempting to treat the narrative in this fashion. The modern scientific apprehension of miracles in the theological sciences has grown to behemoth proportions. These scholars write as though belief in the miraculous were naïve or ill-founded. Why? Because most of them live with a Newtonian view of the cosmos and they only allow one epistemology, that of empiricism and logical positivism.
We don’t. When we do theology, we do it with a clear awareness that physicists no longer really perceive the world as a clock that has been set to run its course, as though there were absolutes. Physics reckons with a world that whether on a macro or a micro level is full of….randomness, chance, strange attractors, action-at-a-distance, dark matter, anti-matter. There is no such thing as a thing-in-itself, everything is related. Everything, big and small. This is quantum theory. It is the only theory with which modern physicists can split atoms or make lasers or scan your groceries in the grocery store. (Or as we might also recognize, everything is ‘interdividual’, connected, related)
Readers of Thomas Torrance, John Polkinghorne or Alistair McGrath will know that the science of theology and the science of physics share a common set of working presuppositions. One of these presuppositions that modern theologians share is an openness to the subject matter, knowing that our very interaction with the subject has already influenced the outcome. We have a huge influence, our perceptions have a huge influence. This openness is necessary when coming to a text like ours today, for, at least on a quantum level, the story can be affirmed with the rational mind. Things like this can and do happen in the quantum world. Maybe the ‘muggles’ don’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or hasn’t happened. So-called modern theological science had better get used to that fact that there is another side to the reality they know empirically through study and experiment.
Then there are those who will separate Jesus from the rest of humanity by declaring that the transfiguration is a one-time-Jesus-occurring-only event, and that it can’t and won’t happen to the rest of us (until maybe after we die). They claim to acknowledge a spiritual reality apart from the physical reality they see, touch and hear, but the God who acts from that reality did his best work in Jesus’ time and now God doesn’t work that way anymore.
Both sides have succumbed to a seduction, one that seduced Peter when he stood there with James and John. “We’ll build ya 3 houses, Jesus. Man, we can’t take you down the mountain looking like that, and for sure, the people ain’t coming up the mountain to see you like this. What’s going on anyway? Why don’t you just hang out here with…uh, you know who…?” To himself he said “what is all this theological gobbledy-gook stuff he’s talking about?” The point is that Peter missed the point in spite of the fact he was in the very presence of Jesus transformed. We all miss the point. That’s OK.
Two very distinct realities become one in our text. The physical world as the disciples know it fuses with the reign of God, the world where Jesus’ abba is king. If we are willing to entertain the notion of parallel universes that have influence on each other in the scientific world, then we can certainly accept the presence of a ‘non-physically apprehensible’ world, a world of the Spirit, for God is Spirit. And we can do this without conceding anything to the positivists.
There is no discontinuity between Jesus’ physicality as a human being and his spiritual life, (nor ours!) they have become one. Not for nothing, but haven’t we read and preached on the Johannine ‘you in me’ and ‘I in you’ stuff; or the Pauline ‘en Christo?’ Do we really mean this stuff or is it just abstract metaphor or silent symbol? Is it real real? Just as there is a physicality to the spirituality found, e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, so also there are implications of life under God’s reign for the world of the flesh, of that which we call ‘matter.’
The God of the Gospels affirms the life and character of Jesus. Everything Jesus has done and taught and lived and said is affirmed in this moment. Everything. Jesus has become and is recognized as the True human, the second Adam, the Son of Humanity. It is his humanness that is transformed and it is his transformed humanness that is the hope of our own physical redemption and transformation. Little wonder that scholars can call this narrative a misplaced or proleptic resurrection narrative. If they weren’t bound in such narrow definitions of what constituted scientific method and results, they would have taken the further step to talk about the conjunction of the physical world and the eschatological one, that of the final consummation of creation, that of resurrection, transfigured humanity. In Jesus, in that moment in all of its implications on both the physical and spiritual, God’s will was being done on earth as it is in heaven.
But even though, at that moment Jesus could have ended his work on earth with fine approval by God, the best you can get, the highest you can go, he takes one more step. His first step away from the spot where he was transfigured was his first step toward Calvary. He had one more task to complete his life vision and calling.
Matthew does some interesting redactional work in this text. Significantly, the apostles are presented in a better light. Disciples become brothers, Peter, apparently knows what he is talking about and the disciples seem to understand. The change in Jesus title is also Matthean, from ‘rabbi’ in Mark to ‘kyrios.’ This, as Bornkamm has shown, should clue us in on how the Matthean community understood and related to this event, what it meant for them. It is as if the whole community is there on the mountain, they hear the bat Qol, they see Jesus transformed.
We have already addressed some of the problems inherent in so-called ‘critical presuppositions.’ Miracles are not what you see, but how you see.
9:1 James and John become ‘brothers’
9: 2 eliminates Mark’s redundance: ‘kat idian monous.’
9: 2 Matthew adds Jesus ‘prosopon elampsen’
9: 3 eliminates Mark’s ‘no one one earth could bleach them’
9:4 eliminates ‘with Jesus’, changes ‘rabbi’ to ‘kurie’ and turns Peter’s ‘poiesomen’ to an ‘ei theleis poieso’
9:5 eliminates the Markan apologetic of not knowing what to say and being afraid the cloud ‘interrupts Peter’; characteristic use of the genitive absolute and use of ‘idou’ to signal important narrative.
6-7 all Matthean, eliminates Mark’s closing apologetic for the disciples who were mystified
Our readers may be interested to read Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications for the New Physics (New York: Crossroad, 2004). We found it illuminating in many of the directions it took with regard to epistemological implications of quantum thinking and theology.
Some Sermon Thoughts
We have mentioned before the need for preachers of peace to come to what Paul Ricouer called the "second naivete." This is what we ask preachers to do this week, especially. In too many places, today’s Gospel reading will lose all it’s savor as the Transfiguration is preached by people whose "demystification" of the text will leave it, and them, with a Savior and a Gospel that have no power to change hearts, a Savior unworthy of our worship.
On the other hand, in many places where the Transfiguration is preached as something quite real, it will also be preached, as Michael suggested above, as something so peculiar to Jesus that our own transformation by the Holy Spirit, the reality of the inbreaking of an eschatological reality in Jesus, vanishes in a demonstration of magical power. What is revealed here is that Jesus has demonstrated his "Sonship" by absolute fidelity to his Father’s will, his imitation of his Father. The revelation results in the apprehension by the three disciples of the real presence (Lutheran and Anglican pun intended) of the eschatological Christ in the man Jesus. What we as preachers seek to avoid here is the suggestion that this presence of the eschatological in the temporal was a "one-time-only" offer. In fact, what is true is that whenever any of us imitates Jesus’ Abba by way of gratuitous love and forgiveness, something of the reign of God, the eschatological reality that already exists, becomes visible in us too. We have the capacity to be transfigured as well. (Of course, the first step away from that moment will be, as it was for Jesus, a step toward Calvary. Here comes Lent.)