First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Transfiguration

William Loader

Transfiguration:  2 March  2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter begins by encouraging its hearers to remain faithful and build up their faith. Already by the time we reach 1:16 we sense that the author is making a real effort to persuade them to remain stable. There is also a concern to underline the authority of this encouragement. Part of it lies in speaking in the name of Peter. Most agree that the letter is not penned by Peter, himself, but reflects the work of someone who highly reveres him and seeks to represent his message to a new generation, possibly as late as the early second century. Many, indeed, see this letter as the last writing of the New Testament to be written. It comes from the pen of someone who can write very sophisticated Greek.

Such letters are not forgeries. We, today, do not engage in such practices. We would tend to see this as deceit, but this misunderstands what such writers were doing. Already Deuteronomy portrays itself as representing the words of Moses, when we know it was written much later. The same goes for much which is attributed to Solomon and to prophets. Luke composes speeches for the apostles in Acts. This had nothing to do with deceit, but was an attempt to represent what Luke thought such apostles would have said. That was part of writing history. But equally it was not uncommon for someone to construct a letter in the name of someone they revered, partly to invoke their authority to address issues of importance and partly in deference to their authority. This happened with Paul: many see 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus as falling into this category. In face of crises people appealed to what the apostles would have said had they been present.

This author is rather self conscious, its seems, about the need to underline Peter's authority and so uses what he knows. In particular he gives a potted version of the transfiguration of Jesus (1:16-18) which he probably knew from early Christian tradition. It appears that the only function the story has is to bolster the authority and so the message of the letter. Already before 1:16 the author has spoken of the need to remind the hearers of what they had been taught - an appeal to what Peter and the apostles had taught.

1:19 mentions the prophetic word, which might include the message of Jesus but probably includes also the scripture itself, which then becomes the focus of attention in 1:20. On either side of this affirmation about the right to have the prophetic word and to interpret it we have hints of what the author is trying to combat. In 1:16 he mentions cleverly devised myths. In 1:20-21 he implies misuse of scripture. From the following chapters it is clear that the author is trying to combat something which is happening among the churches to which the hearers belong. There are people using scripture to teach what the author sees as myths, misuse of scripture and dangerous. This is why no one less than Peter is wheeled in, as it were, to deal with the issue.

We can only speculate about the specific form of teaching which has so disturbed the author. The emphasis on enlightenment and on knowledge in 1:19 and 1:5-6, may suggest an early form of Christian gnosticism. Some of these movements interpreted Genesis in strange ways and promised a way to God based on knowledge (gnosis) of one's true being and origin. The author's emphasis on escaping corruption and participating in divine nature in 1:3-4 may echo such concerns and be the author's way of claiming such language for himself.

The onslaught against this new teaching in chapter 2 is not an engagement with its argument but a disparagement of its representatives. This includes the common accusation that those who had wrong ideas also had wrong morals, especially in the area of sexual immorality. At worst it reflects standard mudslinging of the day against dissenters and may have no foundation in fact. On the other hand, this author may well be aware that when faith becomes distracted with notions of escape from this life, the consequences for living in the here and now are often disastrous, be they neglect of common caring or, much worse, a freedom to abuse others in one's own interest and in the interests of one's religion.

The transfiguration can serve as a wonderful symbol of the centre of our faith, a kind of vision of the end and the ultimate. Jesus shines with God-light. That is also what we want to say when we see Jesus bringing good news to the poor and compassion to people who have sunk very low in hope or very low in sin. For a world which celebrated divinity with images of holy mountains and shining light this was a way of affirming that God was in Christ. Ultimately that is our authority. The writer of 2 Peter can still find authority for his concerns in this vision. The real contours of Christ's mission, its mountains and valleys, teach us our place and how we need to stand. They offer also a critical framework within which to respond to the claims of our day and in the case of 2 Peter and the biblical writers to the claims of theirs.

Gospel: Transfiguration: 2 March Matthew 17:1-9

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