This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 9.28-36.
Firstly, a quick apology for the hiatus that there has been in posting these reflections. A house move, new job and some personal crises have meant that something had to give. As it stands at the new version of Undersea Towers, where Seventy Three Twenty Three is written, the vast majority of my biblical commentaries are still in boxes but you’ve got to, at some point, just get on with things.
It is in that spirit that I return to writing and as always, I hope that you, the reader, find my reflections helpful.
This is Luke’s account of the transfiguration, an event that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus takes his inner-inner core of trusted companions – Peter, James and John – up a mountain and some stuff happens. It’s pretty weird stuff too, the sort of stuff you don’t forget in a hurry. His appearance changes (Matthew tells us that this was that his face shone like the sun), his clothes shine like lightning and two men, identified as Moses and Elijah, appear in similar splendour. Jesus, Moses and Elijah then talk about his exodus, soon to be achieved. It is perhaps no wonder that Peter blurts out the bizarre suggestion that they build shelters. With what? More importantly, why? Luke is kind enough to say that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. We may respond, “no kidding.” Then to cap it all off, there’s a cloud that envelops them and voice from the cloud.
All very interesting but what might it mean?
Well, the standard way interpreting this is to say that in the transfiguration, these most trusted companions of Jesus were permitted to see a glimpse of his divinity, to have some sense of who this man was that they were following on his ministry around the land that generations before their God had promised to their ancestors. The trouble with that reading is that it ignores one key aspect of the text. Jesus isn’t the only one who is revealed in some glorious manner, Moses and Elijah also are and, greatly honoured though they were and are, nobody would ever have suggested that they were divine.
So, if not about divinity, what then? I would like to suggest that there are two key themes to the transfiguration and they both have to do with the cross.
Prior to Matthew’s account of these events (Matt 13.43, quoting Daniel 12.3), Jesus has said that in the Kingdom of the Father, those who have been declared in the right (all those who have been declared in the right) will shine like the sun. Note that Matthew specifically uses the same phrase to describe the transfigured Jesus as he records Jesus saying about those in the Kingdom. What Jesus’ shining out on the mountain shows is not his divinity but perhaps a foretaste of what the renewed humanity will be, a preview of Jesus as the first fruits (1 Cor 15.20). How is this renewed humanity to come about? In Biblical interpretation, context is all important. Luke, along with both Matthew and Mark places this event within the same sequence, it goes like this:
A Jesus predicts his death (Luke 9.21-22)
B Jesus instructs his disciples in walking the way of the cross (Luke 9.23-27)
C The transfiguration
B1 Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.37-43)
A1 Jesus again predicts his death (Luke 9.43-45)
The context of the transfiguration is the life and way of the cross, it is the only means by which the renewed humanity can be achieved. Luke and the other Synoptic evangelists are telling us, I contend, that the means by which we will all be transfigured is by the same self-sacrifice of Jesus, which includes doing the works of the Kingdom. The works of healing, of liberating people made in the image of God from the things that oppress them is an inescapable part of daily taking up the cross and following Jesus.
Before turning to the second theme I think is expressed in the transfiguration, I must refer to Tom Wright’s observation (Matthew for Everyone Part 2, p. 14) that the setting of the transfiguration is a deliberate parallel to that of the crucifixion:
Here, on a mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land.
The route to the glory is shame. The route to resurrection is death. This is not to make death a friend, it is not to celebrate death. Rather, it is to see it with its power stripped away as were Jesus’ clothes when we approached death. It is to see that in the moment that Jesus seemed to have been defeated by death, it was in fact death itself that had been defeated, conquered and done away with. It is to see the truth of Jesus’ statement in verse 24, just prior to the transfiguration that those who lose their life for Jesus will save it.
It is in Moses and Elijah that we see what I think is the second theme linking the transfiguration and crucifixion. They are described as talking with Jesus about his exodus which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (note again, that this reference to something he is about to accomplish is placed in the context of him predicting his death). Modern English translations let us down here. Both NIV and NRSV render exodon as departure. But the allusion is deliberate. What is coming, what Jesus is about to accomplish is nothing short of the same event as the defining narrative of Israel’s history. “I am the LORD who brought you out of Israel,” was how Israel’s God described himself time and time again throughout their dealings with him.
More than that though, what Jesus is about to do in and through his death, will be the fulfilment of the whole purpose and ministry of Israel. The life of the nation was building to this moment which is why Jesus is flanked not only by Moses, YHWH’s agent in the first exodus but also by Elijah who had stood for YHWH on Mount Carmel, defeating the prophets of Ba’al (the archetypal idol), who was taken into heaven rather than tasting death and whose return prior to YHWH’s final decisive act had been promised (1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 2.1-18; Malachi 4.5-6). Jesus, his death and resurrection, is the culmination of the Israel project.
He is the only person who can accomplish this, the only one through whom the story of YHWH’s covenant relationship with Israel can reach its climax for one very important reason, expressed by the voice from within the cloud. More than a mere prophet, Jesus is God’s own Son. He is the one to whom Peter, James and John (and we!) should listen. Only by listening to him, by heeding his call to take up our cross, by following him in setting God’s people free, only by being found in the Messiah as Paul puts it will we also find ourselves in the true promised land, the promised New Jerusalem, in resurrection bodies conformed to be like his glorious body, on the new earth.