Figuring out transfiguration — February 6, 2005

__Jesus on the Mountaintop__*
Mark 9:2-8; see also Matthew 17:1-9, Luke 9:28-36, and II Peter 1:16-18.

“What happened, Peter?” Mark asked.

“I can’t tell you. Not now,” Peter answered.

“Are you sick? You and James and John. You look so pale!”

“No, we’re not sick, Mark” Peter was shaking a little. “Something wonderful happened. But I can’t tell you about it. Not now.”

Years after Jesus was killed and came back to life, Peter finally told Mark the story. “Jesus took us to the top of a mountain,” said Peter. “It was a long climb. We were tired when we got there.”

“Just you and Jesus?” Mark asked.

“No, James and his brother John were there too. They know what happened. I’ll never forget that time. All of a sudden, Jesus changed. His face shone. It was like looking into the sun. And his clothes turned white. Really white. Then there were two people with Jesus.”

“Who?” Mark asked.

“Elijah and Moses.”

“How did you know?”

“I don’t know how we knew,” said Peter. “But we knew. And Jesus was talking to them.”

“So what did you do?” said Mark.

“I didn’t know what to do. I said to Jesus, ‘Shouldn’t we build three little houses here? I could build one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ It sounds silly, now that I think about it. But I was so afraid. I didn’t know what to say!”

“What did Jesus say?” Mark asked.

“He didn’t say anything. A bright cloud came and covered him. Then we heard a voice. James and John heard it too. You can ask them.”

“Was it God?”

“It must have been. The voice said, ‘This is my Son. I love him. Listen to him’.”

“That’s all?” asked Mark.

“That’s all!”

“What did you do?”

“We were so scared. We fell flat on our faces. But then we heard Jesus saying very gently, ‘Don’t be afraid. Get up’.”

Mark was shaking his head. “I don’t understand. Every time I think I understand, I hear something new. Then I have to think about it all over again.”

“Yeah,” said Peter. “I know what you mean.”

_By Ralph Milton, illustrated by Margaret Kyle; from_ The Family Story Bible _(Westminster John Knox)_.

__A critical look at Transfiguration stories__

The synoptic gospels, and second-century Second Peter, all have some form of this story. They treat it differently, basing it on Mark’s account, but not in the very special way that Mark makes it the turning point in his gospel, according to the Jesus Seminar. The voice from heaven confirms that Jesus is God’s son; it also looks forward to the resurrection.

Jesus is to be seen as fitting into the company of the greatest of leaders up to that time. He has much in common with them, according to early Christian evangelists: Moses has taken three with him up Mount Sinai, where not only but, later, Elijah talks with God; a cloud descends upon both Moses and Jesus, both of whom become radiant. This communication, for both Moses and Jesus, takes place after six days. Elijah was said to have been taken, at his death, directly to heaven, and the location of Moses’ grave was never revealed. This, says the Jesus Seminar, can be taken to mean that three men in the Judeo-Christian tradition were given life after death. That surprises many Christians!

While Matthew says Jesus’ face, like that of Moses, shone like the sun, it is only Jesus who is declared to be God’s son. To Christians, Jesus was not only a great prophet, as many Jews and all Muslims today believe; he was, and is, living in a sense that no one else ever has. He is beyond the greatest of the great.

To complete this set of insights, consider how Mark Identifies Elijah as Jesus’ precursor, just as John the Baptist was. Says the Jesus Seminar, “The early Christian community identified John the Baptist with Elijah in accordance with the prophecy of Malachi (4:5-6 in the Septuagint): Look, I will send Elijah to you before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will redirect a father’s heart towards his son and the hearts of everyone towards their neighbor, so I won’t have to come and give the earth a devastating blow.

When the International Bible Society, aligned with Christianity Today, asked Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford to collaborate on explanatory notes throughout _The Student Bible -— the New International Version,_ the following appeared at Mark 8:29, “Peter learns humility.”

