Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Transfiguration: Beyond Belief?

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB Sunday, 10 February, The Last Sunday of Epiphany / Transfiguration Sunday Texts for Lectionary Year C: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2, Luke 9:28-43 Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

This week I was speaking with one of our soldiers, a bright young lad who seems genuinely interested in Christian belief. He asked me, “can you believe in physics and religion?” He was asking me this with regard to the story of creation in Genesis, but diigging into his question, I realized he was asking me, essentially, whether faith and reason were compatible.

I began my answer by saying that I agree with a long tradition of Christian theology and philosophy which hold that faith and reason are compatible. In the case of Genesis, I said that personally I did not want to disregard the evidence of geology (particularly the fossil record) and physics (specifically, studies of the age of the universe) which on the surface seem to contradict the biblical account of the world being created in seven days. I noted that some biblical scholarship takes a figurative account of the creation story, noting that the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis can mean “age” or “a long time”, and so what we could have is a poetic account of creation that is compatible with an evolutionary perspective. I cited one of my professors from seminary, John Bowen, who liked to say that the process of creation (a literal account of seven days vs evolution) is one of those things that Christians can disagree one, since the mechanics of creation are not creedal.

When we got to the New Testament, however, I told my engineer friend that my beliefs would seem decidedly irrational to someone outside of the faith. As a creedal Christian, meaning someone who subscribes to the creeds of the church, I believe that the historical man Jesus was also the Son of God, a person of the Trinity, that he died, rose from the dead, returned to heaven, and will come again. There, I said it. Doesn’t sound very rational, does it? There is nothing in the world of science that I can appeal to or take refuge in to support my belief, no equivocation in translation of words in the bible. You either believe this stuff or, because it doesn’t sound rational, you don’t.

Our gospel story of the transfiguration today is decidedly irrational. Jesus goes up a mountain with two of his friends. He meets two figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who are somehow recognizable as themselves and who seem to have some sort of afterlife. Jesus then is transfigured, becoming “dazzling” with glory, and then a heavenly voice from a cloud is heard. As one of the sheep in our weekly cartoon, Agnus Day, comments, “Jesus is talking with two dead guys and his head becomes a light source. How much weirder can it get?” Indeed. Which is why I’m grateful for this gospel story, because it shows us the true nature of the God we worship.

There are several times in the gospels that we see the true nature of Jesus. The greek has a word for this true nature, doxa. We translate this word as “glory”. When the shepherds see the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. At Jesus’ baptism, we also hear the voice from heaven, reminding us who Jesus is. The vision of Jesus here on the mountain reminds us of “the two men in dazzling clothes” who appear to the women in the empty tomb in Luke 24. In all these places, as in the Transfiguration, it is as if we get a glimpse of heaven, of the things that will be, breaking through the veil of our earthly reality. These things give us hope, and remind us of the God that we worship.

Why don’t we see God this way all the time? Perhaps it's because the glory of God, were it to remain with us, would be oppressive, even coercive, demanding our obedience and submission. But God doesn't work that way. Most of the time his son is fully human, a human who laughs, goes to weddings, shares meals, becomes irritated, suffers, and dies. It’s been said that the time between now, Transfiguration Sunday, and Good Friday, the end of Lent, is framed by two mountain tops. The first is the mountain we visit today, the mountain where God is revealed in glory through his Son. The second mountain is Golgotha, the place of the skull, which we visit on Good Friday. Is God revealed in glory through his Son at Golgotha, on the cross? It depends on what you define as glory. The cross is, as St. Paul reminds us, an instrument of shame and pain, but it becomes glorious because Jesus chooses to go there, for us. Rather than a dazzling glow that confounds and blinds us, the cross, as painful as it may be, is something we can contemplate and remain with, even take upon us, for it becomes an emblem of the way that Jesus calls us to follow – a way of self-giving, of care and love and forgiveness of others. It’s through the cross, and following the cross, that we see others, and where others can see God in us.

How can others see the glory of God in us, in we who aren’t very glorious or very impressive to look at? Paul says in our second lesson that we too, as Christ’s followers, are caught up in his glory, and being changed by it. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). Do you remember how Paul defined love last Sunday? He said that “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7). As I said last Sunday, that love isn’t manufactured human sentiment as we might find on a Hallmark card. That love is the gift of the Spirit, it is the same love for us that God shows for humanity on the cross.

The glory of God offends and contradicts reason, but even more confounding to reason is the idea that we, God's people, can be transformed by and show that glory to the world in the life and love that God calls us to. I can't explain or rationalize this to others with the same comfort that I can talk about creation. What I can do, what we can do, is listen to Jesus carefully and attentively, as the voice from the cloud calls us to. We can follow him, live as he calls us to live, and open ourselves to the love of God which is the gift of the Spirit. In so doing, we have the promise that we too, ordinary, unremarkable, flawed human beings, will find ourselves transformed and able to stand in the full glory of God.

6 comments:

Grenzer John said...

I like this one.

R.R.Jones said...

I stumbled on your Blog looking for people to read, review and thus sing the praises of my book.
It was your Gruppenf├╝hrer Strasser who reeled me in from the Google search and the similarities between him and my arch baddy, Draf Dracyl.
Anyway, I had a read through your Mad Padre, then Platoon Forward Stories and now this one.
Now, let me be honest, although I was brought up a Christian, I sang in the church choir and my Gran went to St. Paul's in Colwyn Bay every Sunday until she died, I don't actually believe.
However, that is by the by, as all I really wanted to do was write to say how much I enjoyed this piece.
I read quite lot of Bible facts and figures whilst researching for my book and included my own, very amateurish reason why the good guys, (who happen to be SS... go figure!) use a tree as a religious artefact. I'm ridiculously proud of that one.
Anyway, as ever I digress, I read a lot about making sense of the Bible and the point you make about the Hebrew words for "Day" and "Age" are the same struck a chord with me.
A very nicely written piece indeed.
I hope you don't mind a non believer following you on here? :-)

Service Ration Distribution (Hobby) said...

My father-in-law always says that science will prove the Bible to be correct, it just takes a while for science to catch up to faith. Hebrews 11 v 1 gives me the most complete answer of what faith is and where it's leading...faith is being sure of what is hoped for and certain of things unseen...but searching for truth starts (not ends)with faith. Faith doesn't stop discussion, dogma does.

Michael Peterson said...

Thanks all.
RR, you are most welcome to hang out here as long as you like. In my work as an army chaplain I spend most of my time with non-believers and I find they are excellent company.
I am curious to hear more about Draf Dracyl - a relative of Dracula, maybe? And where is Colwyn Bay, I don't recognize that name.

SRD(H): thanks mate. I like your last line very much, hope you don't mind me stealing that.

R.R.Jones said...

Thanks Michael.
Draf is actually a spelling mistake... DOH !!
It should be Graf Dracyl. If you have a Kindle and an email address I'll send it to you, other wise he's here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Division-Damned-ebook/dp/B007RS1YUI%3FSubscriptionId%3D0V4JT1H35KWYMF0SKQR2%26tag%3Dnovelrank-21%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953%26creativeASIN%3DB007RS1YUI
Colwyn Bay? Well, my home town is situated on the North Wales Riviera... in betwen Rhyl and llandudno ;-) Not very glamorous but still home to me...

Michael Peterson said...

Hello RR:
North Wales sounds exotic to me, I've never been there ... yet. :)
My email is madpadre "at" gmail "dot" com. I'd love to see your stuff, am very interested in Weird War as you know.
Cheers,
Mike

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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