Texts: Exodus 4:27 – 5:5
Context, as usual, is really important to understanding this odd and mysterious, but somewhat wonderful story that we tell every year on this final Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
The primary source for the transfiguration of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark (9:2-8). In Mark, Jesus makes his first passion statement in 8:31, followed by a call to take up one’s cross and then the story of the transfiguration. The Lukan context is similar. Luke also moves from a first passion statement to sayings about taking up one’s cross (9:21-27). Different from Mark, Luke introduces the transfiguration by beginning the story with the phrase “after these sayings.” Luke clues us in: this is a story not about an event, but a meaning. He is being explicitly theological.
Another clue to the theological way Luke wants us to read this story is found in the way Luke changes “six days” in Mark to “eight days.” This identifies transfiguration even more strongly with resurrection. The “eighth day” was known as the Day of the New Creation in the early church. We’re talking about resurrection here. We’re talking about an awakening, or a rebirth, to use the language of the Gospels.
But an awakening to what? A rebirth for what purpose?
I have suggested that resurrection is not about some event of supernatural proportions. So with the transfiguration. Here we are called to an awakening of explicitly moral dimensions. The question at stake here is about how religion shall guide us. Will it guide us in paths of grace and truth and righteousness, or will those very words bog us down so that we cannot see beyond the face of Jesus to the world he would have us serve?
Jesus leads Peter, James and John up the mountain where he prays. This is a familiar theme of Luke’s. Jesus is often praying in Luke’s gospel. Indeed, Jesus is said to be praying twice in this short passage, and it was while he was praying that his appearance was changed. Again, Luke changes the words of his source in order to make a subtle point, but one in line with his theological outlook. Mark uses a word which in Greek signifies a change of being, while Luke uses a word that signifies a different look altogether.
One of the curious moments in our story has Peter and his companions weighed down with sleep. They have not fallen asleep, like in the later story in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the allusion is there. In that story, recall, Jesus is literally praying for his life, and the disciples are sleeping. But in this story they manage to stay awake — but barely. The Lukan perspective on these things of utmost importance, is that human nature will avoid it.
To make it even plainer, Luke has the disciples suddenly snap out of it. And when they do, the sleepy vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, hardly commented upon, is seen with full force — and for a moment they manage to see beyond their faces and beyond the face of Jesus — to the glory of God.
The experience doesn’t last long. Glory overwhelms them. And in their natural state again, the disciples go on to do what disciples do in the gospels. They open their mouths and they put their feet in. Jesus chastises them for their desire to build an altar in the spot; chastises them for wanting to enshrine their experience of “seeing” in a monument and forbids them from calling the radio station for the same reason: this is a religious experience; it is a moment of seeing — but not of fixating; it is a moment of clarity about what it means to be human, and not a moment to turn that vision into an institution.
In fact, the Christian faith is not a religion and never was. In fact, the Christian faith is about the end of religion. It is about putting an end to the idea that this clarity must be limited to certain people in certain times and in certain places. God is love, means precisely what that alone can mean — that that love is not limited to the things which we, in our lack of clarity, would limit it to.
And here we come to what must be one of Jesus’ main concerns. Religion, as it is located in the temple is sick. It’s time has come.
The temple was not only economically and politically corrupt, worse, it used that economic and political power to exercise control over people’s sense of religious propriety. For example, in order to have your sins forgiven you had to be paid up on your temple tax, and on occasion, at least, be able to afford a goat to sacrifice. I despise your sacrifices, recalls Jesus. I desire justice. For Jesus, the issue could be boiled down to the fundamental point that a true religion must be private — the truth of a religious claim must be understood to be true, by your own insight, and not by money, or position, or doctrine. Jesus wanted people to think for themselves on these matters. “Why don’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12: 57)
The point is this: justice will be mocked, unless its demands are ones that are met by one’s own insight into the morality of the situation. Justice will be mocked when we pretend it can be accomplished once and for all by passing a law, or putting the right people in seats of government or on the benches of justice.
Does all of this mean that Jesus would be concerned by the institution of the church? Undoubtedly concern is the right word. The impulse to fall asleep, to lose clarity, to want to set up monuments and shut off the often difficult or uncomfortable task of really being religious, is not something isolated to the disicples. Luke paints it as part of human nature.
Nevertheless, the critique is not with the institution, but with the institution’s clouding of the central issue. When love becomes tied up with the political and economic forces that would use love to control positions and citadels of power, then love no longer functions as love — it is distorted into some thing else entirely.
It strikes me as one of the sad legacies of the church, since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the early 4th century, that it’s close alignment with officialdom has painted love in monochrome. If love were a desireless, pure act of mystical union with all of the rest of humanity — if love were, as the church tried to make it, a kind of long-fused brotherly love, in which issues of the self were to be disregarded as impure then the institutionalization of the very thing Jesus sought to dismantle, would be seen instead as one’s proper duty to which one should submit.
But I’m not sure that Jesus in his anti-religious position, wouldn’t be eager to embrace a fuller idea of love, an idea we celebrate on Valentine’s day, and for that monument to eros, remove it from the serious consideration of the church. The love depicted in the cupid, the Greeks called eros. And by it they meant a kind of love which was physical and so not pure, it was involved in the movement of one to the other, it was involved in sharing. On of the finest descriptions of eros, as it relates to something fuller and more important than the eros of cupid comes from the feminist Audre Lorde. She said about love that it:
functions in several ways, and the first is in providing the power that comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers that can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. (Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Plaskow and Christ eds., Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality.)
It strikes me that this is the vision of Jesus as he went about, not only talking, but trying in all sorts of ways to “Let my People Go,” to create community by sharing hope and joy and to lessen the threat of difference. The erotic allows us, even the oppressed among us, to give and to receive from each other. It allows for values and dreams to be communally shared. It allows us to see that even though it is one’s personal responsibility to determine for one’s own self the truth of a moral statement or the justice of a political position, justice and truth are not mere personal preferences, they are only seen within a community of seekers and sharers of joy.
I think that our experiences of God, continue to be, in our best moments, of a vision that goes beyond the face of Jesus and is linked instead to our response to the suffering of the world. That linkage makes us vulnerable too, and that vulnerability becomes the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between us. This is the painful and difficult reach of real religion, “The more open we are to God, and to the different dimensions of God’s glory, the more we seem to be open to the pain of the world.” (N.T. Wright)
We are right to be wary when we return from some great worship service, when we rise from a time of prayer in which God has seemed close and God’s love real and powerful. Our story today has tried to say that these things are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, we can see the demands of justice and the reach of truth.
I am reminded of an exquisite prayer by Walter Brueggemann, the great biblical scholar who has spent his life helping us to connect with the God of the Bible. His prayer could be for this very occasion, a prayer to Jesus, up on the mountaintop, but headed down to the people below, who yearn for wholeness: “You, majestic sovereign…move off the page! Move off the page to the world, move off the page to the trouble, move out of your paged leisure to the turmoil of your creatures. Move to the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses, and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children. Listen to the groans and moans, and see and hear and know and remember, and come down!” (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
Let us also, move off the page; let us look beyond the face and see outside the religious box and serve one another in eros.