Beyond belief

Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36

Marian Free

 In the name of God, whom we experience in the transcendent and in the everyday, the unbelievable and the believeable. Amen.

Captain Cook’s journey to Australia was not simply an expedition to discover and to claim new lands. It was also a very serious scientific enquiry. Cook himself was a navigator and a cartographer who had an interest in astronomy. During his first voyage among other things he recorded the transit of Venus. Nor was he alone in his scientific exploration. Other scientists joined him on his voyages including naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander and father and son scientist Johann and Georg Forster. The biologists recorded and preserved the new and interesting specimens of flora and fauna that they encountered on their travels. Some of these, including kangaroos and koalas were creatures that were previously completely unknown.

The most unusual animal to be discovered was the platypus. British scientists thought that the skin that was taken back to England was an elaborate joke. At first it was believed that someone (as a joke) had sewn a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail and four webbed feet onto a rabbit’s body. It was apparently not until a third specimen arrived in England 1800 that Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist on the voyage was able to declare that: “Suspicions about the existence of the platypus are now completely dissipated.” It is not just the appearance of the platypus that makes it unbelievable. The platypus is one of only two mammals in the world that lays eggs and even though they suckle their young, they have no nipples. No wonder the British scientists found it difficult to believe that they were not being duped.

It is not quite the same, but biblical scholars, especially those who are interested in uncovering the historical Jesus, try to ascertain whether some of the unbelievable things described in the Gospels really happened, or whether they are creations of the early church who, in trying to give flesh to their faith, embellished the “facts” or retold the story in such a way as to give it a particular emphasis. Such is the case with the account of the Transfiguration that records Jesus’ dazzling appearance and a conversation between Jesus and two people (Moses and Elijah) who at that time were long since dead.

According to Fitzmyer[1] there have been numerous attempts to come to grips with this extraordinary account. A number of scholars believe it to be an historical event, that after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he, James and John receive a physical affirmation of the fact. The problem is that this does not explain Peter’s later denial and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. Another explanation is that the Transfiguration is a vision that Peter, or all three experienced. Yet another explanation is that it describes a post-resurrection experience that was written back into the life of Jesus. This however does not explain what Moses and Elijah are doing and why Jesus’ glory is noted here and not in the resurrection accounts. Nor does it explain the differences between this story and the records of the resurrection. Lastly, there are some who believe that it is a description of Jesus at his coming again. No explanation is truly satisfactory.

The reality is that we will not (this side of eternity) be able to know with absolute certainty what lies behind this amazing story. We can however try to see what part it plays in the overall gospel account. In Luke’s gospel the Transfiguration acts as a kind of fulcrum between the Galilean ministry and the cross, it maintains the tension between Jesus’ suffering and his glory, between present realities and future vindication.

If we look at the account in context we will note that immediately prior to the scene on the mountain, Jesus has asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond – Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the prophets.” Finally, Peter proclaims: “You are the anointed one of God.” Then, as if to temper this outburst of enthusiasm, Jesus responds by predicting his death and resurrection and urging the disciples to: “take up your cross daily and follow me”. It is consistent with Luke’s telling of the story that Jesus makes clear that there are no short cuts to glory. Jesus’ victory will not come easily and now the disciples know that their reality will be the same as his. Vindication will be hard won, those things that are worth having are worth struggling for.

As if to reassure the disciples that it will all be worth it, Jesus then takes his inner circle with him up a mountain. There, they not only see Jesus completely transformed, but they also hear God’s voice affirming what Peter has earlier declared: that Jesus is the chosen one of God. The experience serves to assure the disciples that Jesus is the person whom they think he is and this despite what is to come – Jesus’ rejection, arrest, trial, crucifixion.

Faith in Jesus is not able to protect us from hardship, trouble, grief or pain – just the opposite, Jesus tells us that we will follow him to the cross. At the same time, Jesus gives us mountain-top experiences, moments of revelation and exhilaration that assure us that our faith is not misplaced, that Jesus is who we think he is and that just as he has come into this glory, so too will we finally be transformed from glory into glory.

[1] Fitzmyer, Joseph. A. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. New York: Double Day and Company, 1979, 795-6.

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