The Last Sunday after Epiphany/Transfiguration

March 2, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 24:12-18
Reading 2: 
Psalm 2
Reading 3: 
2 Peter 1:16-21
Reading 4: 
Matthew 17:1-9
Alt Reading 1: 
Psalm 99
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

We have been immersed in the past few weeks in Jesus’ message. This focused on the Commonwealth of God that through his work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it called into being. We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and also transformed it. Christians understand that Jesus announced and enacted the fulfillment of that tradition.

Today our focus is Christology. That is, our attention is called to the person of Jesus. For the second time in Matthew’s account, God breaks in to tell us who Jesus is. The first time was at Jesus’ baptism by John. If we wish to get to the roots of the question, who was Jesus, we should pay attention to God’s Christology. In today’s passage, God repeats the words he spoke at the baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This time God adds: “Listen to him.”

In one sense the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “sons of God.” To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully. Clearly those who heard God speak understood the Christology involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased. God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God. Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, an honest reading of Matthew cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians. Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being. Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission. For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable. Here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, it is Jesus whom God singles out for recognition. This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for believers today. That was sufficient for Matthew. The doctrinal arguments about the relationship of the substance of Jesus and the substance of the God who called Jesus “beloved Son” have not helped. Listening to Jesus has too often been blocked by mystifying disputes. The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

Today is the anniversary of Wesley’s death. We who stand in Wesley’s tradition are fortunate. More than the other Reformers, I believe, he put listening to Jesus ahead of speculations about his nature. For him listening to Jesus opens us to listen to others as well.

Of course singling Jesus out as the one to be listened to involves beliefs about him. One must believe that he was peculiarly free from the distortions of race and gender, nationality and culture, social role and economic class that block the understanding of all of us. One must believe that his openness to God attained a truly extraordinary purity. God is in all of us, but in Jesus, God becomes uniquely visible to us. We need an exalted view of Jesus just because he was truly and fully human. Matthew gives us that.

It is interesting, however, that in Matthew’s account Jesus forbids the three disciples who were with him to speak of their experience until after his death. One may speculate that once again Jesus wanted to avoid using marvels as an argument for supporting him. He wanted people to respond to the truth of his words on their own merit.

In the passage from II Peter we see the alternative approach at work. After his death, the story of God’s affirmation of Jesus in the transfiguration is used as an argument supporting the teachings of Peter. The resurrection appearances were more often appealed to in this connection. But Jesus would have preferred that we believe these stories because we listen to him than listen to him because of these marvels.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus invites us to think further about the relation of Jesus to Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount we found Jesus both affirming the Mosaic law and transforming it. Our text from Exodus brings out the parallels and the differences.

In Exodus God speaks to Moses. God’s words are as follows: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” God has singled out Moses for an enormously important role. It is he who is to take God’s written words to the people and demand their obedience. Much as Jews admire and appreciate Moses, it is the law mediated to them from God by Moses that is the focus of their spirituality. They have learned over the centuries how to refine, develop, and apply this law in ever changing circumstances. The person of Moses and the law given through Moses are quite distinct, even separable.

It is different with Jesus. We are to listen to him. His followers wrote down some of what they remembered. This enables us to listen. But our listening is bound up with what we know of his person, his life, his transfiguration, his death, and his resurrection. Listening to him certainly entails careful attention to what he said and even disentanglement of what we can now believe to be his authentic sayings from what was later placed on his lips. But none of this is separable from his person.  We interpret what we believe he said in light of what he did, just as we interpret what he did in light of what we believe he said.

God’s call to us is to listen to Jesus. To do so is dangerous. It is also saving.