Invitation to Covenant Renewal

cov160207The transfiguration of Jesus is perhaps the most otherworldly story we have in the New Testament—in a way, even more so than the story of the resurrection. For after the resurrection, Jesus’ appearance was so unremarkable that even those who knew him best didn’t quite notice him. But the transfigured Christ was an awesome sight. His face shone. His clothes were (as Mark puts it) brighter than anybody on earth could possibly bleach them. And suddenly the lone man Jesus was accompanied by the Hebrew Bible’s lawgiver and its most esteemed prophet.

And so of all the stories about the life of Christ, it is the transfiguration that should be the most inaccessible, the most difficult to relate to.

Except that’s not the way it is at all. And that’s because there’s a context to the story that brings it “down to earth,” as it were—that places us right there, describing our reaction, and giving us something to think about.
First of all, we have Jesus asking the disciples who they think he is, and Peter says that they believe he’s the Anointed of God. Jesus affirms Peter’s confession and begins to teach the disciples what that means—namely, that ahead of him lies rejection and a cross.

It’s immediately after this that Jesus takes three witnesses (Peter, James, and John) to a mountaintop, there to pray. As usual, the disciples’ attention wanes. But through their sleepy eyes they are suddenly amazed to see what we now call the transfiguration. And Peter—once again, the spokesperson for the whole group—makes a statement that I think is supposed to be as comical in the Bible as it is to our ears: “Master, it’s a lucky thing we’re here! We can build three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

Their plans were not God’s plans, however; for it was at that moment that they were enveloped in a thick cloud. And within that cloud there was no seeing, only hearing. And the voice they heard was the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”

And then the cloud cleared and everything—including Jesus—was as it has been.

The scene on that mountaintop is a metaphor for religious experience, and Peter’s reaction a metaphor for what religious people do when they share a religious experience. Peter wanted to preserve what he was looking at; he wanted it on display so others could see what he saw and feel what he felt. Most of the different worship practices that exist—especially within Christianity—are based on a transfiguration experience, an epiphany, a realization that Christ is more than just an idea or a name or a tradition. And when that happens, people want—maybe even need—to preserve what happened and to share it with others. They try to replicate the surroundings and the words and the situation.

And that’s how liturgy happens. From the most glorious Roman mass to the simplest act of breaking bread around a table, each tradition tries to share its experience of God’s presence with others, each generation teaches its epiphany to the next.

This is a good thing. But we should never assume that God can only act within and among our children the same way that God was made known to us or our ancestors. The sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—may be permanent fixtures. But no two people who receive those sacraments are the same. We each have our own sense of touch and taste, we each see from a different viewpoint, and our ears are tuned to different sounds and pitches. Ask anybody who’s ever investigated the scene of a crime, and they’ll tell you that no two eyewitness accounts are the same. The same can be said for the scene of an epiphany.mayflower

One of our own faith traditions, I think anyway, helps us understand that Peter’s shelters—which he wanted to build to preserve his vision of Jesus and Moses and Elijah. You see, one of the reasons you won’t hear churches that follow the Congregational Way recite the Apostles’ Creed or any other statement of belief is not because we don’t believe what those creeds say. It’s because we have never felt it appropriate to require anyone to use someone else’s words to describe their faith.

Because each individual’s faith was unique, it wasn’t a creed, but a covenant which held the community together. A covenant is a statement adopted by each individual congregation that describes not what we are to believe, but how we are to live together in community.

And so, let’s think about the story of the transfiguration. Let’s remember how Peter wanted to preserve the vision, but in the end had to acknowledge that the way he and James and John had just experienced Christ was not something they could capture and put on display. Let’s appreciate each others’ epiphanies and know that I don’t have to share your religious experience and you don’t have to share mine. What binds us together isn’t a common viewpoint, but a desire to live in a community in which different viewpoints are shared and different members’ voices are listened to, even as we each hear the same Voice calling us into union with God and to unity in the body of Christ.

With that in mind, let us turn to renew our covenant…

We covenant with God and with one another, promising to join together in worship and the celebration of the sacraments, in the study of the scriptures, in sharing the good news with one another and the world around us, in joining in the struggle for justice for the whole human family, and in welcoming into our midst all who seek God and community, that the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit may be known and acknowledged in the life of our congregation.

—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.