Thursday, August 2, 2018

Listen To Whom?

As I mentioned earlier this week, our congregation, having received the bishop's permission and for "urgent and sufficient reason," will celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration as an opportunity for public baptism this Sunday. We will have several candidates at three different services, and we will hear Luke 9:28-36, the gospel story when Jesus climbed up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and was transfigured before them. His face and clothes became dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. We know the story. It comes up in the lectionary fairly often even when churches aren't bending the rules.

Of particular interest to me this week is the accompanying reading from 2 Peter, in which Peter offers what sounds like a final word of encouragement before his death: "I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me." What does he want his readers to know? That he and his fellow apostles were not pursuing made up stories or fancy philosophy but following the one they knew to be the Son of God. And how did they know? Peter recalls for us the moment when he was up on the mountain with Jesus: "...we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor 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."

I think the way Peter remembers that--or at least the way the tradition recalls Peter remembering that; for me there's no difference--is fascinating. Peter doesn't write, "For he received honor and glory when we saw Moses and Elijah standing with him." The focus isn't on the shining face or clothes, although to point us to his "glory" may imply a visual brightness. For Peter, the focus is on the voice that speaks from the cloud. It is the voice of God itself that Peter holds on to after all these years, and Peter's focus has reshifted my focus back to what the voice says.

Luke tells us that the voice declared, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" Chuck Walling, who is my colleague at St. Paul's and who has been preaching a lot longer than I have been alive, commented this week that to him it sounds like God is saying, "Listen to him...not these other guys!" My emphasis would not have fallen there on its own, but I've enjoyed wrestling with it this week. Chuck asks whether this was an anti-Jewish gloss that Luke put on the text, and that element may be contained in the text, but I hear God telling us that Jesus is the one who speaks authentically for Moses and Elijah. Listen to Jesus, and you will be listening to the law and the prophets.

Of course, there is some supersessionist theology in the story. Moses and Elijah appear and then disappear, and only Jesus is left. And the voice tells them to listen to the one who remains. But, especially given Peter's remembrance of the event, I think this is God's authentication of Jesus and his ministry. Who is allowed to speak for Moses and Elijah? Who is given the authority to teach and expound upon and reinterpret the established traditions of God's people? Faithful Jews would be expected to listen to the law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah, and now God is saying that faithful people are expected to listen to Jesus, who speaks on their behalf. I can get behind that. I can hear that authority being given.

It makes me wonder who gets to speak for Jesus nowadays. I am highly suspicious of any preacher, prophet, or leader who claims to speak for Jesus or with any unquestionable authority, and that includes the Bishop of Rome. We need prophets and interpreters of scripture who speak boldly and with authority, but too many church leaders interact with the church as if their word was God's word. Listen to whom? Jesus, as the Incarnate Word of God, speaks with God's own authority, but I don't think he denied the authority of the law and the prophets. The transfiguration is a visual and verbal reminder that he speaks for them and not in place of them. We need church leaders who speak not in place of the gospel but for the gospel, who speak not instead of Jesus but through whom Jesus himself speaks. God's declaration on the mountain top that day is still operative: "Listen to him!" It's Jesus to whom we should be listening. Do we hear Jesus speaking in the words of our pastor, our preacher, our bishop? 

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