Transfiguration A Sermon (2002)

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 17:1-9;
Ex. 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21


I want to begin this morning from the epistle lesson, the reading from 2 Peter 1, and its take on the transfiguration story of the Gospel Lesson. It begins: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

“Cleverly devised myths.” What do we mean by myth? Joseph Campbell, especially as popularized by Bill Moyer on public television, has given us a picture of myth as quaint, colorful, creative stories that help establish a society’s identity. René Girard’s anthropology of the cross, as I’ve shared with you continually in my time here, gives us a quite different picture: that of real violence which lies behind the myths. Myths tell stories of the gods who establish a society’s sense of righteous violence in order to keep a lid on the unrighteous violence. Beneath the stories of gods, says Girard, is real collective violence of the many against the few, or the one. It’s precisely the kind of violence that Jesus came to reveal on the cross. It’s the kind of righteous violence that establishes and maintains order in every society, every culture. That’s why Jesus had to come preaching God’s kingdom, God’s society, God’s culture, as an alternative to our human societies and cultures.

Let’s take a look at a particularly revealing myth. I have a handout of the most basic Hindu myth of creation. We won’t read the whole thing through. (You can take it home and look at it more closely if you like.) I want to highlight a few points [extemporizing].

  • Doniger’s last comment in her introduction: “that creation produces not only the physical elements of the universe but also the social order” is an understatement! The creation story itself is told in terms of a ritual sacrifice which was the very structure of their reigning social order.
  • “When the gods spread the sacrifice, using the Man as the offering…” Do you think that human sacrifice was ever behind this? Bet on it! Girard says that “the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world” is revealing to us precisely this kind of sacrificial victim since the foundation of our cultural worlds.
  • Look at the things born from the Man’s sacrifice: seasons (told in terms of the sacrificial order). But also the verses and chants — all the crucial elements of their culture! People scoff when Girard says that all of human culture comes forth from sacrifice, but here it is!
  • The main thing to notice is the second paragraph, the description of the dismemberment in terms of the four classes of Indian society, otherwise known as the caste system: head, the priests; arms, the nobles and warriors; torso, the general populace; and legs and feet, the servants, called “untouchables.” This is exactly what an order of righteous violence needs. The priests keep the religious justifications for the righteous violence used to maintain order; the nobles and warriors carry out the sacred violence that maintains order; the general populace benefits from the relative order, the random violence kept to a minimum; and the untouchables are the real sacrificial victims behind the substitutions made in the ritual sacrifices that symbolize the order itself. (In more highly developed Indian culture, they had already long ago moved from human victims, to animal victims [the sacred cows], to mostly vegetable substitutes, primarily the purified butter prominently mentioned in the myth.)
  • For Mahatma Gandhi, one of his first priorities in leading India into independence was to outlaw the violence inherent in the caste system.
  • Before we become self-righteous, think of our European enslavement of Africans and the terrible, bloody sacrifice (known as the Civil War) we fought in order to end it. And we should have known better! We were beneficiaries of the Gospel, the cross of Christ, which came to unveil precisely this kind of righteous violence! But sin continues to take advantage of us, and so we found sacred reasons for justifying slavery and counting Africans as less than human.

Let’s look at our own history more closely, and the “myths” that have shaped us.

  • The creation story of Genesis 1. A big improvement. No overt violence. There is a lot of de-mythologizing that has already taken place in this story of creation.
  • But we still need to ask: to what extent is the imposition of a sense of order a cover for covert violence? The caste system in India and slavery of Africans brought a sense of order to society for many generations until they were finally exposed as violence. What about the sense of order in Genesis 1? Anything violent there?

I’d like to suggest an answer that may surprise you: the ordering of time in Jewish culture, namely, the seven day week with the Sabbath rest on the seventh day. I wouldn’t necessarily say that that sense of order is violent in itself. But the power of sin, as St. Paul tried to describe to us, is such that it takes advantage of the Law; it takes advantage of our sense of order.

Now, it would take a whole lecture for me to explain to you the sociology of this (1) — something we obviously don’t want to do right now, so you’ll need to take my word on this. But the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were able to use the Sabbath structure of the week as part of their control over people’s lives, oppressing people economically, with occasional physical violence to back it up and maintain their sense of order. And even if I don’t take the time to explain exactly how this oppressive ordering of time worked, we can see one very important result of it — namely, that Jesus resisted it! Jesus challenged even this sense of order — not as bad in itself, perhaps — but as oppressive in the ways in which it was imposed on people as part of the means to control them. I count eight distinct (not counting parallel) episodes of Jesus healing on the sabbath and/or making some sort of challenge to the sabbath theology of the Jewish leaders of his day. (2) He was constantly healing people on the Sabbath and getting in trouble for it from the Jewish leaders. Why is there so much in the story of Jesus’ ministry that revolves around controversies on the Sabbath? I think this only makes sense to us if we see how the Sabbath Law had become a violent tool to the cultural mechanisms of Jesus’ day, a violence for which he gave his life to challenge.

It is such a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry, that the new followers of Christ, after his resurrection, eventually have found a new day on which to worship, Sunday, the first day of the week. Why Sunday? Because that was the day of the beginning of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, virtually, the creation of a new culture, God’s Culture, one that does not impose its order in any way, offering instead the way of loving obedience of the Son to the Father, of children to their loving Creator.

We need to consider an even stickier point, one that is at the center of controversy for us today. Before we leave Genesis 1, we need to notice one other element of human order that sin might be taking advantage of: namely, that we are created male and female. This is the famous “order of creation” that heterosexual people have used against homosexual people right up to this present day. After generations of struggle to grant more rights to slaves, to all people of color, to women, to people of different religions, and to people with varying ‘handicaps,’ the last “order of creation” that many still seem desperate to hold onto is that of sexuality ordered male and female. Would Jesus finally take his stand along with this “order of creation”? Or would he help us to see it as another “cleverly devised myth” that we use to work violence against certain people?

