Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
‘Behold what is happening’
Last month I spent two weeks in a yurt, a Mongolian tent or hut on a hill in Fitzroy, Melbourne, so I can relate to Peter’s response …
Transfiguration might be my favourite feast day. I love the word “transfiguration” – I love the emphasis on a “showing” that precedes “telling”. I love the questions: What is God showing (ostende) us? What is God showing us in and through the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I love the possibility of our being shown the earth in light of heaven (a liturgical ideal!); I love the possibility of things appearing in a different light; of people appearing in a strange or startling or brilliant or entirely new light …
Something like that happened on the mountaintop (“high” or “thin” place of revelation) for Peter, James and John. It can happen for us, too – it can happen that our sense of what heals and saves us is transfigured, is altered. Sometimes, to see things in even slightly new ways is dazzling.
I’m still dazzled by my art school experiences. I’m still dazzled by early encounters with liberation theology and the miracles of radical hospitality at St Vinnies for Youth in Marrickville, Balmain Uniting Church, United Theological College … I’m still dazzled by whatever happened at my baptism-
The philosopher Jean-
In our Gospel story, when the three disciples see Jesus transfigured on the mountain, they see Moses and Elijah standing there talking with him. Often we interpret that as a favourable comparison: Jesus stands in the same line as these two (famous for mountaintop revelations) and brings to fulfillment all they have stood for.
It may, however, be seen differently. One commentator paraphrases: “Then they saw Elijah and Moses there talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, this is great! What a team: you, Moses and Elijah! Let us build three huts, one for each of you, and stay here with these heroes of the faith’. He was freaking out and had no idea what to say. But then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘Don’t worry about those two. This is my Beloved, my Own; listen to this One!’ Suddenly they looked around, and only Jesus remained.”
Read it with that sort of inflection, and rather than being compared to Moses and Elijah, Jesus is contrasted with them. Rather than attending to similarities, we may begin to notice dissimilarities and to align ourselves with Jesus over other “heroes of the faith”. The disciples are called, perhaps, to choose between the Moses and Elijah of the popular religious mindset, and the Jesus who has just told them he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be lynched by the leaders who claim to be acting on the authority of Moses and Elijah.
The Gospel of Jesus is quite different from the religious approaches that Moses and Elijah had come to stand for, and this difference continues to be of critical importance (in terms of our own spiritual wellbeing and witness). If Jesus is being contrasted with Moses and Elijah, what is it that we are being called to discern? What is it that we are called to critique and reject?
Moses had come to stand for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness and protecting society from transgressors. In seeing Moses as a great hero for whom they should build a hut/shelter, the disciples were in danger of seeing Jesus as one who comes to refine and reinforce the law; one who reaffirms it as the operational principle of relationship with God and others. Now as then, those who are ready to stone the adulterer do so in the name of God on the authority of Moses. And those who force out the gentiles and those suffering from leprosy or demonic torment do so in the name of God on the authority of Moses. And those who make a scapegoat of Jesus and sacrifice him do so in the name of God and for the good of the community on the authority of Moses.
And why is Jesus such a threat? Precisely because he does not endorse such a system of legalised sacred violence (Paul Nuechterlein). Precisely because he advocates an end to painting God in such colours and presents God as One who shows mercy. “This is my Beloved, my Own; listen to this One!”
And Elijah? What story is Elijah most famous for? Arguably, the story about a contest with the prophets of Baal; a contest as to which god can light a fire on the altar. And what does Elijah do when he wins the contest? He slaughters the losers. He takes up the sword and kills every last one of them. Elijah comes to stand for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by sacrificing God’s rivals.
War after war has been fought by warrior-
Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, not to kill and destroy the enemies of God who had come to control the religious state, but to stand firm for truth and love and mercy, even if it meant being named as an enemy of God and being killed by those who acted in the names of Moses and Elijah.
Jesus calls us to follow him, not by destroying the adherents of such religious systems, but by becoming, if necessary, their victims, in order to expose – in the light of God – their persecution of the loving and peaceful, merciful and just. “This is my Beloved, my Own; listen to this One!”
If I have followed a gospel that says I can fulfill the requirements of God by defining acceptable behaviour and values, and expelling those who don’t respect the officially endorsed laws, then even if I am the most dutiful and accountable of believers, Jesus is calling me away from rules and punishments and scapegoating, on a new path grounded in love and welcome and mercy.
And if you have followed a gospel that says you can please God by waging war against the terrorists or against the rednecks and fundamentalists, then Jesus is calling you on a new path grounded in mercy and peacemaking and willingness to suffer violence and to forgive.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the start of a new forty-
Following a short silence, let’s complete the homily together. You’re invited to light a candle from the Christ candle [to light a fire on the altar!] and to complete the sentence: “I’m dazzled to have seen …” … Amen.
[Draws on a homily by Nathan Nettleton.]