This passage comes shortly before the scene we are considering today. I quote the first sentence: “Most scholars believe that Mark got his eyewitness details from the disciple Peter.” Certainly most scholars who are committed to biblical tradition would say that; they want to see most of the New Testament as historically accurate. To do that, they must see the gospel writers as either disciples or interviewers of disciples. But most mainstream scholars long have been aware that none of the gospels can be eyewitness accounts. They are stories selected from a variety of oral and written sources; they are theological, not journalistic. I mention this because we are looking critically at scripture.

__Thinking laterally__

Now, let’s look at a few related readings not usually taught in Sunday school. It can be for the broadening of our minds and attitudes, or just for fun (surely in his teaching at meals, Jesus and his friends had a lot of laughs!).

Jesus’ clothes turned white — “really white,” Ralph Milton says. That is a really great image. It lends itself to storytelling, as in _Gospel of Philip_ 61:12-20, 63:25-30, part of the Nag Hammadi Library:

“God is a dyer. As the good dyes, which are called ‘true'” dissolve with the things dyed in them, so it is with those whom God has dyed. Since his dyes are immortal, they are immortal by means of his colors. Now God dips what he dips in water … . The Lord went into the dye works of Levi. He took seventy-two different colors and threw them into the vat. He took them all out white. And he said, ‘Even so has the Son of Man come as a dyer’.”

Baruch 3:29-32 in the New Revised Standard Version, probably composed in the second or first century before the Common Era, in Hebrew, says this in the Apocrypha of the period between the Jewish and Christian testaments:

“Who has gone up into heaven and taken Wisdom, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the seas, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her.

“But the one who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding. The one who prepared the earth for all time filled it with four-footed creatures; the one who sends forth the light, and it goes; he called it, and it obeyed him, trembling; the stars shone in their watches, and were glad, he called them, and they said, “Here we are!”

“They shone with gladness for him who made them. This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved.

“Afterward Wisdom appeared on earth and lived with humankind.”

Marcus Borg, in _Jesus and Buddha, the parallel sayings,_ notes that “the gospels (particularly that of Mark) and the traditional biographies of Buddha are filled with stories about their power over nature. … The miracles themselves are remarkably similar. Jesus worked with loaves and fishes just as Buddha fed five hundred people with a few small cakes. Both were transfigured by dazzling light in front of their followers.” That’s how myth-truth is; but Borg is an historian, and he also says, “And both grew angry when people demanded miracles to bolster their faith.” Is this a meaningful word to lots of people today?

Here’s a Buddha parallel to Jesus’ transfiguration:

“Ananda, having arranged one set of the golden robes on the body of the Lord, observed that against the Lord’s body it appeared dulled. And he said, ‘It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvelous how clear and bright the Lord’s skin appears! It looks even brighter than the golden robes in which it is clothed.” _Digha Nikaya_ 16.4.37.

__A short communion service for Transfiguration Sunday__
February 6, 2005.
First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California.
The Rev. Robert F. Cramer, Eucharistic minister and scripture teacher.

_A call to study and worship,_ in Ralph Milton’s tale of Peter, Mark, and Transfiguration: “I don’t understand. Every time I think I understand, I hear something new. Then I have to think about it all over again,” says Mark. Says Peter, “Yeah!”

_A prayer_ about transfiguration today: O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen. From _A Calendar of Prayer for the United Church of Christ._

_Reading together_ one of the gospel stories for today, perhaps Milton’s version, and Mark’s. Worshipers may share their feelings about transfiguration — then, and now.

_A prayer_ from _The New Century Hymnal,_ 183, by Jaroslav Vajda, 1991: Jesus, take us to the mountain where, with Peter, James, and John, we are dazzled by your glory. … What do you want us to see there? … What do you want us to hear there? … Take us to that other mountain, where we see you glorified, where you shouted, “It is finished!” where for all the world you died. … Once again the voice from heaven says of the Incarnate Word: “Listen, listen, everyone, this is my beloved One!”

_Sharing of the bread and cup, and benediction._