Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21
Transfiguration can be an uncomfortable feast day for contemporary preachers.
Full of the skepticism of the scientific revolution, it is tempting for us to view the gospels’ testimony about the transfiguration as so much mythology. For, using our methods of analysis, we cannot explain with any certainty what exactly happened on the mountaintop that day. It is tempting to quickly turn away from the spectacle of Transfiguration in favor of the concrete Lenten road ahead of us.
Into our skepticism speaks the author of 2 Peter. Scholars agree that this epistle is a later edition to the canon, written after the letters of Paul had been collected into a body of writings for the church (2 Peter 3:15). It is written to a community faced both with the promise that Christ will come again and with the long wait until he does. The neighbors of this community have leveled charges that the gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing other than a deviously crafted story. To this assertion of doubt, the author of 2 Peter responds, and his response give us tools by which we may begin to address contemporary Christians with an ancient message.
First, the author of 2 Peter holds up the validity of oral history. We, as a nation, are just beginning to remember the importance of stories passed down over generations. The recently-launched Story Corps projects of the Library of Congress, for example, encourage people to have their friends and relatives pass on pieces of family lore before they are lost to the silence of death. For the congregation of 2 Peter, the transfiguration is also oral history, a story that has been passed down since the days of Simon Peter and that have now become part of their story.
In retelling those stories, the author and the community become eyewitnesses with the three who ascended the mountain, eyewitnesses both of Christ’s grandeur and of the Divine assertion of Christ’s kinship with God: “This is my son, the beloved…” Thus, although writing to a community at least one generation removed from the life of Jesus, the author can assert with confidence the eyewitness status of his community of faith in refutation of the charge that this is all a cleverly devised myth.
A thoughtful preacher might use this authorial assertion to uphold the importance of testimony to the presence and power of God in our midst today. There is, here, an invitation to the community of faith to be on the lookout for more epiphanies, more evidence of the in-breaking of God, whether clothed in light upon a mountaintop or in far subtler ways. This might also be an opportunity, particularly for those from traditions that practice testimony, to involve the community of faith in the discipline of testimony, of relating the ways in which God’s presence and power have been revealed in everyday life for the building up of the community.
A second theme in the proper for Transfiguration is that of reliable prophecy. Here, the author is referring to that central promise of Christian theology that Christ will return and will be revealed as Lord. This is the answer Epiphany gives to the longing of the Advent season that started this church year. Here the author makes at least two points worth considering as one prepares to preach.
First, the author speaks about the hope that reliable prophecy brings to the community of faith. Thus the metaphor of prophecy as a lamp that brings light until the dawn breaks. Such an assertion might lead a preacher into a discussion of whether the statements of a community of faith bring light into gloomy places until the breaking of dawn, or whether they deepen the gloom. Alternatively, a preacher might take up the theme of illumination as a way of discerning a “reliable prophetic word” for the community of faith, a theme that will tie nicely both to the gospel and to the Hebrew Bible proper for this Sunday.
Second, a preacher might focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of prophecy. For it is by the Holy Spirit that Christians are able to assert prophetic words into places where there is great need for illumination and hope. Certainly, contemporary heroes of the faith could provide ample evidence of those sorts of Spirit-inspired prophetic words and the way in which they enabled a community of faith to hold on in troubled times.
The appeal of this epistle as a companion text to this week’s gospel for Transfiguration Sunday is evident. As in the gospel, the epistle retells the story of the Transfiguration and the assertion of the divine sonship of Jesus. The wording of the text is almost identical, although one could argue that the sentence structure of the divine declaration emphasizes “this” in the gospel and “my son the beloved” in the epistle. Nevertheless, the epistle serves to underscore the testimony of the gospel which in turn illustrates the passing on of oral and written testimony from generation to generation.
In conversation with the Hebrew Bible passage, a theme of divine splendor on the mountain recurs. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, Moses alone enters that cloud; in the New Testament, Jesus is accompanied by three witnesses. One could use these two texts to tie together the splendor of the gift of the law and of the gift of the son, two markers of God’s covenant with humanity. This could be underscored by comparing what Moses brings off the mountain — the Law — with what Christ brings off the mountain — his own body; both of these serve as the vehicles of divine relationship with the community of faith.
Regardless of which choice one makes, the epistle encourages the community of faith not to come down off of the mountaintop too quickly. Wednesday will come with all of its solemnity, but for Transfiguration Sunday, we are asked to declare that which we cannot explain, to testify to what generations have held to be true: that Jesus Christ is God’s beloved son.