If you’re experiencing a little déja vu this morning, it’s probably because you were at church on February 26, the last Sunday before Lent, which is our annual reading of the Transfiguration Gospel. We get the story twice this year because, in their wisdom, the compilers of our Prayer Book decreed that the traditional feast of Transfiguration on August 6 is so important that when it falls on a Sunday, it trumps the ordinary Sunday readings. So here we are again, back on the holy mountain, struggling with Peter, James, and John to keep our eyes open as Jesus is revealed to be the chosen one of God, the one we should listen to.
It’s a day for striking Scriptural images: the mountain, the dazzling white of Jesus’ clothes, the prophetic apparitions, the cloud and divine voice, echoing the experience of Moses likewise on a holy mountain, also shining after his encounter with the divine. It’s pretty clear why the Transfiguration Gospel is routinely paired with this story of Moses, and with the second letter of Peter with its memoir of the terrifying experience. But, like everything we read in Scripture, these accounts come to us mediated by the church’s tradition, by our human experience, and by the thousands of years that have passed since they were collected and written down, with the result that every time we read these stories there is the potential for new insight and new connections. For many of us, the image of the blinding flash of light is overlaid by our knowledge of the blinding flash that catastrophically struck Hiroshima on this day 72 years ago. The anniversary reminds us horrifically that light can be lethal in the wrong hands. Who would have made that connection before 1945?
We see this dynamic in Scripture itself. The writer of the letter of Peter (who probably wasn’t St. Peter himself but an early bishop who wanted to claim the authority of Peter) interpreted the institutional memory of the transfiguration through a lens of prophetic authority, in a time when Christians were starting to doubt that Jesus would return in judgment, and they were starting to fall away from the teachings of Scripture. The church needed to reclaim the voice of the prophets.
The poet Miklos Radnóti, a victim of the Holocaust, writes this of prophecy:
But what happens if we don’t learn
From the voices of the past?
Of what use to the world
Is a poet
Or a prophet
Whose words go unheeded?
Peter claims that the transfiguration confirms the prophetic word, because it places Jesus in the immediate company of the two greatest Jewish prophets and carries God’s explicit stamp of approval. When we read the Transfiguration story in Luke’s Gospel, we read it in the context of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as “a prophet mighty in word and deed”. And Moses, the archetypal prophet, was the leader of the Exodus, the liberation of God’s people, the foundational experience of Israel. Luke uses this same word, Exodus, translated in our text as Departure, to describe Jesus’ journey to the Cross. And Peter also uses Exodus to refer to his own departure, as he evidently expects to die soon.
If we follow Peter’s advice, to be attentive to the prophetic word as to a lamp shining in a dark place, we find the spotlight shining on this idea of Exodus. And we are moved to ponder Exodus as a community, guided by the Holy Spirit. One of the reasons we gather for worship every week is to reflect on scripture in community. No individual has a definitive interpretation, and, regardless of the people who cherry-pick a favorite verse to prove one thing or another, no single passage of Scripture conveys the whole meaning of God’s word for us.
Every Sunday we hear four passages of Scripture, taken from different sections of the Bible, written in different centuries and from different points of view. Sometimes the theology of one passage complements another. Sometimes they clash. And sometimes the place where a community finds itself as it reads sheds new light and opens up whole new meanings for a familiar story. When the enslaved Africans on this continent started to study Scripture, they found new life and hope in their identification with the Israelites held captive in Egypt. Feminist theologians have brought to light the importance of leaders like Lydia and Mary Magdalene in the early church. Scholars of queer theology have lifted up the loving covenant between David and Jonathan as an icon for same-sex relationships.
But, as Peter stresses, this interpretation doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens when men and women, plural, are moved by the Holy Spirit to shine the light of prophecy on the darkness of the world.
When Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt into the wilderness, it didn’t take long before those same people started to grumble and rebel. A few weeks ago the Rev Troy Perry preached here, memorably speaking about the “back to Egypt committee”. Even though the Exodus was leading them to freedom, there was a vocal minority in favor of returning to slavery, of abandoning the new thing God was leading them to and retreating to the comfort and predictability of their old life, even though that old life was leading directly to their extinction. Remember, the midwives were instructed to kill all the newborn Israelite boys.
Whenever we set off in a new direction, through uncharted territory, it is easy to forget the deadly elements of the old ways and remember only the good times. That’s one reason why we do discernment in community, listening to many perspectives, so that we don’t become paralysed by a single voice taking Scripture out of context.
It’s never easy to lead a community through an exodus, whatever shape Egypt might have taken: a patriarchal, racist society in which women are treated as chattel; the dying remnants of an era of establishment religion and guilt-driven church attendance; an alcoholic family system where toxic secrets were the order of the day and everyone’s lives revolved around the most dysfunctional family member … Egypt shows up in all kinds of contexts.
As we struggle today to chart a new course for the church in this new, post-Christendom, post-denominational wilderness journey, it’s tempting to look back and remember the full classrooms and surplus budgets of the past, forgetting the exclusion of women from the altar, the pulpit condemnation of LGBT people, the sloppy stewardship of resources that was part of the church’s fabric for generations. We are in the midst of a new Exodus, one that will, by God’s grace, free us from worn-out assumptions, toxic habits, deadly prejudices. The prophetic word continues to lead us forward even as we look back over our shoulders at the comfortable prisons of the past.
The word of prophecy may come from an unexpected source. It may be the child who asks an existential question or the person pushing an overloaded cart who shouts out a random Bible verse. It may be the phrase of poetry that leaps off the page or the hard truth blurted out in the midst of an impassioned debate. We need to listen with the ears of faith, with hearts open to the new word that God may bring us.
When Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured in glory on the holy mountain, their eyes were opened to the unique nature of their leader. And that’s why the Transfiguration story still has a powerful message for us, reminding us vividly that Jesus isn’t just a teacher, a good example, or a revolutionary. He is the one chosen by God, the one we must listen to. His sacrifice is the culminating point in the story of God’s people, and he is the prophet, and more than a prophet, who transcends history and who leads us in exodus from bondage to freedom, offering transformation and even transfiguration to those who love him and serve him through serving the world.
The God who brought the chosen people out of Egypt with a strong and outstretched arm brings us out of sin and alienation with the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, as he completes his exodus and enters into glory. As we join Peter, James, and John in joyful witness to the transfiguration, continuing in community to ponder the prophetic word and pressing forward towards a future of renewal and reconciliation, we will find the grace, as our Collect says, to be delivered from the disquietude of this world and gifted by faith to behold God’s true glory.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
Transfiguration: August 6, 2017