Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-19)

At first glance, the Transfiguration of the Lord, in which Peter, James and John get a sort of "preview" of the glorified form of Jesus, is a pretty...different event. But if you think that, let me give you another idea that might make it seem even more different. A pastor friend of mine asked a question about this on his Facebook feed and it make me start to think as well.

Consider eternity. We tend to think of eternity as time that goes on and on and on without end. Other than the fact that it doesn't ever stop, we usually look at "eternity" in a way that's not really different from the way things are now. But while that may be right, there's another way to understand eternity that's probably closer to the truth. Eternity is an absence of time. In eternity, there is no time.

See how weird an idea that is? We know what time is -- time is what keeps everything from happening at once. Our brains and minds have lived in time all our lives, which means it's just about impossible for us to think about what existence would be like without time at all. But C. S. Lewis, among others, points out that there's no need for time in eternity and it may not exist. So from our point of view, in eternity, everything really does happen at once!

What does that have to do with the Transfiguration? Well, Moses and Elijah are figures from Israel's history that would have been very old even for the disciples. Moses lived perhaps 1,500 years earlier and Elijah some 700 after that. But what they share is that no one saw their deaths. Moses died after leaving the Israelites at the Jordan River, and Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the Lord was actually the one who buried him. Elijah the prophet was caught up to heaven in a fiery chariot and, as far as scripture tells us, never died.

We're accustomed to thinking that both men had been in heaven or in the life to come since their passing and returned to speak with Jesus at the time of the Transfiguration. But what if they hadn't? What if both events really occurred in eternity, outside of time, and what the disciples saw was the first steps both Moses and Elijah took into eternity in Jesus' presence? After all, Paul tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so both men would be with Jesus as soon as they left this world if that's right.

In our world, those events happened 700 years apart and they happened hundreds of years before the Transfiguration. But if there is no time in eternity, then there is nothing to separate them, either from each other or from the night the disciples witness them.

Now, on one hand it really makes little difference just exactly which mind-bending reality is represented by the Transfiguration -- heavenly residents visiting the physical world or eternity impinging on our world of time. Explain either one to the disciples and the only difference between the "Huh?" they said before you started and the one afterwards is that they only thought they were confused when you started.

But on the other hand this new idea for which I thank my friend -- or blame him, depending on how much my head hurts -- can tell us a couple of things we might not have thought of otherwise.

One of them is the incredible "otherness" of God and what God does. Reminders of that prompt us to also remember that our labels, words, expressions and descriptions of what God does have their limits, and we hit those limits well before we come anywhere close to complete understanding or complete description. We can't control what God does and we surely can't control God. I need to be reminded of that more often than I like, but fortunately those reminders come fast and frequently.

Another is that in Jesus, eternity really does rub up against time. This can help us recall God has created us so that our actions have a dimension, if you like, that exists in eternity, and so do we. Even though time separates us from our ancestors in the faith, in eternity we are united as one body in Christ. Take communion, for example. Our churches may practice it weekly or monthly, or once a quarter or every time there's a fifth Sunday in a month. But if what we pray for and what Jesus told us about communion is true, it exists in eternity as well as in time, and we share at table with every Christian who ever lived or ever will live. We share at table with the disciples that night in the upper room.

We share with the Lord himself. And we will one day share with him in his presence just as Moses and Elijah did on the mountain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Matt 16: 28
"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
The transfiguration was a fulfillment of this verse, Moses representing the resurrected saints at Christ's second coming in power & great glory, Elijah representing the living righteous, who are translated without seeing death. See 1 Thess 4: 16,17.
Moses was raised from the dead at some point after he died, see Jude 19, where Michael, "who is like God", the pre-incarnate Christ, "the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people", brought him forth out of the devil's prison house of death.