A Sermon for the Last Sunday before Lent (19/02/23): The Guarantee of the Transfiguration

(Matthew 17:1-9) II Peter 1:16-21

How do we know that Christianity is true or good or even useful? Here we are spending our time and energy on it. We devote ourselves to a particular set of commitments and a particular lifestyle that grows our of those commitments. We tell a story and try to allow our lives to be shaped by that story. But how do we know that it makes sense? Here we are staking our hope and our being on the gospel, but what guarantee is there that this is a reasonable thing to do?

We appear to live in a time of unbelief. At least we appear to live in a time when our beliefs seem for the most part to be rejected or at least ignored. Many people around us appear to have concluded that whilst Jesus might be altogether admirable, and the stories that he told and the stories that are told about him may be more or less interesting, they also appear to conclude that such quaint tales from ancient Palestine have no bearing on their lives in the here and now. That perhaps is the challenge we face. Part of the mission of who we are as the church is to persuade those who are not yet convinced that the Gospel makes sense, and that it is worth committing oneself to it.

The challenge is of course nothing new! Peter as he writes his letter appears to be facing a similar challenge:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The way Peter write suggests that he is answering an accusation. It is an accusation that might almost be familiar to us. It seems that someone has suggested that Peter’s preaching, and therefore indeed the preaching of the whole church before and since, is nothing more than peddling a myth. The accusation which is being made is that the Gospel is nothing more than an ingeniously contrived fantasy to capture the credulous. Peter, it would seem, has been accused of making the whole thing up, for who knows what reason. It is an accusation which Peter is able to forcibly deny. And because he can, we can also.

Peter turns to a particular moment, an event to which he was an eye (and as it happens “ear”) witness. Whilst it is the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John, and as we heard this morning Matthew, that tell the story of Jesus, just now and again in other parts of the New Testament events from that story are referred to. Here the reference Peter makes is pretty obvious, especially since we have just read Matthews account of the same event also:
… we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
This is Peter’s own account of the transfiguration. He omits some of the details. He doesn’t mention the presence of Moses and Elijah. He also fails to mention his own misguided reaction to what he was seeing, suggesting that he might be able to hold onto the moment by building a shelter for it. He leaves those things out, because they don’t serve the theological point he is trying to make just now. He is an eye witness to the true reality of Jesus. He has been given direct access, in a way that very very few other have, to the presence of God with and in Jesus. He has heard the voice of God speak, and declare that Jesus is who we as Christians afterwards claim he is. Peter knows that neither he nor anyone else has made this stuff up!

The transfiguration is an odd story. The Gospels for the most part are much more reticent about such direct revelation of God than in this scene. Mostly God remains hidden but hinted at in the life and words and deeds of Jesus. Seldom is anyone shown the glory and majesty of God directly. And throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, the voice of God is hardly ever heard to speak out loud. So the transfiguration as a story is something of an outlier in the larger history which the Gospels and the Bible as a whole relate. In many ways Jesus’ appearance on the mountain top is more spectacular, more dramatic, more amazing even than his appearances after the resurrection. By comparison, like the rest of the Gospel stories, the resurrection reports seem rather low key. Here God in Jesus is dazzlingly present. Though in fact the transfiguration, and especially Peter’s telling of it serve much the same purpose as the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances.

The transfiguration functions as a kind of double guarantee. A guarantee that begins to answer our original question of how we know that the Gospel makes sense.

First it authenticates Peter’s right and competence to speak truthfully about God, because he is a first hand witness, not just to the whole of Jesus’ ministry, beginning in Galilee, continuing all the way to Jerusalem, through the crucifixion, to the resurrection, right up to Jesus ascension, but particularly this event, the transfiguration. The transfiguration gives Peter access to what all the rest of the story means. Peter’s testimony is authoritative because this is what he saw and heard. So the answer to our first question: “how do we know?” comes down to whether we find Peter a trustworthy witness, and whether we find all those who later accepted his testimony trustworthy. Jesus did say of Peter that he would become the rock on which the Church is built. Peter one of the primary apostolic witnesses to the resurrection, but he is also the principle witness of the transfiguration. Perhaps it seems strange to find, that the cornerstone of our truth claims is to be found in one of the more obscure books of the New Testament; the Second Letter of Peter.

But secondly the transfiguration also authenticates the claim itself. As Christians we conclude that Jesus is the Son of God. That to encounter Jesus is to encounter the reality of God. That when Jesus speaks, he speaks with the authority of God. When Jesus acts he fulfils the will of God. In a way that conclusion is circumstantial. What Peter’s eyewitness testimony offers us is the decisive piece of evidence that our conclusion is correct. The circumstantial evidence of Jesus’ speaking and doing is confirmed in what happened here. Peter has seen and heard on the mountain top that Jesus is who we have concluded him to be. Because Peter can make that claim, we can also.

At the point at which Peter was writing his account of the transfiguration the Bible that was available to his fellow Christians was still for the most part what we call the Old Testament. He makes an important connection. He recognises that neither Jesus’ ministry, nor indeed the transfiguration happen in isolation, they happen as part of a much larger story, the story which God has been telling through his own people, a people of which both Jesus and Peter were part. Peter recognises that the transfiguration not only authenticates his and our claims about Jesus, it also confirms what had already been said by and about God among the people of Israel. Peter says:
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.
The thing that the transfiguration points us to is the unity of scripture, one God speaks in the Old and New Testament.It is the true and living God who spoke then and continues to call us to listen now.

The Gospel is not a cleverly devised myth. It is not a story anyone could come up with. Indeed the truth about God is never accessible or available in that way. What lies behind the transfiguration, and why it is necessary, rests in the nature of God. It rests in the otherness of God. There is no way for us to go from what we know from our senses and our reasoning and arrive at a truthful account of God. The only things we could ever come up with in that way would be cleverly devised myths. Peter recognises this, in relation to prophecy, in the sense that prophecy is truthful speech about God, he says;
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Peter understands that only God can make God known. Peter knows what he saw and heard on the mountaintop was God making God known. But what revelation points back to is that in Jesus, God is making God known.

The transfiguration is a strange story. And because it is strange for the most part we don’t pay it too much attention. But Peter more than anyone else know how critical that event is. In that event, before the resurrection, rests the guarantee that in Jesus God is working the salvation of the world. In the transfiguration rests the guarantee of the truth and power of the rest of the Gospel. Because of that guarantee we can be sure that the Gospel is good and true and useful. Because of Peter’s truthful testimony to the transfiguration we can allow that story to shape who we are, with confidence.

The Guarantee of the Transfiguration by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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