2 March 2014
Last Sunday after Epiphany
Last Epiphany A (RCL)
2 Peter 1:16-21
Dating the Second Letter of Peter is no easy task, but most scholars agree in placing the earliest possible date for the letter around the year 90. That’s around the time Matthew’s Gospel was written. I would be inclined to place its composition sometime after Matthew’s Gospel, since the author seems to cite the Gospel as authoritative. In any event, the author could not have been an eyewitness to the transfiguration.
In fact, it seems that the crisis precipitating the composition of the epistle is the death of the “first generation” Christians (among whom would have been any eyewitnesses), and the delay of the parousia. “Sophisticated” Christians began to claim that the proclamation of Christ’s return and judgment followed “cleverly devised myths.” They claimed that the delay (or better non-occurrence) of the parousia meant that they did not have to follow the instructions of righteousness, particularly as concerned the body. The author of this letter warns that their destruction does not sleep.
While we may not be expecting Christ’s return with the kind of urgency that the first generation of Christians experienced, we can certainly share in their despondency at the state of the world we live in. Christ has promised something better: why are things the way they are? And so, the letter’s advice to us is the same as to its first readers: you would do well to be attentive to this (the transfiguration) as to a light in a dark place.
What does the transfiguration say to us in our darkness? Firstly, just like the author of the Second Letter of Peter, we are eyewitnesses of the experience. Although he was not there on the mountain, he can nevertheless claim to have been. He can claim to have heard the voice from the cloud (he calls it the Majestic Glory). Secondly, it happened to Jesus’ body. This is not a disembodied, spiritual experience, some sort of mystical trance phenomenon. Jesus’ face shines like the sun. Thirdly, that understanding these kinds of events is not a matter of personal interpretation, but a matter of the Spirit guiding men and women in understanding what has happened.
I am convinced that the Gospels were intended as mystagogy — training for newly baptized Christians. I believe new Christians would have heard the Gospel of their community read for the first time the night before their baptism, and likely read cover to cover. Each of the Gospels is bracketed in some sense by Jesus’ own baptism, at which a voice comes proclaiming Jesus as the acceptable child of God, and the spirit empowering him for mission, and the resurrection, the ultimate transfiguration, and the type of baptism. Then, stuck in the middle (at least of the three synoptics) is the transfiguration. The baptisand was about hear the same words pronounced over him or her, and know him/herself as the acceptable child of God. That meant that each was both transfigured and resurrected in the experience.
The mystagogy of the Gospel was to train the new Christian both to live as a transfigured person, showing the light of Christ to the world (“you are the light of the world”), and to see that light in others. I am sorry that the appointed psalm is Psalm 2, a coronation psalm. Certainly, it is one source of the quote, “You are my son,” but the theology is triumphalistic. I believe the Gospel writers had Isaiah 42 more in mind that Psalm 2, or at least meant the two to interpret one another: Jesus kingship is found in his status as acceptable servant. The servant will bring forth justice among the broken reeds and the sputtering wicks of the world. He will look to see God’s light in each.
Moses and Elijah’s appearance on the mountain with Jesus helps us understand this mytagogic purpose. Both Moses and Elijah had mountaintop experiences. Moses received the law, and Elijah received a commission of God’s vengeance (however Hazael doesn’t destroy, Jehu will destroy, and whoever Jehu doesn’t destroy, Elisha will destroy). When the cloud overshadows Jesus, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus is left alone. The light of God will shine through us, not on the basis of a law that discriminates between insider and outsider, nor on the basis of a judgment that destroys “those” people, but through a Savior who sets his face to Jerusalem to accept his role as servant.
We are transfigured in our bodies when we find just ways of living, when we live in community and guard each other’s dimly burning wicks. We are transfigured when we know ourselves to be acceptable children and servants of God, and raised into the life of Christ. We would do well to be attentive to this vision as a light shining in a dark place until the morning star rises in its glory.