Monday, March 07, 2011

Transfiguration Vamp (2 Peter 1:16-21)

Yes, the title references the late 80s/early 90s pop-punkers Transvision Vamp. And no, to my knowledge they released no especially spiritual music or had a particularly religious viewpoint. I'm just stuck in my 1980s groove, I guess.

From our 2,000-years-later vantage point, we tend to think of the entire New Testament being written at about the same time. Mostly because even a 20-year gap is only about one percent of that span, so it might as well be at the same time as far as we're concerned now.

But that 20-year gap can make a lot of difference when you're living in it. We were all different 20 years ago, even though whoever's around in 4011 won't think much more about that gap than we do about the NT authors. If, for example, the apostle Peter wrote the letters attributed to him, he wrote this passage about the Transfiguration at least 20 years after he experienced it. Since those 20 years included his denial of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Pentecost and the spread of Christianity through much of the area surrounding Judea, I'm betting he had some new lenses to interpret what he and the others saw on that mountaintop that day.

In fact, he says so in those last couple of verses. No scripture, he says, is simply a matter of human interpretation because no scripture is a strictly human creation. The Holy Spirit is involved at both ends. His experience of seeing Moses and Elijah flank his teacher Jesus is more or less inexplicable without the interpretive aid of the Holy Spirit. After all, what did he say when he saw the three? "Lord, it is good we are here. Let us build three tents to mark this." Peter's culture featured the building of small tents or booths at the sites of important events as ways to mark their significance. More permanent markers might follow.

Of course, this event is significant for Peter and the other disciples. Moses and Elijah were not simply historical figures. They personified essential elements of Hebrew religion and culture. Moses was not only the leader who brought Israel out of slavery through God's might, but he also represented the covenant God made with the people. God spoke through Moses to give the Torah, or teaching, that more or less created the Israelites as a nation and chosen people. Elijah, as a prophet or spokesman of God, represented how God continued to honor that covenant by trying to lead the people back to following God's path. The prophets didn't just predict doom, they pointed out where the people had strayed and how they needed to return. A Jewish man like Peter would have seen them as signs of God's creation of his people and of God's continued faithfulness to his people.

Seeing these two men flank his teacher would indicate that Jesus spoke in the tradition of the Torah and the prophets -- definitely very important. But then something more happens! Even while something obscures their sight, they hear a voice saying of Jesus that he is God's Son and God is well-pleased with him.

This! Is! Important!

Peter's response: Let's mark this spot! That's normal and human, and often the right thing to do. We mark spots where we want to be sure to remember what happened, like 5th and Robinson in Oklahoma City or downtown Manhattan or Normandy or the Argonnes Forest. We must remember what happened at these places and we will erect memorials to ensure that happens.

But that same tendency can also tend to anchor the event we want to remember to the place it happened, and sometimes we want the exact opposite. Some events transcend -- or transfigure, if you like -- their location in space and time. Universally significant, they can't just stay in their one spot or their one moment.

Peter, reflecting on the Transfiguration many years later, sees its significance as confirming Jesus' message in terms of God's covenant. He didn't see the full impact of that significance until later, maybe Pentecost, but he knows now it was much more important than just a vision of his leader and two great icons of his people's history. Unpacking that full meaning is a matter for another sermon. What we would focus on here is how Christians want to try to understand every event -- ordinary or extraordinary -- with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We do so because the Holy Spirit gives us an understanding we probably wouldn't reach on our own. On Communion Sundays, for example, the people at my church take a plain old loaf of bread, bought maybe at a Wal-Mart, with a cup of plain old grape juice from the same place, and hear me say the same plain old English words I've said before. Perfectly ordinary in every respect.

But we seek the presence of the Holy Spirit among us when we do this, so that our bread and juice and words become something more -- a real "union with" our Savior and with Christians across the world who do the same thing we do.

If I'm honest about my own spiritual journey, I don't pray for that Holy Sprit's presence with me in every event or at every moment of my life.

My loss.

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