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Myths and Truths

A Homily from II Peter 1:16-21

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

February 6, 2005 (Transfiguration of the Lord)

Easter will come early this year, and consequently so will Lent. For many of us, the imprint from our Christmas tree is still in the living room carpet; and it’s just now getting to be time to pitch the last of the banana bread from the refrigerator. The credit card bills have only just started to come, and it’s already time for Ash Wednesday.

Before we enter into the season of Lent, the Church pauses to remember the moment of Christ’s Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all recount the story of how Jesus took three of his disciples – Peter, James, and John – to the top of a mountain where Jesus’ face shone like the sun, his clothes turned a blinding white, Moses and Elijah appeared to converse with him, and a voice from a cloud proclaimed him the Son of God.

This is an understandably powerful moment in the memory of Jesus’ followers. Like Jesus’ baptism and his resurrection, the moment of his transfiguration is a powerful, physical, visible testimony to the unquestionable divinity of Jesus as the Son of God. Standing on that mountaintop, seeing an ordinary human changed into an image of holy power, left an indelible impression on the minds of his future apostles; and they passed the story of that experience on to us as the heirs to that moment.

Why do we pick this day, then, to retell that story and to honor that memory? Why on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday should the Church retell an account that testifies to Jesus’ divinity?

The answer for me comes from looking ahead to the next forty days. Over the next few weeks alongside hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, we will enter into a time of self-denial and penitence. We will reflect on the suffering of Christ as we also consider our own sinfulness. We will try to drown out the distracting voices of a sinful world, and hear the call of God in our lives.

Quite frankly, that’s a lot of work; and if Jesus is not the Son of God then it’s not worth it. If the purpose of Jesus’ preaching was not to bring about the Realm of Heaven, but rather to make people’s lives a little better; then we do not need to force ourselves to conform to his teachings. If Jesus was simply a philosopher or a teacher, then giving up six and a half weeks of our lives to meditate on his life is not worth the trouble. If Jesus suffered and died, not for a divine plan, but because he was a troublemaker; then denying ourselves the little pleasures of everyday life to honor his suffering is silly.

Lent is the season when we remind ourselves of how far we still have to go, of how much we have forgotten, of how great our weaknesses can be. And it is for exactly those reasons that, during the season of Lent, the Church is at its strongest. Transfiguration Sunday reminds us of why.

You see, if Lent forces us to admit where we have fallen by the wayside; it is also the time when we are reminded of the One who seeks after the straying sheep. If Lent is when we seek to restore our memories, it is also the time when we honor the One who never forgets. If Lent makes plain our weakness, it is because we also remember in this time the One who is truly strong.

It would be easy to recast Lent as a time to just look closely at the many failures of the Church on various important causes like equality, economic justice, and peace. Unquestionably we have not answered God’s call in these areas; but that level of superficial introspection is only a part of the Lenten discipline.

Following Christ is about something much more important than even causes of earthly justice. It is about seeking the mind of God, serving the will of God, and drawing closer to the presence of God. The story of the Transfiguration is a loud and obvious reminder of that.

The mystical transformation of Jesus, the presence of the great leaders of God’s people, the very voice of God; they all work together to proclaim that Jesus’ ministry was more than good news for today; it was good news for eternity because it was and is the work of God-in-the-flesh. There is no allegory, metaphor, or alternative interpretation that can undercut that message.

Our epistle text for today makes just that point. Speaking for the apostles, we hear Peter say, “We were not offering you clever myths, we were telling you what we really saw; and what we saw was the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As modern listeners, we hear “myths” and think simply “made-up stories” and “faerie tales.” Some of the original readers of this text would probably have heard the same. Certain philosophical movements [Epicureans] criticized the use of fanciful stories in religion instead of logic and fact. Other people saw interpretive value in myths, and cherished the magical stories of gods and goddesses. First century seekers were faced with countless options in choosing which of those stories to make their own; and on the surface they all seemed the same.

Our text for today says very clearly, “The gospel is different. It is not just a story, it is what we saw; and we saw the very Son of God.”

There’s one small wrinkle with that point. The author of II Peter is almost certainly not Peter the Apostle and very likely did not see the Transfiguration with their own eyes.

So what are we to make of this text? How do we respond when someone who isn’t who they claim to be tells us we should believe in the power and second coming of Jesus because they claim that they saw something they couldn’t have seen?

There are several ways to respond. The fundamentalist answer is familiar to many of us here. If every word of the Bible is not literally true, then we can’t take any of it seriously. If God did not write the Bible, if there’s even the tiniest error in it, then it’s not trustworthy. If Peter isn’t the one who wrote II Peter, then the whole thing is a lie.