Jesus did not speak directly to this issue. As we have said, the key issue seemed to be the way in which the Sabbath ordering of time was being used to oppress people. But Jesus did speak about marriage on at least two different occasions. On the first occasion, Jesus would seem to be speaking out very much in favor of the union of man and woman in marriage. We still quote it in our services of Christian marriage, that “man and woman shall become one flesh,” and that “those whom God has joined together shall not be put asunder.” I wouldn’t challenge that Jesus is supportive of healthy marriages between men and women.

But I would raise a couple of notes of caution precisely in the vein that we have been talking about today, that of laws and order violently imposed. If we take a quick look at the context of Jesus’ positive statements on marriage, we find precisely the kind of thing we are talking about: Jesus revealing the “hardness of hearts” of the Pharisees and the way in which they used the one-sided divorce laws to oppress women (Mark 10:1-10 and par.). Men completely controlled the laws on divorce. “Some Pharisees came” to Jesus “to test him” with a question about divorce, not marriage, and so Jesus’ positive words about marriage were in the face of their hardness of heart on divorce.

The second thing to point out is the other occasion on which Jesus talked about marriage. We talked about it last November (sermon for Proper 27C): the passage where the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a question about the woman who had to marry seven brothers as each one died in succession, failing to give her heirs (Luke 20:27-38 and par.). We showed how Jesus talks less flattering about marriage, that marriage is a reality for our cultures based on death. Instead of receiving marriage and children as gifts from the God of life, we grasp after marriage and children as means to our end of trying to forestall death by at least leaving heirs. Once again, even marriage is revealed as an order which we have used in sinful ways.

So what would Jesus say about our controversy today? Can we lift up heterosexual marriage as an ordering institution without doing violence to people who don’t experience that ordering in their lives? Is heterosexual marriage just another way in the long list of ways that our human sense of order has been used as a justification for violence? Another “cleverly devised myth” that Jesus’ power of love and life came to expose?

But doesn’t the Bible say that homosexual acts are wrong? The Bible also tells us about keeping slaves and that women shouldn’t speak in places of worship. We have decided that Jesus prophesied against such cleverly devised myths even in the Bible. Our second lesson even has something important to say about that: “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 recognizes that the truth doesn’t just jump off the page at each person to read it. We need to struggle together to interpret it.

As the body of Christ together, we did finally decide that slavery is absolutely wrong, in all circumstances. And we finally decided that women have crucial and equal places with men in worship. Can we also interpret together, listening hard for the Spirit, that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have equal places with us in Jesus Christ?

What would be our measure for interpreting such prophecy? St. Peter puts before us the Transfiguration scene in which the bright light of God’s love in Jesus Christ shines forth in the darkness of our violence. Let’s take a quick look at the Gospel story for today. Elijah and Moses appear there with Jesus. Why? And Peter wanted to immediately institutionalize the moment with monuments, an idea which seems to be quickly turned down by the voice from heaven. Why?

The answer I would suggest has to do once again with what we have been talking about today: how it is that we human beings tend to found cultures and institutions in violence. Why Elijah? Well, he did properly speak out against the sacrificial cult of Ba’al, a cult which still practiced human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice, a cult which the people of Yahweh had supposed to leave behind ever since there founding patriarch Abraham had been stopped from sacrificing his son Isaac. But how did Elijah oppose the cult sacrifices of Ba’al? By slaughtering the four hundred fifty prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:22, 40) after winning the dramatic showdown with them. In other words, Elijah, too, fell to the “cleverly devised myths” that justify our violence, so that he essentially worked his own brand of human sacrifice in his efforts to stop someone else’s human sacrifice [something the European “Conquistadors” also did to the Aztecs, to name one colorful example from a long list throughout the history of “Christendom”].

And what about the prophet Moses who gave his people the law? He came down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets of the law, his face shining with God’s glory, only to find his people worshiping a golden calf. He was right to help his people into a new way of ordering themselves after lives as slaves in Egypt, but what was his first way to convince them? He turned the sons of Levi on them, killing three thousand of them to punish their sin of worshiping the calf [also ordaining(!) the sons of Levi for the Lord’s service on the basis of their sacrifice, Ex. 32:28-29]. In Christ Jesus, do we not also come to see Moses’ righteous violence as being justified by a “cleverly devised myth”? Isn’t this why the voice from heaven on the mountain of transfiguration singled out Jesus from these other two heroes of the faith and said, “Listen to him!”?

How difficult is it to just listen to Jesus? Our response to September 11 continues to be for me at the center of trying to understand this matter of righteous violence. Yes, the act of terrorism we suffered that fateful day was terrible. No question about it. It was a hideous act of violence against innocent people. But hasn’t our response been more like Elijah and Moses who killed all the offending parties. We can hardly imagine any other kind of response, can we?

But God apparently did. He sent his Son into the world not to wield the righteous violence to end all righteous violence, but to suffer at the hands of our righteous violence, to forgive us for it, and to begin to show us true obedience to God’s totally nonviolent way of love. “This is my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased. Listen to him!” Can we, at long last?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, February 10, 2002

Link to the page for Transfiguration A


1. A good resource on this matter is Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), cf., pp. 152-168.

2. Mark 1:21-28 (par. Luke 4:31-37); Mark 2:23-28 (par. Matt. 12:1-8, Luke 6:1-5); Mark 3:1-6 (par. Matt. 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11); Luke 13:10-17 (our Gospel Lesson); Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; John 7:19-24; John 9 (the sabbath highlighted in vs. 13-17).

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