It’s tempting to believe that our world in the 21st Century and the world of the New Testament, which is the 1st Century, are very different indeed. In two thousand years many things have changed, obviously. There was no internet – can you imagine that? In the first century, communication technology had reached the level of pen and parchment. Transport was hazardous and slow. Health care was rudimentary. Life was cruel and short for many.
Yet there were many similarities to our world also. Culture and knowledge flourished: art, sculpture, drama, sport, architecture, law, geometry, astronomy, philosophy. The Romans provided administration, government and technology such as road building and aqueducts to provide fresh water to communities. The culture, however, was Hellenistic. Most people spoke Greek as one of their languages, much as English is widespread now, and this enabled trade to be conducted between countries.
Religion was part of the lives of many people but there were quite a number who questioned the truth of the Greek and Roman deities. Travel and trade exposed citizens to different belief systems, leading to questioning of their own religion. As in our world today, there was a mix of religions around and a fair number of people who would claim to have no faith. Christians then, as now, were trying to make their voices heard in their multi-faith world.
When Peter wrote his second letter he was writing in part to counter the work of groups who were trying to draw Christians away from their faith by spreading false teaching. Among those may have been early Gnostics who looked on the life of the physical body as far inferior to the better, spiritual life which belongs in another world, a world of goodness and light. They believed that the supreme deity could not enter the corrupt material world. They also believed that only some people had the divine spark in them and could reach heaven. Even then, they needed the passwords to rise through the various heavens.
In the section of Peter’s letter we have just heard, Peter contrasts the teaching of the Apostles with that of the false teachers. Their teaching was made of ‘cleverly devised myths’, human inventions. In contrast, Peter states that the Apostles’ teaching is based on eyewitness accounts. In particular Peter refers to the transfiguration which he, James and John were privileged to experience.
Unlike the Gnostic ideas, what the three disciples witnessed shows that the supreme deity can and does come to share intimately in the material world. We are drawing to the end of a season in the Church year when we have concentrated on just how God has shared the experience of living which we human beings have. The Word who spoke all created things into being, himself came to earth as a tiny baby. This is the incarnation, something we celebrate at Christmas time. Jesus revealed his power, his deity, in works of healing and in his ability to control nature by stilling the storm and feeding five thousand.
Today we recall what Peter used to help his readers understand the reality of our faith – the glory which is an attribute of God, the Majestic Glory, and which Peter, James and John witnessed on the mountain top in the person of Jesus and which was confirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, two great heroes of the Jews. At the time the disciples were overwhelmed, not knowing what to say or to do. Who can blame them? They were in the very presence of God. The rabbi whom they had been following revealed his true colours. They were not travel-stained grey but dazzling, blinding white! And as if that wasn’t enough, the voice of God confirmed that Jesus was the beloved Son of God.
This was the person whom the prophets had looked forward to and spoken about to the people of Israel. It was only after telling of his own experience that Peter referred his readers back to the written word. There in Psalm 2 is the coronation of the Son of God: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ In Isaiah 42 is the ordination of the Suffering Servant; ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.’
In the face of clever manmade ideas, only personal experience has the ring of authenticity needed to counter bogus claims. It seems Jesus knew the experience of the transfiguration would be needed later when he told his disciples to say nothing until after he had risen. I have no doubt they were confused at the time but they understood later.
Peter elsewhere tells his readers to always be ready to give an account of the hope that is in them. In our multi-faith world we too have to be prepared to do the same. It’s possible to pick out parts of the Bible and explain carefully what we believe and why we believe it. That has its value. However, if we do as Peter did and recount how we have met Jesus in our lives, that will have the greater impact. Some will scoff, some will try to prove us wrong. Nothing we do can bring a person to faith. That is the task of the Holy Spirit. We can, however, faithfully tell our part in the story of salvation which runs from the beginning of the world and will continue to run until Jesus is once more revealed in his true colours at his second coming.
As I said earlier, we are coming to the end of the time in the Church year when we look at how Jesus was revealed to the world. We finish on a high, the wonderful event of the transfiguration. Of course, we can’t always live on the mountaintop. We have to head back to the valley some time. On Wednesday we enter the season of Lent. The colours in churches turn to purple and the mood is one of penitence and self-examination as we prepare to witness the purpose of the incarnation in the events of Holy Week.
I would encourage you to come to our special Ash Wednesday service at noon on Wednesday if you can. I would also suggest you consider some particular discipline to take up during this six week season of Lent. When this time comes to an end we will once again see the light which shone at the transfiguration shining from the empty tomb. Alleluia!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor