Sermon - Transfiguration Year A - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |

Myth and reality

[Note: There is an Appendix of Biblical references and notes more extensive than in the sermon, which is itself intended to be simplified somewhat in delivery, while the written version is made available for further study. My aim has been to maintain theological integrity on a Biblical base, while providing or strengthening a foundation of understanding for people to deal with the postmodern dilemma. Visual aids might include a large print or transparency of Raphael's painting The Transfiguration in the Vatican Library, noting the scene of continuing life for disciples in the lower part of the painting, and some ancient stylized representation such as the mosaic of the Transfiguration dated about 565 in the apse of the church in the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai.]

Did it really happen, or was it just a made up story? Sometimes we want to know this when we hear a story. "But is it true?", we might ask. Then there are stories that seem to tell us something even when we know they were made up for us and we might as ask ourselves, "Does it matter whether it is literally true?" For example, do you know the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, who, with his father Daedalus, made wings of feathers and wax, and how they flew in the air to escape from the Labyrinth, until Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings melted so that he fell into the sea. We might say that although we know it is a fable it tells us something that is true: that is, that if you are too ambitious you run the risk of falling. In Australia in recent years, people have become familiar with some of the Aboriginal stories of the Dreamtime which told the early people of this land important things about their environment. Even if those stories are very different from scientific accounts, they can still contain useful ideas.

Jesus told stories which he made up. We call them parables: stories like "The Good Samaritan" or "The Prodigal Son", from which we learn important things like how we should treat foreigners as our neighbours, and how God loves people who repent and come back to him. So stories do not have to be literally true as history to tell us something that is true, and even important for us to know. The Bible contains many stories like that as well as others that are accounts of what really happened, some of which are based on historical events but have been remembered in different ways by different people. We can learn from many kinds of stories.

To recognize that we can learn from many different types of stories in the Bible should not make us anxious about the truth of the Bible. The truth of the Bible is in what it tells us about God and our relationship to him, which includes how we treat one another. This truth about God comes to us in many ways in the Bible. Some of it is in poetry, some in history, some parables, some in warnings given by the prophets or in advice that the apostles gave to believers, and these warnings or advice sometimes came in the form of stories which might or might not have been literally true. What matters is whether we truly hear what God has to say to us. At the same time, we need to realize that, especially today, people who want to do what is wrong or to have people believe things that are not true, do sadly, sometimes, say that you do not have to believe everything in the Bible, that you should work out for yourself what is true; and that does make people wonder what they should believe. So, while truth can come to us from stories in the Bible that might have been made up to give us a message, there is also a danger in being too ready to say, of any story we don't like, that you don't have to believe that literally. We live in the time of great controversy about the interpretation of scripture, when false messages are being given to disguise the truth that is in the Bible.

What, then, do you make what of the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up on a high mountain? We have read ( in Matthew 17:1-9) about the strange appearance of Jesus when they were on the mountain, and of how the disciples who were with him saw Jesus talking there with Moses and Elijah, great men of Israel who had died centuries before. Do you think that is true? What can we learn from it? Does it matter whether it really happened? You might say that it really happened just as Matthew whose account we read, or Mark (9:2-8) and Luke (9:29-36) have told us, although if you compare the different accounts in the three gospels you will find that they are not exactly the same. For example, Matthew says that his face shone, which Mark does not mention. You might expect different memories and somewhat different stories to be told about what happened there on the mountain when the cloud came down, and yet still accept as true that the three disciples saw the appearance of Jesus change dramatically in what we have traditionally called the Transfiguration.

On the other hand some people say that it did not happen in the ordinary earthly life of Jesus, when he was travelling with his disciples to the North of Galilee, but that it is an account of a resurrection appearance which has been displaced to an earlier point in the gospel writings. That was the opinion of some biblical scholars earlier this century which appears in many commentaries, part, I think of a general tendency to suspect that things did happen just as they are said to have happened. Scholars today say that it does not make sense to regard it as a memory of an appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection, because it fits too well with other things that happened when they were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, and because Moses and Elijah were with him. Others are disinclined to believe anything so fantastic, saying it must have been a made up story to show what a high regard they had for Jesus, that they saw him as a great man, brilliant, impressive like a great king, and even divine.

In any case, that it was not an ordinary everyday experience is clear enough. Matthew reports in verse 9 that Jesus referred to their experience as a vision:

When eyewitnesses reports were needed

You might imagine that worries about whether something like this really happened is a modern concern. It is, in a way, because in the last hundred years or so people in the West have been inclined to disbelieve anything that they could not fit easily into their view of the world. But it is not new. Even before the New Testament period was over, when the later books were still being written, questions were being asked, not only about this, but about many other things that were claimed for Jesus. In the early church these questions tended to answered by learning from the apostles, some of whom were still alive. Those who had actually been with Jesus could tell what they had seen and heard. As the original eyewitnesses began to die out, however, traditional memories and written records became more important, so what the apostles taught about Jesus was written down as a true record of those events. These records were edited and brought together in what we call the gospels and joined with letters written by the apostles and those close to them as the best available evidence of what God had revealed through Jesus Christ. Many books were written which were not accepted as true records, and it was some centuries before what we have as the New Testament was finally settled as the authority on the gospel. At the same time there were many other beliefs which were being taught in competition with the gospel, these other beliefs often depended upon various myths and secret oracles which people were invited to share if they would follow a different way.

It was toward the end of the New Testament period, when the new churches were struggling with controversies within and attacks from outside, that the Second Letter of Peter was written. The writer represents the tradition of the apostles at a time when there were many competing ideas offered by people who said this Jesus was not as marvellous as you say:- Look has he returned as you have been expecting? Did he really rise from the dead? Where is he? Where is the evidence of his power and glory? Why don't you listen to us instead, and we will tell you the true secrets we have received about God and the way to live! So, in defence of the gospel, believers were told by people who knew the tradition about Jesus from the apostles, not to be misled by fanciful myths, but to trust the witness of the apostles:

Here was a message from the original eyewitnesses to what we have read about in Matthew 17. The authority of Jesus is confirmed by people who were actually with him:

They are saying it is not a myth or fable, we were there and we witnessed it. The writer represents that tradition in which the apostles were eyewitnesses. Jesus is to be accepted as the new teacher of the law, like Moses but greater that he, and one to carry on teaching about God with more authority than the greatest of the prophets, like Elijah. "Listen to him." They had a glimpse of the greatness of Jesus as the Christ, and of glory that he shared with God whose Son he was. They testified to what they saw and heard (see e.g. 1 John 1:1-4). They wanted people to know what they had experienced, whether it was in the normal everyday way of seeing, or a "vision" as Matthew indeed tells us the Transfiguration was described by Jesus. They were witnesses to the truth they had received.

Whatever interpretation people give, the Transfiguration was accepted by the disciples as evidence of the majesty and glory of Jesus, whom they had just recognized as the Messiah (that is, Christ). Peter had confessed his belief in him just about a week earlier (Matthew 17:1 and Mark 9:2 have six days, and Luke 9:28 has "about eight days"). In the worship of the church, we celebrate the Transfiguration now at the end of the season of Epiphany during which we have recalled how Jesus was shown to the world as the Messiah. Then, just as Jesus began to teach them, as soon as Peter had made his confession of faith, that he must go to Jerusalem and die, for that was strangely the greatest work of the Messiah, so we now prepare after this glimpse of his glory to follow him during Lent to the time of his suffering. This small vision through a window in time and place into his standing in the world of his glory has been allowed to us from the midst of his earthly life, which is soon to be brought to a violent end, but an end which this insight into his divine character, glory and authority tells us will not truly be the end, but a new beginning in which his followers, like Peter, James and John -- and us -- will be able share. It should not then, the apostles are telling us, be beyond belief that such a one as he would rise from the dead and come again to establish his rule for ever.

Revealing the secret: implications for today

As Jesus had told them to do, the disciples kept secret their vision of the power and glory they had seen in him at the Transfiguration, until after Jesus rose from the dead. Then the full truth of his divine kingly power was to be make known to all who were ready to receive it. There are important implications for us at the end of the twentieth century in the way that it was eventually made known amongst people who were inclined to believe many different things.

We too are beset with disbelief about the unique power and glory of Jesus Christ, and we live amongst people who are very willing indeed to entertain all sorts of myths. Indeed it is very strange that so many crazy things are readily believed, even about Jesus, while the Gospel is rejected. Books of utter fantasy sell in large numbers. People seek again the "hidden truth" of ancient pagan religions, while rejecting without serious examination the truth about God in Christ. It seems that anything goes as long as it is not Christian! Why is that? I don't know, though I suppose we could make some guesses that it has something to do with the assertion of human freedom, and a belief that we can arrange things including religion to suit ourselves. Indeed that is true: God has given humanity that freedom (though not without consequences). But will our God-given freedom be used to discover the truth?

We now face the same kind of question that was being asked when the advice from Peter was being offered about their being eyewitnesses to the power and glory of Jesus. That was at the very beginning of a period of more than two centuries of struggle between the Christian faith and pagan religions which, in many and various alternative ways, offered salvation through special knowledge -- secrets given to people when they joined a cult or secret society. Those who taught such myths were later known as Gnostics, and it is interesting that there has been a revival of Gnosticism in the New Age movement in the West in the last decade or two of the twentieth century. It is even presented today as the truth which the church has suppressed, the secrets to be learned even today by those initiated into ancient secret societies.

The apostles experienced the same kind of thing when long ago people turned away from the truth with ears itching for novelty. The advice of Paul to Timothy, which comes also from the late New Testament period, applies today:

When that struggle was just beginning 2000 years ago, the apostles sometimes used the language of a sharing a secret to proclaim the gospel. For example,

Paul often spoke of the mystery which he was sharing:

[The Greek word for mystery is related to the word for myth and literally refers to closing the mouth so as to keep a secret. Paul called himself and his fellow workers, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1), and we understand that to apply to the word of God and to the sacraments which are still known in the Greek Church as "the mysteries". Indeed our word "sacrament" comes from the Latin word meaning to make an oath, as when one is initiated in the secrets of a cult or new religion.

You will see that the mystery now revealed included not only the gift of Christ, or the whole Gospel, but particular teaching like the promise of resurrection after we die, and the inclusion of foreign nations in the community of believers.]

While the depth of the mystery was something for the mature in the faith,

it was, essentially, however, for Paul, not a secret to be kept, but a revelation of truth to be shared:

You could say that, while believing the gospel is essentially simple, as the faith of a child is simple, there is still enough depth of mystery in the faith we have received to keep the greatest of minds in awe and to satisfy even the deepest most searching enquires. We ought to be prepared to learn in depth ourselves and to share the mysteries of Christ as people grow in faith, but that is not the principal challenge today. I think it is somehow to have people pay attention to the witness of the apostles to Jesus. Just look at the evidence. That is the starting point of the knowledge about God to be found in Christ. It is difficult to have people pay attention to the evidence in competition with seductive myths and theories.

One truth for all

There is another aspect to this, when we talk about discerning the truth, distinguishing the truth from fantasy, knowing the difference between reality and myth. It is the postmodern dilemma:- Is there the same truth for everyone, or is your truth different from my truth? Can we each decide the truth for ourselves? Do we indeed have any alternative, but what we alone see? Can we, must we, discover or create our own truth? The letter of Peter seems to say, No, you cannot have it according to your own preference, but rather in what is given to you.

