Transfiguration

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-43

Moses, more than any other figure in the Hebrew Bible, was familiar with God. Others had their encounters with God, received a divine word or had visions, but only Moses made a habit of it. The tradition is that after his great meeting with God on Sinai, when God delivered the law of the covenant, Moses was so transfigured that his face shone in an uncanny way, and that this happened at his many subsequent meetings with God. He took to wearing a veil when he was with ordinary people because they were frightened of his transfigured radiance.

Paul’s interpretation of this in his second letter to the Corinthians, that we read, is extraordinarily problematic. His point there is that God’s Mosaic covenant with Israel is only temporary, and is replaced by the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Moses wears the veil, according to Paul, not to cover his own radiance, but to keep the Israelites from seeing the end of their own special covenant. Then Paul switches the metaphor to say that the veil covers the minds of the Jews even in his day so that, with hardened hearts, they do not understand Moses. With Jesus Christ, however, the veil is taken away and God’s glory can be seen as in a mirror. The Holy Spirit is God taking away the veil so that people step by step can be transformed or transfigured into the glory of the Lord.

This is one of those horrendous passages responsible for the canker of anti-Semitism that has infected Christianity, erupting in the horror of the Holocaust in the last century. Paul in this text says that the Mosaic covenant with the Jews is annulled by the new covenant in Jesus Christ, and that the Jews are blinded as by a veil, because of the hardness of their hearts, and do not see this. Christians very early concluded from this that the Jews were evil for not becoming Christians. The tradition that the Jews in their evil blindness killed Christ and should be punished for that has led to great wickedness. Martin Luther, for instance, bought this line of thinking, and so does Mel Gibson if you believe the previews of his Passion film to be released this week. Traces of this anti-Semitism are found in the Gospels, especially John, which were written after Paul’s time.

Paul was not consistent on this point, fortunately. In other writings, for instance the letter to the Romans, he does not say so plainly that Christianity supercedes Judaism—“supersessionism” is the name of the doctrine that Judaism is annulled with the advent of Christianity. Instead, Paul’s general Christology is something like this. In the Mosaic covenant God promised the people of Israel that they would be a nation of priests with access to God’s presence if they were clean and holy. The sacrifice rituals of the Mosaic covenant prescribed how to atone for sin and become clean, and worthy once again to approach God. In Christ, according to Paul, those promises were extended to the Gentiles. The sacrifice of Jesus did for all Gentiles what the Mosaic sacrifices did for the Israelites. The Jews had their law and Jesus extended to the Gentiles its power of making people worthy to approach God. Most Christian theologians now say that Christianity does not supercede Judaism but that both are equal, with Christianity serving the Gentiles. Biblical scholars have also made clear that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus, and for political reasons, not for reasons of religious conflict. I concur in both of these points.

In our 2 Corinthians text, however, Paul contrasts the law of the Mosaic covenant, which is ineffectual he says, with the transfiguring Spirit that comes from God with the new covenant. This is a very dangerous thing for Christians to believe about Jews and themselves, and we have to look into the matter of transfiguration and the veil more deeply.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke has parallels in Matthew and Mark, though not in John. According to all three, Jesus climbs a high mountain to pray with Peter, James, and John. The disciples are “weighed down with sleep,” so it probably is a night-time prayer vigil. But they don’t succumb to sleep. As if through a veil of sleepiness they see Jesus transfigured to shine like Moses, and joined by Moses himself and Elijah. This is clear, post-Pauline, evidence of the solidarity of Jesus and his Way with the recipient of Israel’s covenant, Moses, and its chief enforcer, Elijah. The disciples hear Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussing Jesus’ immanent death in Jerusalem, although they do not understand it any better this time than when Jesus had told them about it before. (The other gospel accounts do not mention the topic of the conversation.) Suddenly the disciples come fully awake and Peter feels—what shall I say–a Methodist need to do something, so he proposes building three small huts or shrine buildings for the transfigured trio. No one takes him up on that. As Moses and Elijah move off, a terrifying holy cloud settles over them, another kind of veil, and God’s voice comes out of the cloud to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” They stay on the mountain all night and go down the next day.

One obvious function of this story recounted in three of the gospels is to equate Jesus with Israel’s heroes, Moses and Elijah, as all having divine blessing. The title “Son of God” probably did not have the metaphysical meaning in Luke’s gospel that it did for Paul who believed that Jesus was literally a divine being from heaven. Luke’s genealogy for Jesus, for instance, traces him back to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” God’s power and work passes to the human beings he creates, and Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, was transfigured with extraordinary divine power. When Jesus and his disciples went back down the mountain next morning, Jesus boldly cured an epileptic victim that his disciples had not been able to help. He explained their failure as lack of faith, but it was a particular kind of faith that had unusual power: when Jesus healed, he felt power going out of him.

