Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
The Baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration are the bookends of the season of Epiphany, the post-Christmas season during which aspects of Jesus identity are revealed. There are many aspects to his identity, many ways to think about Jesus, but in classic Christology the core and essence of Jesus identity is that he is fully human and fully divine which we do better to accept as a matter of faith rather than to try and figure it out. Concerning the two bookend events of this season you could say that Jesus’ baptism is more about his human nature as he identifies with sinful humanity in being baptized, and then the Transfiguration is more about his divine nature leading us more into the realm of mystery, that which we can’t know about God.
The accounts of the Transfiguration do describe an event that defies understanding, this mountaintop experience of Jesus present with Moses and Elijah, with Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes suddenly dazzling white, the voice from the cloud proclaiming Jesus as “My son, the beloved,” his disciples Peter, James and John frightened and mystified by what they see and hear. It defies interpretation but as left brain Lutherans we can’t help but try to figure it out. It’s an example though, of the limits of such interpretation, the problem of thinking that the goal is to figure it out so we can cross it off the list and move on to the next text.
There are limits, but still we try and the first question might be, “Are we supposed to believe this literally, did it happen just this way, or is it mostly imaginative theological commentary on the part of the gospel writers, Matthew in today’s case?” My guess would be that it’s a combination of things. According to the gospel accounts, even those closest to Jesus viewed him as a man, an extraordinary man to be sure, but a man. I don’t think it’s farfetched though, to think that some of his disciples could have had this kind of mystical mountaintop experience that opened their eyes and revealed something more to them about Jesus. In fact, I think it quite likely there is a remembered event behind this.
In writing the gospels though, the authors weren’t just trying to reconstruct history to provide a biographical account; they were presenting who they believed Jesus to be. So it would also make sense that if a remembered story about a mystical encounter with Jesus had been passed down, the writers of the gospels would tell it in ways that helped to convey what they believed about him, in this case their belief in Jesus’ divine nature. So you might say it’s history told with imagination.
All of that is good, sound interpretation; it may well be exactly what we’re supposed to get from this story. The problem comes if we then say, “Well that’s that, problem solved,” and file it away so next year on Transfiguration Sunday we can take it out, dust it off and say, “Oh yeah, here’s what it means,” and then proceed to burn the palms and get ready for Ash Wednesday and Lent, happy to leave the mystery of Transfiguration behind.
Our tendency is to want to figure it out and to know what it means and there is a place for that, but that’s not the only way to approach a passage of scripture, especially one like this. This is a good example of a story that we are perhaps not supposed to figure out as much as we are supposed to enter into it. Strangely enough, I think Martin Luther would agree with such an approach.
With this Reformation 500 year I’ve been reading more Luther than I have for a long time. Obviously at a Lutheran seminary you learn about Luther and read some of his writings. But Luther wrote a lot, often upset and angry about one thing or another so you do have to read him with filters sometimes. But recently I’ve read things that I had never read before as Augsburg has come out with some nice compilations of Luther’s writings.
One of the things that has surprised me, is some of what Luther said about how to read the Bible. I have always thought of him as an academic, left brain person, someone who would take a scholarly approach to the Bible, someone who would want to figure it out and encourage others to do the same. He does do all that…sometimes; but he also says there are times to set aside reason and understanding and instead to just to take a passage of scripture and read it and re-read it and reflect on it, not trying to figure it out but just trying to hear what the Spirit is saying to you about the passage.
He adds, “Take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.”
The Transfiguration story is a good example of this. It’s not a story about answers and certainty; it’s not about thinking you have complete understanding thus becoming Luther’s untimely, half ripe fruit. Instead it can be seen as Matthew’s invitation to us to see Jesus as more, as more than a man. He provides a glimpse of the divine glory that the disciples experienced and invites us to encounter Jesus as they did. We do that as we read and imagine the story, as we enter the cloud on the mountain which is not a cloud of certainty, but a cloud of unknowing and mystery. But as we poke around inside the cloud of this miraculous and mysterious event, maybe our eyes are opened and, at least for a moment, we are able to see Jesus the way that Peter, James and John saw him…or maybe not.
Theologically, the Transfiguration does represent an important moment. It does convey important divine truth about Jesus. But, the truth of it is, most of us haven’t had that kind of mountaintop experience where that divine glory is personally revealed to us. It’s more likely that we’re down at the bottom of the mountain with the nine disciples not included in this vision. My question though is, are the other nine somehow less than Peter, James and John as disciples because they hadn’t had that experience? Were Peter, James and John disciples before they had a vision of Jesus’ divine glory or only after that?
My answer is that they were already disciples just as those at the bottom of the mountain were also disciples. Having seen Jesus’ divine glory moves Peter, James and John to a different place than the others on their journey of faith as disciples of Jesus; but they all share in his gospel mission. And…we, along with them, share in the command from the voice in the cloud to “listen to him.”
Not all of us have been to the mountaintop, but we live by faith. We trust in the witness of others, believing the truth that out of love for us, God has become human in Jesus. In Jesus, reality is redefined making forgiveness and new life through him a reality because forgiveness and new life is what God wants for the world. The brokenness of the world in all its forms no longer has the last word but instead, promise and hope, reconciliation and forgiveness are what is really real, and the powers of this world cannot and will not overcome that reality.
On the mountain of Transfiguration, the three disciples got a glimpse of the fullness of Jesus’ identity. As we enter into their story, we too, perhaps…get a glimpse, enough anyway that in faith, as we leave the cloud and come down from the mountain, we continue our journey. We obey the command to listen to Jesus and we know that in him there is strength for the journey and that always, always in him there is hope, because in him, God is revealed.
Rev. Warren Geier