2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
The Transfiguration is one of those stories that I’d like for Paul to have known about, and if one were to ask me why, I’d point to this little bit in 2 Corinthians as it sits next to Luke’s version of the Transfiguration in this week’s readings.
The phrase “in Christ” is one that has given me more trouble than it does most, at least if my experiences teaching Sunday school (which I’ve been doing, without more than a couple months’ break, since 1995) reflect the anxieties of the average Stone-Campbell non-denominational Christian. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, that slippery little phrase came across to me as a mystical cipher, something that could mean something just a bit different every time Paul uses it (and he uses it often). I figured it must be something similar to what I was reading in St. Julian of Norwich, a mystical blurring of one’s own person and Christ’s, and that presented its own troubles: given my own personality and disposition towards reality, I had a very clear sense of where d I ended and God began (yes, I acknowledge that God is Being without beginning, but you know what I mean), and I feared that my own overdeveloped sense of my own contingency was getting in the way of my being “in Christ.”
Then N.T. Wright came along, and as folks know who know me, his big scholarly “trilogy” (he originally planned it to be a series of five scholarly monographs, and he’s promised in recent publications that volume four will be coming soon) revolutionized the way I read the Bible and, by extension, see the world. His proposal was so elegant and simple that it’s no wonder I hadn’t thought of it before: if Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” frequently in his letters, perhaps its meaning is linked to something else he talks about frequently in the same letters. Wright points to an obvious candidate, the image of the Body of Christ.
Leaning heavily on Ephesians 1-2 (which, Wright has convinced me, is as valid a “starting point” for constructing a Pauline theology as is Romans 1:16-17), Wright suggests that to be “in Christ” is to be “in”corporated into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, as Paul states unequivocally in Ephesians 1. Therefore, what Paul predicates of people who are “in Christ” here and there seems to refer to people who by participation in the Eucharist, the Baptism, and the Teaching (also things that Paul brings up in Ephesians) have taken on identity with the King of all reality, the Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father. In other words, although the image has a mystical character to it, the image has an intelligible content that governs what sort of mysticism we’re talking about.
And so the strange bit about reading Moses with the veil on, although it’s clearly playing with philosophical categories that remain alien to the modern reader, starts to make some sense, provided that Paul knew some version (probably not Luke’s since most scholarship dates Luke-Acts after the Pauline epistles) of the Transfiguration. If one who is “in Christ” is incorporated into the very body of the King, whom Paul identifies with Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, then it’s not too hard to imagine that what Jesus, in one sense the “body of Christ” while he was walking around Palestine, saw on the mount of Transfiguration is now a vision of Moses and Elijah that the Church, the “body of Christ” while Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, shares. In other words, the one being who sees Moses aright, as the perpetually-brilliant bearer of the Torah of God, is the one who sees Moses as one sitting on one side as Elijah sits as the other, in other words one who sees both as attendants upon the body of Christ in the world.
There’s more to say, as is always the case when one reads Paul, but I have to think that something like the picture that Luke paints in Greek prose must have been somewhere in the complex of thoughts and influences and traditions that constituted the writer we call Paul when, inspired by God, he gave us this wonderfully perplexing little chunk of the letters to the Corinthians. As is often the case with Paul, it presents us less with concrete moral teachings and more with a wonderful vision and its implications, a King’s body constituted of saved souls, shunning falsehood and cunning because of who we are, a Church who sees Moses aright and does not lose heart, an assembly of free persons, liberated by the Spirit that informs and inspires us.
May the freedom that comes with being the Christ’s body elevate our souls and remind us of our particular Christian mission.