Ghosts, voices from heaven and the mission for justice

It’s good to be preaching this morning but I wish I’d paid more attention to the readings for the day before I set the date with Andrew. My heart sank when I realised this was Transfiguration Sunday.

The supernatural stuff  in the Bible has always been a huge struggle for me. Give me stories of family betrayals, wars, outrageous affairs and gutsy prophets giving Israelites a serve for being idiots; or stories of Jesus behaving badly, challenging the religious and social conventions of his day, irritating religious and political leaders by not playing by the rules – I love those; Jesus wandering around the countryside preaching and telling weird stories and parables; even miraculous feedings, healings stories and exorcisms I can deal with, maybe because they are grounded literally and figuratively in the reality of people’s lives – sickness, hunger, death, poverty, fear and social exclusion.

But stories about God appearing in clouds (or burning bushes) on mountaintops, voices booming down out of heaven and luminous shining people – there’s something about them that I find really hard to deal with. And this story has ghosts as well – Moses and Elijah, standing there next to Jesus. To my small, western, white, middle class, brain, it is just one of the most ludicrous stories in the Bible.

But then I read this, written by Karl Rahner, the great Catholic Jesuit theologian:

This is the meaning of the transfiguration for Jesus himself: in the dark night of hopelessness, the light of God shines and a human heart finds in God the power which turns a dying into victory and redemption for the world.

In 2008, another Jesuit, a public theologian named David Hollenbach, wrote a short sermon on the Transfiguration[1]. He used that quote from Rahner and added:

Jesus’ transformation into a beacon of God’s unconditional love for us occurs not just at the time of his resurrection, but in the routine of his living, as people misunderstand and reject him, and as his death approaches.

Jesus’ story as it’s told by Luke is the tale of a journey. The transfiguration marks the end of what we could read as preparation for the trip, for Jesus and for his disciples: the kind of preparation, which happens, as Hollenbach says, in the routine of living and which you probably only understand as preparation once the journey has started: dealing with the challenges of daily life, engaging with the people around you and keeping faith with what you understand you need to do.

Jesus’ growth and preparation for his big trip was more dramatic than most of ours.

At his baptism, he heard the words of God coming down from heaven (the supernatural features more often in Luke than I had remembered), ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’ (3:22). Then in the wilderness he faced the temptation to prove himself by demonstrating just how powerful and close to God he was. Then he created a furore by reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the temple at Nazareth and declaring that he was the fulfilment of the prophecy for the anointed one who would bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. After being driven out of his home town, he travelled all over Galilee teaching and preaching, and caring for and healing the sick and outcast.

Jesus was  a harsh critic of his society. He saw that those in power had ordered the world in ways that were contrary to the reign of God. Religion, for example, had become an end in itself, instead of an expression of our relationship with God. Socio-economic and political structures, built on the outstanding human tendencies for violence, greed and power, perpetrated and perpetuated injustice, denying too many the dignity that is granted to everyone as a child of God.

During those few years in Galilee then, Jesus’ message, through his actions and his words, was all about nothing less the transformation that God willed for the world. And the guiding vision for that transformation was nothing less than the reversal of the worldly order.  This is stronger in Luke than in the other gospels. It is perhaps most forcefully captured in his version of the Beatitudes. Here’s just a reminder of how totally unambiguous they are:

20 …“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,n for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh….

 And then:

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep…

In God’s kingdom, God’s reign, the last will be first, the greatest will be the least, the poor will be rich, the oppressed will be free, the hungry will be fed. Those who were excluded in his world, are included within the unlimited reach of God’s love. They will be invited to God’s great feast – women, Gentiles, Samaritans, those who were sick and those with disabilities. And in Jesus people saw the embodiment of that vision – he touched those who were untouchable, he ate with the sinners, he spoke to the outcasts and the foreigners, he called the poor and the weak-willed as his disciples.

And then he takes three of these tired, weak, ill-disciplined disciples with him up to a mountain to pray, and he meets God there. A moment of deep spirituality and mysticism, conveyed in the text by common metaphors for such experiences – bright shining light, brilliant and dazzling appearances and terrifying mountaintop clouds complete with a disembodied voice. Tired and sleepy as they were, Peter, James and John knew that Jesus had met God, but they thought he’d met God like Moses and Elijah had met God. But that voice out of the cloud made it clear that Jesus was different to Moses and Elijah. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him”.

And so transfigured and affirmed in his mission by God, Jesus went to Jerusalem, as the wonderful eco-feminist theologian Mary C. Grey writes,

to confront the sources of distorted power, the killing systems, systems that keep the landless poor destitute despite the Jubilee laws, and misuse nature’s abundance to get rich. And he did this deliberately and voluntarily…

The cross, then, becomes a symbol of protest, against all systems that threaten innocent life and life itself.[2]

The weird freaky story of the Transfiguration is then, a story that reminds us of two very important things.

First, that God’s love is transformative. It changes us not by turning us into people our friends wouldn’t recognize, but by freeing us to be exactly who we are – children of God, made in God’s image, embraced by the God who loves us, unconditionally, just as we are. Supported by the community of faith, just like Jesus was that day on the mountain, we can be encouraged to receive God’s love for us and find companions to walk with us on the journey.

The second thing the story reminds us of is that the key to the mission to share the transforming love of God in the world is to listen to Jesus. Jesus’ life in words and deeds, describes the mission – it is a mission of salvation from injustice, greed, oppression, violence, marginalization and hunger. Jesus’ life, in words and deeds, describes the values that must underpin our work for justice, peace, reconciliation and freedom: grace, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, hospitality, humility, prayerfulness and justice.

By living by these values, and understanding that the journey includes the violence of the cross before it discovers the fullness of resurrection, the saving and transformative love of God will begin to shine and justice, peace and hope will break through. It has already happened. It is happening and, despite how grim the future can appear to be, it will come to pass.

[2] Sacred Longings (2003) SCM Press, pp. 144 and 145)

A SERMON FOR SOUTH SYDNEY UNITING CHURCH 10 February 2013 | Transfiguration Sunday

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