Transfiguration Sunday, Year C
27 February 2022
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
In verse 14 of our second reading Paul says about the Israelites, “But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.” Paul makes reference to the veil of Moses and uses this as a metaphor as to why people are kept from recognizing God in Jesus.
It is important for us to remember that Paul is a Jew and so Paul is not speaking about the church vs “the Jews”, this is not an us vs them. A few verses later Paul applies the same veil to all unbelievers which underlines the fact that this is not a word against God’s people Israel.
Rather, Paul is stating that all of scripture – which for Paul was the Law and the Prophets (which was the entirety of scripture then) – is aimed and inspired by the pre-existent Word, through whom all things are made, and who took on our flesh in Jesus. This also becomes evident in the story of the transfiguration where Moses and Elijah submit to Jesus, representing the Law and the Prophets respectively.
This makes clear two things:
The Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament is not inferior but is holy scripture for Christians.
All of scripture can only be understood from Jesus and his cross and resurrection.
The story of the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus sheds light on this. It is on Easter Day that Cleopas and his companion walk away from Jerusalem, defeated and discouraged. The risen Lord joins them on the road but they do not recognize him. It is only when the Scriptures are opened and the bread is broken that they recognize Jesus, and he simultaneously disappears from their sight. Only after cross and resurrection and in the presence of Jesus can they make sense of the scriptures, even though the scriptures have born this truth all along.1
We will also address this in our Lenten study.
Having gotten this out of the way, I would like to direct our attention to the question of how people come to faith.
The Lutheran congregation in which I was raised had a strong evangelistic focus. This was in the late seventies and early eighties in Germany. English is pretty hip in most parts of the world. And so the events that focused on youth were called “Lord’s Party”, pretty transparent really.
These “parties” would take place during five consecutive evenings during spring break, and I think there was another single one in the fall. The ones in the spring got much attention. A guest speaker and band would be brought in. The band would play an opening set, the speaker would address the audience, there was a break for conversation, and the band would return for a second set which was the incentive for people to stay for the speaker.
These events drew a lot of people and people really did come to faith which was the goal of the whole thing.
It was a time when people didn’t get their world view and religion from the internet, it was not too long after the upheaval of the sixties and people were still willing to sit down and discuss issues, including whether there was a god and if there was what that may mean.
I remember these events being driven much by the desire to persuade those in attendance that the Christian Gospel – as speaker and band understood it – was true. The speaker was usually a persuasive orator, while the band was at least loud, sometimes they were also good.
As a youth I was involved in these events. I was one of the people sitting at a table trying to strike up a conversation during the intermission. The events had a very evangelical feel and were perhaps a bit unorthodox for Lutherans, especially since they were really aiming at conversion. Yet, in another way they simply acknowledged that we no longer lived in a world in which we could assume that everyone was Christian.
People did come to faith in Jesus at these events. And in many cases their new-found faith stuck. So the question is “what happened”? Did these people come to faith in Jesus because of the persuasive arguments of the speaker, or the coolness of the band (I know, this isn’t fair to the band), or whatever people of faith said at the tables? These are relevant questions because these events were carefully planned and those who planned them wanted people to come to faith in Jesus.
This takes us back to our reading from 2 Corinthians. Paul talks about minds and even the Gospel as being veiled (3:15, 4:3). I have pondered this veil for a long time. Clearly, Paul is speaking of being able to see Jesus in the scriptures and in the world. But we have plenty of experience with people not understanding something that seems perfectly clear to us. And if we’re honest, we have the reverse experience as well, that we do not understand something that seems crystal clear to others.
Back in my youth we put much emphasis on how we shared the Good News of Jesus. I wouldn’t say that everything was good or right, but much thought and dedication went into our efforts. And yet, we could not force the unveiling of someone’s mind anymore than we could force the unveiling of our own mind, and there were things we did not understand.
I think the key to our passage lies in verse 17 and 18 where Paul says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Paul says that the unveiling that makes possible to see the glory of God in Jesus, in the cross, is given by the Spirit, is given as a gift, is nothing we can force, for we cannot force the hand of God.
And I will give my old pastor credit here. He always emphasized that we could not work faith but that God gave faith as a gift.
The experience of the presence of God is a mystical experience that Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John received, without fully understanding what was happening. We can do all kinds of things in our lives, hoping to experience the presence of God. We can seek silence and fast, we can do good works, give alms, and serve our neighbour, we can spend time in prayer, and all these are good for they move our lives in the direction of God and others. But they cannot force the experience of the presence of God. That remains a gift.
That does not mean that we will not aim to witness to Jesus. And yet, speaking and acting truthfully and authentically is important for us because in enables us to live lives that are faithful to the Gospel. Such faithful witness, by the grace of God, may then also draw others to God, but it is God who will lift the veil, for God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)
As a church that cares about the world, we are thankful that God is present and that God’s presence is a gift.
As people who are about to enter into the wilderness of Lent, and into the wilderness of our annual meeting, we give thanks that Christ lives in us, and that thus the wilderness of church meetings as the wilderness of Lent will be filled with streams of living water. This is not our doing. It is God’s doing.
1 See John Behr, Lifting the Veil: Reading Scripture in the orthodox Tradition