- Exodus 24:12-18
- 2 Peter 1:16-21
- Matthew 17:1-9
Last Epiphany, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
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.)