On the other end of the spectrum is the radical liberal response, and it’s not really that different from the fundamentalist one. If, when we look critically at the Bible, we find inconsistencies or errors; then we really don’t have to take anything in the Bible seriously. The whole thing is up for grabs, and we can make up whatever we want to believe.

Obviously we’ve chosen to reject both approaches at Virginia-Highland. We have a deep veneration for Scripture and act obediently to the traditions of the Church. We are not a place where “anything goes.” On the other hand, we understand that Scripture can be true and authoritative without having been written verbatim by God.

In the case of II Peter, for instance, I can safely explain that it was a widely accepted practice for religious writers to write in the name of and from the perspective of key religious figures. No one will heat up the tar or start gathering feathers if, in preaching from II Peter, I explain that Peter almost certainly didn’t write it.

But of equal importance to the fact that I can preach here using responsible scholarship on II Peter is the fact that I still preach from II Peter. The details of who wrote the epistle aren’t the issue. What matters is that the points made by the woman or man who wrote this are the same ones made by the Apostles themselves; which is why our ancestors included the letter in the Bible.

We don’t need to obsess over minutiae to understand, affirm, and proclaim the same gospel that Peter preached and that this epistle teaches. That gospel is incredibly simple, and it centers completely on one person, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. He is not a myth or a happy story or a beloved teacher; he is the Son of God.

Such an illogical, bizarre proclamation was as difficult to believe 2000 years ago as it is today. Then, there were miraculous pronouncements about all sorts of mysterious figures and strange religions. There were also plenty of rational, secular critiques of the whole business of supernaturalism. Ultimately, there was the fact that the promised return of Jesus still had not happened. People were getting tired of trying to lead good and sinless lives expecting a Messiah who never showed up. Based on the direction of II Peter’s comments, it sounds like many people who had chosen to follow Jesus were looking for someone or something else to follow.

The writer of today’s texts reminds us that, for the Apostles, it wasn’t really a matter of choosing. Peter, James, and John in particular saw with their own eyes the power and majesty of Jesus as the Son of God. It was no longer a matter of choosing to follow a charismatic teacher. Jesus wasn’t simply the nice fellow who always seemed to have a ready supply of bread and fish. Standing on the mountaintop, the three future apostles realized that Jesus was more than simply a holy caterer; he is the living Son of God; and they knew they had to do what he said.

Glimpses of power will do that to a person. Growing up, my grandmother was always patient and kind with me. As a small child, I simply assumed that my grandmother was incapable of anger or even stern discipline. Then one day I heard her take someone to task. I don’t remember who it was or why, but knowing her I guarantee you they were in the wrong. Anyway, I saw a side of my grandmother I’d never seen…solid steel and fiery anger. You had better believe that the next time she asked me to vacuum or clean up around the house I jumped right to it.

The followers of Jesus lived so long ago, it’s easy to forget that – for them – the power, presence, and authority of Jesus was every bit as real as my grandmother’s was for me. As we read the Scriptures we can almost hear their frustration as they try to convey to us the significance of the life of Jesus; the reality of the coming of the Realm of God.

II Peter reminds us to make that hope a light to carry into the dark places of our lives. Most of us would rather leave those dark places alone and muddle through our days the best we could. As Christians, we do not have that option.

Over the next few weeks will we enter into the darkness in the company of our Savior. We will face the reality of sin – not just as an abstract concept but as a real force pulling us away from the love of God and into our own selfish weakness. We will face the reality of death.

We make that journey because our faith is not an empty myth meant to amuse or frighten us; it is deeply connected to the painful realities of life. We make that journey because, in the baptismal waters, we promised to follow in the path of Jesus; and this is the path he walked. We make that journey because the One we follow is not a projection of our imaginations; he is the real and living Son of God who suffered, died, and was raised from the dead…and because he will come again.

This is a wonderful place to be smart and even thoughtful about religion. We debate and study complex nuances of theology that don’t even get mentioned in most churches. We know an awful lot here.

But the simple, central truth of our faith requires no subtlety or nuance; and you don’t need a Ph.D. to know it There was once a man (and I must apologize for the masculine language here, but in this case I am speaking of a particular man with the understanding that the God who took that shape is male and female)…

There was once a man who was also God and he taught us how to live and he taught us how to die. We needed him to do that because in our selfishness and shortsightedness we cannot find the way without him; and so we try to do what he taught us and to obey his commandments so that, when he comes back for us, he’ll be proud of what we did.

Ultimately it’s not about theology or rationalizations or complex theological arguments. We were taught by people who were taught by people who were taught by people who were friends of his; and we trust them so we trust him. We trust him and we follow him, not because he is like us but because he loves us enough to help us to be more like him; and because we know that he is more than a person, more than a friend, more even than a teacher or a leader; he is the one-and-only Son of the living God who will lead us into eternal life.