Now that I preach only occasionally, usually when our preacher at Bogart Christian Church is out of town, I realize that one of the genuinely good things about composing and revising and delivering a sermon every week is the occasion–indeed the need–to exercise the full range of one’s theological muscles for the sake of giving the congregation new thoughts every week. To write sermons is not to invent dogma, of course, and a sermon does not even need to break new ground in ways that academic theology might, but nonetheless every week that we exist in the world is a new moment, and I always tried to offer an occasion to hear God’s good news in a way that differed, subtly or obviously, from the ways in which I had spoken it the week before and the month before and the year before. Sometimes the new word would involve my exploring a theological concept, sometimes a moment in the Church’s life with a text, sometimes a bit of cultural criticism that the week’s text seems to request. But every sermon did something that other sermons had not, at least not exactly.
As I look at Luke 9 for this year’s Transfiguration sermon, I realize that some work with gospel parallels might do some good work in a sermon. I never noticed this before I started writing this post, but Luke’s account of Jesus and his disciples and Moses and Elijah on the mountain does not use the Greek verb metamorphoo the way that Mark and Matthew do. That verb is the root of the very seventeenth-century word “transfiguration,” and the compound verb tells its own story: the face of Jesus takes on a form, a shape, a figure that the face of Jesus had not taken before, and that transformation (another good synonym) is the high moment of the story.
Luke is a bit different: the way this week’s version of the story goes, Jesus’s face does not do anything as obviously dramatic as metamorphosis; instead, Luke understates, not even using a verb (that’s alright in some Greek sentences), or even saying anything directly about his face, but saying that the appearance of his face was different.
Not entirely it, of course. The clothes of Jesus do become brilliant, and Peter and the others still stare at the glory before them. But Luke hedges in terms of what is happening: there’s definitely a change in what appears to the men as they look on, but the claim of change remains one remove from the person of Jesus.
I’m going to do my normal act now of going out on a limb and saying that Luke’s change not only varies from Mark’s and Matthew’s deliberately but stands as an important literary and even theological datum in this story. The next episode in Jesus’s story, in all three gospels, is a dramatic exorcism in which Jesus saves a youth from a demon when the disciples could not. Mark’s version of the story (and Matthew’s in some later manuscripts) emphasizes prayer: Because Jesus had been praying on the mountain before the metamorphosis, he casts the demon out, then tells his disciples, who had not been with him in prayer, that their attempts did not succeed because they had been doing something other than praying. Matthew (in the early manuscripts–later ones seem to have assimilated to Mark) focuses on faith, and it’s after the Transfiguration and the disciples’ failed exorcism that Jesus speaks his famous mustard-seed saying.
Luke is a little different, and I find this fascinating. In the full version of the story, which ends in Luke 9:45 (I have no idea why the Lectionary editors cut the end of this pericope out, and I would be inclined to add it back in to Sunday’s Scripture readings), the exorcism episode ends not with a saying of Jesus about the exorcism itself but about God’s glory. The way Luke tells the story, Jesus does not explain how he was able to cast out the spirit that resisted the disciples, and in the moments after Jesus returns the boy to his father, the people gathered are astonished at the glory of God.
What I notice here is that, where Luke was scrupulous about calling the change in Jesus the appearance of change, here the people are astonished at the great power of God, and the narrator does not qualify even slightly. The importance of Jesus is not his appearance, even in a moment of brilliant revealing light, but in a great deed. But the story (in Luke’s version, even if not in the lectionary’s) is not finished there: Jesus, as they marvel, seizes the moment (I’m going to resist an excursus about chronos and kairos here) and announces that the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of his enemies. This is not the first time that he says something like this, but the power of this moment comes from the grand dramatic movement from the inexplicable and dazzling (when his face becomes different), through the manifestly majestic (his exorcism where other exorcists had failed) to the upsetting and subversive (the figure before you, who is looking more and more like the apocalyptic Son of Man from Daniel 7, is going to fail in his divine mission, delivered into the hands of his enemies when he should be fetching the forces of the Ancient of Days to establish justice). Whatever the disciples thought they knew going into this chain of encounters simply can’t survive, and the way Luke tells that story goes all the way down to the ways the book receives and revises the narrative for the community of the faithful.
May the Transfiguration (or at least the apparent change) once more turn our worlds upside down, and may our proclamation of the gospel extend the same to our neighbors.