Sunday, August 6th, 2017
Anne C. Fowler
Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. Luke 9:32
I’ve always thought that the story of the Transfiguration ought to be made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Think of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so forth. The Transfiguration begs for special effects.
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. Jesus’ face changes and his clothes dazzle and shine, or, as one translation has it, brighter than any fuller on earth could bleach them. And a booming voice out
Then two majestic prophets, who have been dead for centuries, at least a millennium in Moses’s case, appear out of nowhere. Time travel, physical transformation, a booming divine voice declaiming from a cloud– lights, camera, action!
What are we to make of all this? Can we believe any of it? Do these patent impossibilities – impossible for modern scientifically aware sensibilities at any rate, do anything to explain Jesus, to enhance our faith? Or do we feel such extravagant excesses belong better in a movie theater than a bible study?
When I was in college, at Harvard, I took a course called “Central Themes in Christian Thought.” Charlie Price, then the University Preacher, was our professor. One moment remains vivid to me more than 50 years later. His lecture had been on miracles, and in the question period a student asked what he thought of the Resurrection. Professor Price said, “ I am a 20th century man. I
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do not believe in the reconstitution of atoms, which is what physical resurrection would require. What I believe is that something happened, something so extraordinary and unprecedented that it could only be expressed by a story of Jesus actually rising from the dead. “
Something happened, something extraordinary and unprecedented… I have relied on that insight ever since, in preaching, in counseling,
whenever someone asks about how miracles fit into our life of faith, our understanding of the sometimes outlandish stories offered up by Scripture.
And explanation surely applies to the Transfiguration story.
Something happened. But what happened to inspire this extraordinary and literally unbelievable account of close encounters of a third kind?
Well, what are special effects for? In short, they simulate the imagined events in a story or virtual world. They simulate, and they stimulate. They suggest, they conjure up, they invite our imaginations into new and marvelous realms.
And that’s what so many biblical stories do. A commonplace of biblical scholarship is the knowledge that truth in the ancient world meant something very different to how we understand it today. We tend to think of truth as literal, scientific almost, something that can be proved, the opposite of fantasy.
But that’s not how biblical writers and composers thought. They believed that truth was what was deeply comprehended and could often best be expressed metaphorically; using whatever imagination could provide or invent to convey the profound certainties of faith.
I remember reading an essay once about Vietnam War fiction. The writer said that the truth of that horrendous impossible war could not be
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told by history as well as by fiction. By that he meant, I believe, that truth is deeper than fact. And that is the key to our understanding of the story of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, Jesus’ many miracles, and so much else in scripture. The bible is not the history of our people, the history of our faith, it is the story of our faith, the deep truth of our faith, The truth that the Spirit prays for with sighs too deep for words, as we heard in the lesson from Romans.
Well, what truths do the story of the Transfiguration invite our imaginations to explore? I’m going to suggest just a couple. One is about Peter’s misguided attempt to build dwellings for the ancient prophets, to separate them, contain their impossible power, to put them in boxes.
Do we tend to put people in boxes? Do we sum people up by one or two of their salient characteristics, label them, keep them two- dimensional? When and why might we do that? To keep life simple? To protect ourselves from some perceived threat they represent? To excuse ourselves from having to move out of our comfort zone? And what would happen if we set them free?
And what about the shining, dazzling faces? As we heard in the Hebrew Scripture, Moses’s face shone as he came down the mountain after talking with God. And Jesus’ face shines when he goes up the mountain to pray. Praying ,which is of course talking with God. Have we encountered people whose faces express some extraordinary, charismatic grace? How do we react to them? Are they a little too much? Are they scary in their vivid intensity? Or do we want to come closer, to try to be enfolded in their warmth, to share their glory?
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Good questions to ponder, to pray with, to explore and expand. And perhaps most important, stay alert to when something happens, something in our daily encounters, something in our prayer life, something that we read or hear, something that changes us a little or a lot. Something that helps us in our turning toward the light, that dazzling light that is the face of Jesus, the face of God. Alleluia, Alleluia! Amen