That does not mean that we do not each respond to the gospel in own way. Faith, if it is genuine will always be a matter of the individual human heart, but it if it true to Christ it will be a response to the same Lord as was known to the apostles and Christians through the ages. There is only one God, who is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. There is not your god or my god, unless we are worshipping idols. We cannot make up our own image of God if we are true to the revelation of God in Christ. That is important when much in the postmodern world is like it was at the time when Second Peter was written. There is an objectivity about the gospel that is incompatible with the willful subjective displays of human religion which concentrate on what suits the individual seeker after truth, rather than on what is actually true. Appeal to the experience of the apostles as eyewitnesses was an appeal to what is given by God, not like the myths something that we manufacture for ourselves.

If that reference to authority is difficult to accept because it seems insensitive to our democratic regard for equality and freedom, remember that the authority of Jesus, which the apostles said had been declared to them by God at the Transfiguration, was an authority that he worked out in his own life as a suffering servant. He was revealed as an authority:

But he was not authoritarian. You can see that in the way he died. At around the time of the Transfiguration Jesus had begun to teach them that he must take the way of the suffering servant (Mark 8:29-31). He was not going to impose himself as king in a way that worldly authorities would understand (Mark 15:2; John 18:33-38), although the power and glory, the majesty of God, that was seen in him at the Transfiguration, was that of a king -- the King of kings, the Messiah. His glory was only going to be demonstrated to the world after he died as the servant even of those who killed him. He is to be listened to, with even more authority than Moses and Elijah, but he leaves people free to accept him or to choose the myths of human imagination, while with the eyes of faith, trusting the witness of the apostles, we can see the reality of God in him - to whom the highest praise and glory are due. Glory to him. Amen.

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APPENDIX

Additional notes re. 2 Peter 1:16-17: For we did not follow cleverly devised myths[1] when we made known to you the power and coming[2] of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty[3]. {17} For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic[4] Glory[5], saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

2 Peter 1:16: Ref Matt 17:1-9 and parallels.

1 "MYTHS": 3454. muthos, moo-'thos; perh. from the same as G3453 (through the idea of tuition); a tale, i.e. fiction ("myth"):--fable. 3453. mueo, moo-eh'-o; from the base of G3466; to initiate, i.e. (by impl.) to teach:--instruct.3466. musterion, moos-tay'-ree-on; from a der. of muo (to shut the mouth); a secret or "mystery" (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):--mystery. cf 1Tim 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Titus 1:14

2 "COMING": 3952. parousia, par-oo-see'-ah; from the pres. part. of G3918; a being near, i.e. advent (often, return; spec. of Christ to punish Jerusalem, or finally the wicked); (by impl.) phys. aspect:--coming, presence.

3 "MAJESTY": Transfiguration, Matt 17:1-9 etc 3168. megaleiotes, meg-al-i-ot'-ace; from G3167; superbness, i.e. glory or splendor:--magnificence, majesty, mighty power. 3167. megaleios, meg-al-i'-os; from G3173; magnificent, i.e. (neut. plur. as noun) a conspicuous favor, or (subj.) perfection:--great things, wonderful works. See also note to Majestic in verse 17. (Gr: megaloprepes, great plus become)

4 "MAJESTIC": 3169. megaloprepes, meg-al-op-rep-ace'; from G3173 and G4241; befitting greatness or magnificence (majestic):--excellent.

5 "GLORY": 1391. doxa, dox'-ah; from the base of G1380; glory (as very apparent), in a wide application (lit. or fig., obj. or subj.):--dignity, glory (-ious), honour, praise, worship.

On the mountain ref Matt 17:1-9, cf Moses Ex 24:16ff cloud of divine presence. (Note Joshua was with Moses at one point, and in Greek Joshua = "Jesus")

(2 Timothy 4:3-4) For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, {4} and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

(Matthew 13:10-11) Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" {11} He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

(Romans 16:25-27) Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages {26} but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- {27} to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

(1 Corinthians 2:6-10) Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. {7} But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. {8} None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. {9} But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him"-- {10} these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

(1 Corinthians 4:1) Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards[1] of God's mysteries.

