Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; II Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
(Revised Common Lectionary)

In this excerpt from Exodus, the story of the Lord's interaction with humankind reaches a highpoint. It is shrouded in "glory." A chosen leader, Moses, is the mediator and recipient. The gift is a text, "the law and commandments."

In Psalm 2, the Lord appoints a leader, the King, "My son." Worship in fear and trembling but also take shelter. Psalm 99 declares "The Lord reigns-- people tremble." The Lord's leaders call and the Lord answers. The response is the Lord's "precepts and statutes."

Repeating substantial excerpts from Jude, the writer asserts the essentials of the early church's preaching: the ancient signs of God's communication are now conferred upon "our Lord Jesus Christ." But this new use of ancient texts "is not a human invention," the writer feels compelled to assert.

In Matthew's version, Peter, James and John are the Lord's new mediators who are the recipients of another initiative of God's communication. On this occasion, God's gift is Jesus. The reaction is "fear;" the invitation is "do not be afraid."

The Bible uses its own time-tested mechanisms to fulfill its unique function. The Lord communicates surrounded by clouds through appointed mediators. The gift is text and for Christians, Jesus, who reveals in deeds and words. This communication is one-way. Any sensible person will be frightened, but we are assured, "do not be afraid." Always there is contradiction: direct/indirect, hidden/revealed, remote/immediate, fear/do not be afraid, clarity/sensory overload. "Indeed the most transfiguring thing about this God of little things is that he gives with a gratuity that defies the limits of space and time. Now he's gone, now he's here, now he's gone again. Now he's dead, now he's alive. Now he's buried, now risen. Now the net is empty, now it's full. And more surprising still, the fish is cooked for us even before we get ashore and unload our net!" ("Transfiguring God," Richard Kearney in Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Graham Ward, ed. pp 369-393)

Biblical texts oscillate effortlessly between human behavior and the spectacularly divine; between the (all too) familiar and the alarmingly strange.  When the strange makes an appearance in biblical texts, it is meant to cast the familiar in a new light, to cause us to see, to hear something new.  Writing in the January 2011 edition of the major postmodern journal, Modern Theology, John Milbank remarks: "...standing before the experience of the beautiful vision as something that terrifies us and commands us by manifesting something that is more than visible self, we undergo a certain unsettling of the senses, whereby when we see, we seem to also 'hear' something." (p.150)  Crucilally placed just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, the experience of Peter, James and John dazzles, disorients and, in the process, causes them to see and to hear Jesus in a way they would not have seen otherwise.  For the reader of these texts (and the follower of the liturgical year), this event puts the events in Jerusalem in a special light.  Jesus is on a mission ordained by the Father-- to show the love of God in the gruesome actions of friends and enemies in that compact week in Jerusalem.  Which is more dazzling?  Which tells us what we are passionate to hear?