“God’s Mandate for a New Order”
The story in the 17th chapter of Matthew is called the Miracle of the Transfiguration. It seems like either you believe it or you don’t and there is no place in between. Rationalists and children of the Enlightenment will say that it makes no sense. It’s just one more Bible story they don’t understand, so they stop reading the Bible. Theists will counter that nothing is impossible with God and this is just one more story to prove it, which is why they like the story. Both sides dig in and that’s the end of the discussion.
The commentaries that I was able to read explain the reference to Moses and Elijah and how Jesus’ raiment prefigures his crucifixion. These commentaries are helpful, but they are limited because they follow the principle of sola scriptura, which means only scripture can interpret scripture. I was trying to find another approach to this text. I think we should call it God’s Mandate for a New Day and a New Way.
The story begins this way: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John apart and led this up a high mountain.” When Jesus goes up on a mountain something important is about to happen. The mountain is a place of visioning and teaching. But we shouldn’t skip over the first three words– “after six days.” Six days ago Jesus told the disciples: “If anyone is going to come after me, let that person deny themself, take up the cross and follow me. For whoever would save their own life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel will save it.” The story of the transfiguration is about discipleship. The reference to six days could also be a reference to the creation stories in Genesis. In Genesis we read: “God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day” (Genesis 1:31). So ,if we take these clues, the story of the transfiguration is also a story about the transformation of the discipleship and the mandate for a new creation–a new society.
Then there is a voice from heaven. The transfiguration is connected to the story of baptism, which is itself a sign of a new beginning, a new creation, the welcoming of a new life. And the voice says, “This is my beloved, the One with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” What does Jesus tell us: A new commandment I give you; you must love one another. Instead of listening, Peter says “Lord, this is wonderful. Let’s build a booth, a temple, an altar. Let’s mark this place, and he falls down, prostrates himself in an act of worship, because he is filled with awe and wonder. And Jesus touches him and says, “Rise up and have no fear.” How many times does Jesus touch someone–the lepers, the woman who is bleeding, the blind, the children, the hungry. True worship happens when we touch each other in ways that drive out fear and bring healing. The touch prefigures a new day. And then they start down the mountain.
The prophet Isaiah says, “Beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news, who publish peace” (Isaiah 52:7). We used to have a song, “How beautiful upon the mountain of care are the feet of those who have good news to share.”
Tom Paxon celebrates the messengers of good news in a song. He says: “How beautiful upon the mountain are the steps of those who walk in peace. Across the bridge of Selma you came marching side by side; In your eyes a new world on the way; Hope was in your heart and justice would not be denied; Now new generations who have joined you on this road; Look to you with power in their eyes; Now you know the torch has passed as they pick up the load; Now you see their eyes are on the prize. God knows the courage they possess; And Isaiah said it best; How beautiful upon the mountain; Are the footsteps of those who walk in peace.”
And so, they go down the mountain rather than stay at the altar. It’s more important to follow Jesus than it is to admire Jesus. Creating a life with Jesus is about practicing following the way of Jesus. That’s why it is so important not to stop reading this passage at verse nine, the way most lectionaries do, but go to verses 14-16. When they came down the mountain they came to a crowd, and a man came up to Jesus and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son for he’s an epileptic and he suffers terribly, and sometimes he throws himself into the fire, and sometimes into the water, and I asked your disciples to heal him but they could not heal him.”
I want to end with a personal story. It’s short but captures all that I am trying to say. On a bright sunny day like today, my trans grandson said to me, “The world is a beautiful place, until reality slaps you in the face.” That’s what the 17th chapter of Matthew is about. I’m sure after they met the man who had a son with eclipse the disciples were tempted to turn around and go back up the mountain. They wanted to play it safe. Keep the world the way it’s supposed to be. But Jesus said, “God is here, in this broken world, and it is here that we have to learn how to love one another.