January 8, 2001

From Transfiguration to Mission

The major lectionary theme of the last Sunday of the Epiphany season is the Christological mystery of the Transfiguration. While the connection to World Mission Sunday may not seem obvious, in fact the Standing Commission on World Mission deliberately chose this Sunday because of the connections they saw. What follows are some hermeneutical notes which may be of use in preparing a sermon on World Mission on this occasion. By the way, if there are any of you out there who were in seminary when critics thought the story of the Transfiguration was a misplaced post-resurrection appearance, most now do not see it that way. The fact that Mark carefully dates the event after the Confession of Peter clearly indicates he viewed the event as historical and located at precisely this point in Jesus' ministry.

First, we should note the symbolic references to the Older Covenant in the Transfiguration story-the presence of Moses, the beginning of the Covenant, and of Elijah, its greatest prophet and the symbol of its eschatological fulfillment. Both are present to testify to Jesus as the fulfillment (not the abrogation) of the Law and the Prophets. The connection is even clearer if Michael Ramsey is correct that the Mount of the Transfiguration is more likely Horeb than Tabor, as identified in later tradition. The reading from Exodus underlines this connection, as does the theme of Transfiguration as being manifestly illuminated by the light of divine glory common to both stories. First point: the great Missio Dei, the mission of the Trinitarian God, overflowing the inner Trinitarian life into Creation and Covenant, finds its climax or crux in Jesus. This is fully underlined by the voice of God declaring that "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him." Even more than the "Beloved" in Mark and Matthew, Luke's "Chosen" is laden with mission overtones-just as God had chosen others to carry out God's purposes in history, so Jesus is now revealed as the climax of that great flow. The Missio Dei or Mission of God reaches its peak in the Missio Christi, the mission of Christ as the chosen mediator of the new Covenant, which shall be with all people.

Second, in all three accounts of the Transfiguration, three disciples are present to be witnesses, again a mission theme. Peter wants to build three booths, which, far from being stupid, is the absolutely correct religious response, given the symbolic overtones of the Feast of Booths in the event. But this is not to be. Mission may require a glorious Gospel vision of God's glory and salvation at its heart, but we are not allowed to remain in contemplation on the mountain. In the valley is an epileptic boy who needs healing and a father (not to say a crowd of disciples) who need to have their faith strengthened. Here we see the fulfillment of the Missio Christi in a union of service and evangelism.

Third, all three Gospel accounts link this story to Jesus' second prophecy of his passion-the first having been linked to Peter's confession and producing, as it were, Peter's first denial and Jesus' stern rebuke. Mark and Matthew put the prophecy in the context of a discussion about Elijah on the way down the Mountain, while Luke places it after the following healing story, but the point is the same: the Missio Christi is now moving to its own climax on that other hill, Calvary. This, of course, is what kicks us into Lent. In Jesus and his sacrifice, the Covenant with Israel is about to be opened to all peoples in a great mission to all nations. All our gifts in the Holy Spirit (today's reading from I Corinthians) are to be put at the service of that Mission, as the Spirit leads us to see the ultimate unity between love of God and God's glory, and love of neighbor.