by James Kenneth Echols
Perhaps you share this bad habit with me. From time to time, as I am browsing in an Augsburg Fortress or Borders, I will encounter a book that catches my attention and peaks my interest so much that I buy it on the spur of the moment. Now buying a book on the spur of a moment is not the bad habit to which I am referring. But after buying it, fully intending to read it at the earliest possible opportunity, I will temporarily place it on a stack of other books that I purchased in a similar way, intending also to read them at the earliest possible opportunity. Perhaps you share this bad habit with me, that of tending to purchase books and then never getting around to reading them.
Such was not the case several years ago when I bought and then immediately read a very provocative book by former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. In that book, Spong takes to task many of the assertions of the Christian faith that defy the modern mind, seeking to reinterpret their significance and substance in ways that he thought would make the faith more intelligible and believable in this age. As the jacket of the book stated, " Bishop Spong proposes a Christianity based on a whole new way of thinking, premised upon justice and love rather than judgment and literal-minded readings of the Bible." And although he does not specifically address the Transfiguration story in his book, this story led me back to his book.
So what really happened? A literal reading of the text seems fairly straight forward and unambiguous. Six days later, that is six days after Peter's great confession in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain, leaving the other disciples behind. And it was there that the three had a vision of Jesus being transfigured, his face shining, his clothes dazzling. Then appeared Moses, the great lawgiver and Elijah, the great prophet, standing next to him and conversing with him. What a close encounter of a very different kind!
Visions, you know, are the romantic stuff of religious experience. One of my favorite religious movies growing up was The Song of Bernadette. The movie starred Jennifer Jones as Bernadette, a real 19th century French woman who lived in the town of Lourdes. One day, while gathering firewood with her sister, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto and the rest of the film unfolds the reaction to her and to her discovery of an underground spring that had healing powers. Her life was changed forever by her vision, and I suspect the same was true for Peter, James, and John. They would never be the same again.
But what really happened? Of this Transfiguration story, commentator Douglas Hare writes the following:
Whether we reject the story as the product of pious imagination or, by the willing suspension of disbelief, accept all its details as historical, the fact remains that the story points to a mystery, a mystery beyond historical reconstruction or scientific verification.
We have become accustomed to identifying the mystery of faith with that which is surely central to the Christian faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, words that we proclaim during celebrations of the Eucharist. Yet, the mystery of faith extends to the entire faith itself, to the truth that no one can scientifically prove the existence of God, that no one can rationally verify why some have been drawn to the Christ and others not, that no one can finally adjudicate the historicity of the Transfiguration. We know that such occurrences are not commonplace, but wonder how many here have had experiences that they regard as visions. The Transfiguration story invites us to reflect on the mystery of faith and to see the Matthean church's theology and proclamation in the midst of this vision.
Simultaneously, this Transfiguration story invites us to consider the calling of faith. Beyond the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus and Peter's desire to build three dwellings, their vision continued when a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice declared to them, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."
In Matthew's Gospel, this voice, God's voice initially spoke these words, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," at Jesus baptism. But here now, after Jesus has delivered the sermon on the mount, instructed the Twelve on their mission, taught them in parables, and revealed to them the way of the cross that he must travel, God's voice added these three final words: listen to him.
Over the years, when I have preached on this text, this is where I have started and finished, perhaps because I really didn't know what to do with the first part of the text. Yet, the vision caught the disciples' attention and ultimately focused their attention on the calling of faith which is to listen to the voice of the One who on Easter morn was transfigured from death to life.
Sisters and brothers, as we begin this new semester, be reminded anew that we have been claimed by God's gracious love, baptized into the mystery of faith, and gathered in this place to give witness to the truth we have mysteriously come to know by studying and teaching and serving in order to prepare women and men for ministry. As we do so, in the midst of competing political and social and cultural voices, I hear the One who was transfigured on a mountain before dying on a mountain saying: love one another, forgive another, pray for one another, serve one another, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and seek justice and peace in the world.
This text is about the mystery of faith and the calling of faith. This semester, may God help each of us more deeply appreciate the mystery that faith is and pursue the calling of faith that is listening in order to act.