Transfiguration of Our Lord (Year A)

Though the words belong to an ancient letter, they seem so contemporary and modern.

Transfiguration, mosaic in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Creative Commons image by rich_gibson on Flickr. Sourced from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

March 2, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21

Though the words belong to an ancient letter, they seem so contemporary and modern.

In part that is because of the issue that drives them — it’s about authority, credibility, and trust. “We were not following cleverly reasoned myths…” (2 Peter 1:16).


The words provide clues to a situation of conflict in which both the message and the witness are subject to challenge. We may expect such differences to drive concerns in the public sector and in political debate, but we may not be so ready to expect or acknowledge their presence in faith communities or in the congregations we know and love.


Still it is no kept secret that our religious communities seem to have become more and more used to create conflict and divisions and the fears and discomforts which accompany them. It may be small comfort, but it may be a helpful contribution toward a more hopeful outlook to be reminded that such divisions and conflict were also present in the early church — such as the Christian community to which the second letter of Peter was addressed. When authority is in question, the confidence and hope of a community are in question — then and now. To what resources can one turn? The writer of 2 Peter offers some clues.


Worthy of note is that claims to credibility and authority are not founded first of all by reference to the name of Jesus, though such a claim would not have been unimportant. Attention is directed rather to the name that stands over this whole epistle, the name of a respected and revered apostolic leader, namely Peter.


Though this letter purports to have been written by Peter, that can hardly be the case. As 2 Peter 3:15-16 makes clear, by the time this letter is written, the letters of Paul have already been collected and are circulating in the Christian community as of equal standing with the “other scriptures.”


So, following a practice familiar in other ancient religious writings, an authoritative appeal is made to the name of one who was “there” at the beginning. This Peter had heard the words of Jesus and, where this day of Transfiguration is concerned, was there on the mountain when Jesus was revealed as Messiah and confirmed by the direct address of God. Whoever the writer, the words exhibit confidence that appeal to a revered and trusted leader from the earliest days of Jesus and his disciple community will be of sufficient weight and importance to sway a community at risk.


At the same time the author recognizes that no name, not even that of Peter, will ultimately be enough. Trust ultimately is fostered by and relies upon the word and promise of God. That promise resides in the “power and presence” of the Lord Jesus Christ that witness to the Transfiguration maintains continues to dwell with the faith community (verse 16).


Though most translations construe the word parousia here as “coming” and hence to suggest a reference to the second coming or return of Jesus, the normal root sense of this word is “presence.” Given the context and the clear allusions to the event of the Transfiguration, the word here must rather refer to the authority and power that resides in the affirmation of the “presence” of the Lord Jesus Christ with his disciple community.


In the Transfiguration we celebrate, then and now, the confidence that the authority of God’s word and our hope for the future rest finally not in any intermediary authority, but in the promise of Jesus’ abiding presence with his faithful followers.


That presence of Jesus with each faithful community is continually confirmed by the presence and effectiveness of the “prophetic word.” When Paul includes the gift of “prophecy” among the diverse gifts of the Spirit, he is certainly not referring to the writings or witness of the prophets, but rather to the gift that resides in the ability to “interpret” with clarity and power the authoritative scriptures for a contemporary community (1 Corinthians 12.10).


It is that same gift of faithful interpretation of the scriptures to which the author now points. Now that neither Jesus nor the original apostles are present, either for that early Christian community or for us, it remains all the more important to have confidence that we can trust those who interpret and mediate the scriptures to us for this present day. That was true for the early church, and so it is true for us.


As the matter stands and as the writer’s argument acknowledges, interpretation always places us at risk. Can we trust the one who interprets? Will we get it right? Will we agree? The divisions and conflicts in our churches are not conducive to great confidence or assurance on this score. But the writer offers some direction in the concluding verses of today’s reading (1:20-21).


First, it is important to note that the comments here are not about the “writing” or “writers” of scripture, as frequently they are so taken. The term epilysis at the end of verse 20 is a technical term that refers not to the writing but rather to the task of “unlocking,” “deciphering,” or “explaining “ of a written text, as the translation of “interpretation” has accurately captured. Hence this means that once again (as in verse 19) the reference to “prophecy of scripture” is not to the “writing” but rather to the gift of clearly and accurately “unlocking” and witnessing to the message of scripture.


Experience has taught us to be appropriately on guard, to expect that there will always be problems of understanding which some may “twist” or “pervert” to their own ends. There will be disagreements about interpretation as there apparently are in the community to which this letter is addressed (see 2 Peter 3:16). There needs to be some further course of appeal.


That course of appeal lies ultimately for them and for us in the presence, testimony, and power of the Spirit. As for the Johannine community, who heard the promise of the Spirit as the confirmation of the abiding presence of the resurrected Jesus (see John 14-16), so here this community is reminded that the power for hope and confidence in a living witness resides in recognizing that interpretation is not just a matter of individual whim or competency.


We are invited to trust, and indeed that is the promise, that the power and the authority ultimately rests in God. The Spirit continues to move among us. In the Spirit’s presence, the glorified Jesus on the mountain is made present among us, the gift of prophecy for faithful interpreting of the scriptures is continually given, and the appeal of faithful witness is granted a hearing within faithful Christian communities who bear fruit in hopeful endurance and godly affection and love.


The preacher who attends to this lesson may wish to reflect on this risky business of interpretation in which we are constantly engaged as the people of God. There is reason to be confident in the power of God’s word to make present the resurrected and living Lord Jesus.


At the same time, the author’s assertion that “no prophecy of scriptures is a matter of one’s own interpretation” is not an occasion for despair, but an invitation once again to be reminded of the Spirit’s power and presence at work in the faithful witness of the believing community. Martin Luther captures a similar sentiment in his Small Catechism remarks on the Spirit: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”