1 "STEWARDS": 3623. oikonomos, oy-kon-om'-os; from G3624 and the base of G3551; a house-distributor (i.e. manager), or overseer, i.e. an employee in that capacity; by extens. a fiscal agent (treasurer); fig. a preacher (of the Gospel):--chamberlain, governor, steward.

(1 Corinthians 13:2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

(1 Corinthians 15:51-52) Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, {52} in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

(Ephesians 1:9-10) he has made known to us the mystery[1] of his will[2], according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, {10} as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 1:9: See word notes on mystery and will re purpose and Ephes 3:2-3,5-6,9.

1 "MYSTERY": Mystery of his will = NEB his hidden purpose. HG Dict: 3466. musterion, moos-tay'-ree-on; from a der. of muo (to shut the mouth); a secret or "mystery" (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):--mystery. See note on`will' re meaning ref choice and purpose.

2 "WILL": Mystery of his will = NEB his hidden purpose +see note on `mystery': HG Dict: 2307. thelema, thel'-ay-mah; from the prol. form of G2309; a determination (prop. the thing), i.e. (act.) choice (spec. purpose, decree; abstr. volition) or (pass.) inclination:--desire, pleasure, will.

(Ephesians 3:3-6) and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, {4} a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. {5} In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: {6} that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Ephesians 3:3: re `Mystery' in Ephes 3:3-6 see notes on 1:9 and MYSTERY.INX and MYSTERY.WP5. Ref Sunday 01C

(Colossians 1:26-27) the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. {27} To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Colossians 1:27: see note on Ephes 1:9

(Colossians 2:2-4) I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself, {3} in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. {4} I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.

Re the use of prophecy in OT to confirm expectation of the Parousia

(Acts 3:19-24) Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, {20} so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, {21} who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. {22} Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. {23} And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.' {24} And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days.

Re: morning star

cf (Romans 13:11-12) Besides this, you know what time[1] it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; {12} the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;

Romans 13:11: compare 'kairos' and 'chronos', 'time' word note. REB Always remember that this is the hour of crisis. NIV ... understanding the present time. JB .. you know 'the time' has come. with note "... apparently the eschatonological era ... 'latter days' ... introduced by Christ's death and resurrection ... the age of salvation. It is opposed to the era that preceded it by a difference not so much of time as of nature. The Christian, henceforth a 'child of the day', emancipated from the wicked world, Gal 1:4, and fromthe empire of darkness, belongs to the kingdom of God and his son, Col. 1:13 ...

1 "TIME": 2540. kairos, kahee-ros'; of uncert. affin.; an occasion, i.e. set or proper time:--X always, opportunity, (convenient, due) season, (due, short, while) time, a while. Comp. G5550. 5550. chronos, khron'-os; of uncert. der.; a space of time (in gen., and thus prop. distinguished from G2540, which designates a fixed or special occasion; and from G165, which denotes a particular period) or interval; by extens. an individ. opportunity; by impl. delay:--+ years old, season, space, (X often-) time (-s), (a) while. 165. aion, ahee-ohn'; from the same as G104; prop. an age; by extens. perpetuity (also past); by impl. the world; spec. (Jewish) a Messianic period (present or future):--age, course, eternal, (for) ever (-more), [n-]ever, (beginning of the, while the) world (began, without end). Comp. G5550. See sermon A1A (2 Corinthians 4:6) For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Re Glory See Matt 17:2 re 2 Peter 1:16-17.

Cf Luke 2:9) Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. Ref light but usually honour as of a king, also appearance. 1391. doxa, dox'-ah; from the base of G1380; glory (as very apparent), in a wide application (lit. or fig., obj. or subj.):--dignity, glory (-ious), honour, praise, worship. Cf (Revelation 1:16) In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. And cf Ex 34:29-30 re Moses' shining face. (Mal. 4:5) Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

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