Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Few Comments on This Sunday's Gospel Lesson: Mark 9:2-9

[This coming Sunday's Gospel lesson for Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, will be the same as the lessons in many churches around the world. Hopefully, these notes will help folks prepare for worship.]

Mark 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

General Comments:
(1) This weekend brings us to the end of the Epiphany Season of the Church Year. (For more on the Epiphany Season, read here.) The sabbath lessons of the season are always bracketed by remembrances of Jesus' Baptism (the Baptism of Our Lord) and by the subject of this weekend's emphasis, the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

These texts fit in well with the Epiphany Season, one purpose of which is to highlight those incidents, especially the early ones, which pointed to Jesus' deity.

In both of these "Epiphany bookends," a voice from heaven affirms Jesus' "office" as Savior of the world, the promised Messiah. The voice's reference to Jesus as "Son" is more significant than it might seem. The term implies a closer kinship than that of an earthly son to his father. It means to have a single identity. Paul makes this explict in a few majestic verses that come at the beginning of his letter to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
In his account of Jesus' Baptism, Mark diverges from those of the other Gospel-writers (Matthew, Luke, and John) by saying that the voice was only heard by Jesus Himself. But here, in his Transfiguration account, the voice is heard by Peter, James, and John (and presumably Jesus). The first time, the voice comes to affirm Jesus in the course He's about to pursue. In the second, the voice affirms the beliefs of the three members of Jesus' inner-inner circle.

(2) In the past, some Biblical scholars, who always seem to be looking for ways to deconstruct and reconstruct Biblical texts to suit their own preferred ways of telling the salvation story, held that this was originally an Easter story which Mark and the other Gospel writers read back into an earlier time in Jesus' ministry, as a way of indicating that His Lordship had been revealed to the disciples even before His death and resurrection. But as one commentator, Hugh Anderson, points out, that theory comes to grief in the face of an important fact: In all of the incidents recording post-Easter encounters with Jesus, the resurrected Lord speaks. He doesn't do that here.

(3) Beyond dying and rising for our benefit, Jesus also came into the world to establish a community of faith devoted to living in love toward God and others. This community of faith, which is essential to God's mission in the world, is called the Church.

Of course, on Pentecost Day, fifty days after His resurrection, Jesus would send the the Holy Spirit. He is the source of godly power that has energized the Church ever since, the One Who gave birth to the Church. (And keeps giving birth to it. Check out John 3:3.)

The Spirit came to call out the Church that, under Jesus' leadership had existed in embryonic form. (You can read about this in Acts 2.) In this embryonic fellowship, Jesus had created a spiritual and an organizational infrastructure.

In His leadership, Jesus employed a method that will be familiar to almost anyone who's gone through an executive leadership or business management program. It had several components:
He spent the least time with the masses; more time with His disciples or students or followers (a group which, Paul reports, numbered about 500 people); more time still with the Twelve (the apostles); and the most time with three apostles, Peter, James, and John. In other words, the greater the leadership role to be taken by people, the more time Jesus spent training them.

The make-up of Jesus' training program was mainly made up of three steps: He showed them how; He was with them as they did what they showed them; He set them loose to do what He'd showed them; He had them come back for debriefing and refinement.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus was with the inner-inner circle of Peter, James, and John (PJ2). In his commentary on this passage, Brian Stoffregen observes:
This is the second time the "inner three" are set apart in Mark. They witness the raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead in 5:37ff. It is then ironic that these three question what the rising from the dead could mean (9:9-10). The same word anistemi is used in both contexts.

The next time Jesus takes these three with him is in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:33). The three who have seen his power to raise the dead, who have seen his heavenly glory, also see his earthly agony. In these last two instances, they, especially Peter, respond poorly. On the mountain Peter wants to build booths. In the Garden they are to stay awake and pray, but they fall asleep three times.
It's a tribute to the power of God's Holy Spirit to transform people that these three unpromising characters gave faithful leadership to the Church as it carried the life-changing Good News of Jesus into the world!

[For an insightful and helpful discussion of the connection between Mark's Transfiguration account and the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Elisha, read Peter J. Leithart's Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible volume, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006), pp. 171-117.]

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