Now we can return to Paul’s 2 Corinthians text, setting aside its anti-Semitism, and attend to its basic point, namely, that Christians act with great boldness because they are being transformed, or transfigured, by the Holy Spirit. Listen to Paul’s triumphant words: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Though not with the suddenness and completeness of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, we are proceeding, degree by degree, to be transfigured into the image of God’s glory that we see in the mirror. The image, of course, is Christ Jesus.

Having worked our way through this briar-patch of biblical texts, what does transfiguration mean for us? I suspect it does not mean an unusually shiny face. When my mother had a shiny face, she dashed off to powder her nose. The shine on Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was the way the people saw God’s power in them.

How do we embody God’s power in a transfigured way? One obvious way, according to our texts, is by helping people as Jesus helped the epileptic man. The point of that story, however, is not just the healing. Jesus was bold in healing where the disciples had been timid. How do we become bold in doing God’s work?

Paul said, we become bold by degrees through the working of the Holy Spirit. That’s a good thing, because most of us are far more timid even than Jesus’
unsuccessful disciples. Most of us wouldn’t dare to try to heal an epileptic. Of course, we now know a lot more about disease and do not put epilepsy or any other of the sicknesses that plague people down to possession by spirits. Without testing our boldness at all we can contribute to churches and hospitals, and to the United Way, to help cure the sick.

Many of the ills of our society, such as the blight of poverty, oppression of the weak, alienation of the marginalized, superstitious bigotry, the worship of greed, and the flattery of the powerful who bring death and destruction to weak nations that offend them, are conditions about which we can do something. In Jesus’ time it was not believed possible to change basic social structures and habits. Jesus took slavery and poverty to be permanent conditions and merely suggested mercy and charity as ways to ameliorate their worst effects. We now know that significant structural and habitual elements of society can be changed to bring about a more just state. Without testing our boldness we can simply vote the right way and be helpful.

Of great spiritual concern are the corrosive attitudes that corrupt even religion. When I was a small child, Jews were almost unknown in my part of town and were held in superstitious contempt. After World War II many Jews came into our community, and because we knew them, and because we had seen the murderous effects of anti-Semitism, we came to imagine them as like ourselves. When I went to high school, the schools in St. Louis were segregated because people could not imagine white and black people living and working together; Brown versus Board of Education changed all that my sophomore year and after many years we now can hardly imagine a racially exclusive school. When I was married it was unimaginable and illegal in many states for people of different races to marry, although four years later that was changed and now mixed-race couples are unexceptional. Now many people are all astir at the prospect of gay marriages because they cannot imagine them, having images only of heterosexual marriages. But with the thousands of gay weddings being performed in San Francisco these days, and the subsequent publicity, images of gay married couples are becoming commonplace. In time, not a long time, the current stir will seem foolish and the rules against gay marriage will seem as arbitrary and unfair as those against miscegenation and common schooling of the races. Without daring to test our boldness, we can wait for that to happen. It is possible to survive and do good as timid people.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to be a Christian for long and still be timid. Of course you are accepted in any condition of despair, depression, self-hate, or timidity. Just get on board the train when it slows by Sinner’s Grove. You can fall off as many times as you want, and always get back on whenever you want. But so long as you are on that Christian train, by degrees the Spirit will make you daring. Are you timid because you are sick of body or mind, and weak? The Spirit will bring you into a healing community in the company of those who will make you strong. Are you timid because you are poor, marginalized, oppressed, the victim of bigotry, a bigot yourself, greedy, power-mad? The Spirit will show you the riches of God’s creation in which every person is at the center, free, proud, and forgiven. Are you timid because you feel deprived of rights and dis-empowered? The Spirit will show you the power that is yours in Christ, that dwarfs all others and gives hope despite failure and frustration.

In the Christian community the Spirit shows us Jesus to make us bold in the face of disease, bold in the struggle against poverty, oppression, alienation, superstition, bigotry, greed, and power-madness, bold in the face of attitudes that corrode our religion and culture. Though often complicated, we usually can discern moral direction, and can become bolder. When our efforts are defeated, the Spirit shows us Jesus on the cross and we get bolder. When defeats threaten our lives and loves, the Spirit shows us Jesus rising in triumph and our boldness becomes holy. When we are shocked at the loneliness of life, the Spirit shows us Jesus with the Church and we are surrounded by witnesses. When we despair at the state of our souls, the Spirit shows us ourselves embraced by Jesus and we are transfigured to be bold to act decisively, bold to speak truthfully, bold to think freely, bold to sing heartily, bold to forgive, bold in mercy, bold in confession, bold in praise, bold in joy, bold in peace, bold in kindness, bold in faith, bold in hope, bold in love, and bold to pray: Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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