Readings: Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Today is the day in the Church`s calendar that we remember the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. The time when he took Peter, James and John up the mountain and they reportedly saw him in glory with Moses and Elijah.
I`m not all that sold on the word `glory`. It seems so removed from where you and I are at that it is hard to see why it matters. It obviously meant something to the Jewish Christians Matthew was writing for, but what does that mean for us?? That`s the question that I want to explore. Sounds pretty deadly doesn`t it?
`Deadly`, now there`s a word whose meaning has been transformed, if not transfigured, recently. It used to mean lethal, likely to kill you. But a fortnight ago I went to a musical that was `deadly`. It was Bran Nue Dae and it was `deadly` in the sense that it was really great! Our indigenous friends have adopted the word and transformed its meaning. But is `transform` the same as `transfigure`?
According to Wikidiff the two words are synonyms, but opinions differ. For some transformation changes the nature of something but transfiguration reveals its true nature.
The transfiguration of Jesus is only mentioned in three places in the New Testament, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and in the second letter of Peter.
Why does that matter? Well, if it is really revealing the true nature of Jesus you would think that it is absolutely central to what the way of Jesus is on about, wouldn`t you. And so, when someone starts out to write Jesus` life story it would be front and centre.
I`ve got a book, `Evolution of the Word` by the late Marcus Borg that presents the books of the New Testament in the order in which they were written.
The first one to write about the life of Jesus was Mark, writing some seventy years after Jesus was born. There is no mention in Mark`s gospel of the transfiguration. Nor is the transfiguration mentioned in the gospel of John, written about twenty years later. It`s only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But, on the face of it, it should have been the starting point of the story of Jesus - Jesus is the chosen one, in the prophetic tradition and approved of by God. Why didn`t Mark and John mention it??
Ah, but wait, you say, how about the mention in the second letter of Peter? Those letters were written before the gospels, weren`t they? Well `yes and no`. The classics letters of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Philippians were written before Mark`s gospel, just over 30 years after Jesus died, but the second letter of Peter was actually the last book of the New Testament written, ten years after Luke`s gospel and 120 years after Jesus birth. That means that Peter, himself, was long dead, so the claim in 2 Peter 1:16 to being eyewitnesses is rather suspect. Indeed, according to Matthew, Jesus told Peter, James and John to `tell no-one` and yet Peter, either in person or via one of his followers, spills the beans without compunction.
The point I`m coming to is that the event of transfiguration described by Matthew and Luke and referred to in Peter`s second letter may not have actually happened. Now, that`s not particularly surprising and it certainly doesn`t mean that we can ignore it. After all, the writers of the lectionary have dedicated today to celebrating the transfiguration. How should we celebrate its meaning, regardless of whether or not it actually happened?
Let`s look at what Paul wrote to the Romans less than 30 years after Jesus died. Note that his focus is not on transfiguration. He says this in Romans 12:1, 2:
`I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.` Whoa, hold up. So offering our bodies to God is worship, it`s what we`re here for today in this worship service, to offer ourselves to God in service.
But back to Paul. He goes on to say `Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.`
So Paul`s more immediate concern for the Roman Christians was not the transfiguration that may have made Jesus look different from everyone else, something that would have made a statement about how special He was, compared to us in God`s eyes, but the transformation that Jesus showed in his way of living and that is available to all of us. And note that it is a two-part process.
Firstly we present our bodies as a living sacrifice - in other words we dedicate our bodies to God`s service. And secondly we are transformed. How? By the renewing of our minds. So is the transformation Paul is talking about just a matter of changing your mind? Well, maybe, but he goes on to say why. `So that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.` So we are to be transformed to be perfect!
And that`s where the little boy with the sword [in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood] got it wrong. Like many young boys he thought he could change himself from the outside-in. Mr Rogers saw that the issue was on the inside. If the boy could find his inner strength he wouldn`t need to `act tough`.
For us too transformation starts on the inside when we discern the will of God - and what is the will of God? You know what I`m going to say already don`t you? My absolute favourite verse, 1 John 4 verse 7. `Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.` And then in verse 12 `if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.` That word `perfect` again!
And when you think about it, that fits. We may not see the clouds descending or hear a voice from Heaven saying of us `this is my beloved in whom I am well pleased`, but this is the sort of transformation or transfiguration we are called to.
We don`t need a big plastic sword to become conquerors. Listen to what Paul said to the Romans - and they knew all about conquering:
`In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.` (Rom 8:38-39)