19 February 2023

In the last week before the Lenten journey starts, we move to the mountain-top to revisit the Transfiguration. This is another one of those stories which we know so well that we can easily slip into ‘same old, same old’ thinking. But, there are some wonderful gems in the Matthew narrative, especially when linked with the other readings, that can be teased out this week. I particularly like, and have developed in these resources, the focus on God’s affirmation – of Christ, of God’s called ones, and of us as followers of Christ. Flowing from this, inevitably, is the call for us to be “affirmers” in the same way as God is revealed to be in this story.

May we allow our worship to lead us into the ministry of affirmation, even as we receive God’s affirmation ourselves.

Exodus 24:12-18: God calls Moses to come up the mountain to receive God’s commands, and he obeys and spends 40 days and nights with God on the mountain.

Psalm 2: A Royal Psalm reflecting on the antagonism of the nations against God’s anointed king, and affirming God’s claim of the king as God’s son.
OR Psalm 99: A celebration of God as Israel’s king, who loves justice, who answered the calls of God’s people for help, and who speaks from the pillar of cloud.

2 Peter 1:16-21: Peter affirms the reliability of his teaching, and that of the other apostles, reminding his readers of his experience with Jesus on the mountain, and confirming his trust in the message of the prophets.

Matthew 17:1-9: Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain, where he is transfigured and talks to Moses and Elijah who appear with him. God proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved son, and afterward, Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone what they have seen until after the resurrection.

The heart of this year’s transfiguration readings is God’s affirmation – especially of Christ. In Exodus, Moses is called to meet with God on the mountain to receive God’s commands, both affirming the leadership and ministry of Moses, and foreshadowing the meeting of Jesus with God on the mountain. Psalm 2 expresses God’s affirmation of God’s son, and Psalm 99 shows how God has affirmed God’s called servants, and has spoken from the cloud, even as God did with Jesus. Peter draws attention to his experience of Christ’s transfiguration, and of God’s voice affirming Christ, and on the basis of this affirms the trustworthiness of the prophets’ message. All of these passages serve to draw our attention to God’s voice speaking from out of the cloud and affirming Christ, as well as to the affirmation of Moses and Elijah in their appearance to Christ in this event. Since God saw fit to affirm Christ in this way, it raises the question of what that means for us. In the first place, it must challenge us to reflect again on our view of Christ. It must cause us to think again about the way in which we believe God’s affirmation and act on it in our response to Christ. In the second place, God’s affirmation of Christ, becomes the basis on which we trust and adopt Christ’s way of living – as Peter suggests. This moment, placed before Christ turns toward his death, was intended to affirm again that his way of sacrifice is God’s chosen way. This was an advance assurance for the disciples, who faced deep doubt in the face of Christ’s death, but is also an affirmation for us as we face times when Christ’s way appears to be “failing” or costing us too much, or doesn’t make sense.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: Two immediate implications of this week’s theme come to mind. The first is that God’s affirmation of Christ can and must inform the work we do as Christ-followers in the world. This may mean that we need to resist the temptation towards functional atheism, in which we get so caught up in the work of justice and addressing social ills that we become little more than a social upliftment organisation. It may mean ensuring that we remain committed to Christ’s sacrificial way, even though more expedient, but less ethical, possibilities are available to us. It may mean preserving our own spirituality so that the radiance of Christ shines from us, even when we’re faced with conflict, persecution, struggle or misunderstanding. Whatever it may mean for us specifically, there is no question that the light of Christ’s character and Christ’s way of living are desperately needed in our world.

The second implication – which flows from the first – is the powerful role that affirmation can play in bringing justice into the world. It is easy to criticise, easy to break down and easy to oppose. But, real life and justice are found when we seek and find common ground, even with our antagonists. This approach was what got Nelson Mandela into dialogue with F.W. De Klerk in the process which ended apartheid. This was the approach that was embraced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, when we take the time and energy to affirm the creativity and resilience of the poor, when we affirm the courage of peacemakers, when we affirm the servanthood of those who work with the homeless and those on the fringes of society, we strengthen the efforts of these faithful people, and support the work of justice in the world. When we affirm the efforts, the good intentions and the positive work that is done by those we disagree with, we build bridges which can lead to peace and justice. And when we affirm one another, we give ourselves the courage and strength to persevere even in the face of great hardship. The Transfiguration, then, is not just an amazing event of the past. As we follow Christ’s way, we embrace God’s affirmation of Christ, and as we follow God’s example of affirmation, we allow the light of Christ to shine brighter in our world.

LOCAL APPLICATION: It is unfortunate that the church is often known more for what we condemn or criticise than what we affirm. It is all too easy to oppose and to say ‘no’ to other groups, other initiatives or other communities. But, rather than reflect Christ’s glory and God’s affirmation of Christ, we only leave people feeling bruised and rejected. Further, there is the tendency to adopt the same attitude as Peter – attempting to ‘contain’ and ‘preserve’ our experience of God for ourselves. But, God’s affirmation of Christ calls us to listen to him, and what he instructs is for us to return to others to embrace them with Christ’s sacrificial love. A significant question to ask, then, as we seek to impact our communities for Christ, is this: What can we affirm and celebrate in our community?

Of course, the work of affirmation is also something that must happen within our churches. Relationships, connectedness and community are built through celebrating one another and affirming one another. It is as we recognise the image of God within each other, and enable each other to shine, as Christ did, that we each find our place in community and in the work of God that we are called to do. Then, as we gather for worship, we can come with the expectation of encountering the transfigured Christ – indeed of experiencing a kind of transfiguration for ourselves – as the light of Christ radiates from each of us, and we are prepared to recognise and acknowledge it. Such an encounter will inevitably change us, and then, we will find ourselves moving out into the world to recognise the Christ-light everywhere, to affirm all who we meet, and to draw all people into this affirming, Christ-revealing way of living.

Whole-y God
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