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Transfiguration: Preaching without Words

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Arlene K. Nehring

Now, we don’t have to all agree with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who said and believed that Jesus was Messiah. And you don’t have to share my view that Jesus was and is Messiah. But to understand today’s gospel message in its context, we do need to understand that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels believed that Jesus was like Moses and Elijah, only better, and that they believed that Jesus was Messiah.

Most preachers stop their interpretation of this passage where the Gospel writers stop— with the proclamation that Jesus was Messiah. But I want to take us at least two steps further.

Step one involves acknowledging that … people of other faith traditions (and of no faith) do not necessarily share the view that Jesus is Messiah. And … Christians, like us, do not make judgments about people who do not believe that Jesus was Messiah. Instead, we try to listen and learn from and about others’ beliefs and we try to be respectful of differences. We also strive to work together to nurture a community that lives with and loves questions, and that can demonstrate a capacity to agree to disagree.

Step two involves exploring the possibility that Christ’s Transfiguration is more than a pronouncement about his messianic nature. The clue that Mark gives us that indicates there’s more to Jesus’ Transfiguration than a proclamation of his messiahship is the repeated declaration that the author puts on Jesus’ lips to “tell no one.” In the conclusion to the Transfiguration story, and the conclusion to numerous miracle stories in Mark’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly says to his audience, “Tell no one.”

Many scholars surmise that the reason that Mark puts these words on Jesus’ lips—“Tell no one”—is because his ministry was so controversial. I think that this assumption is correct, and there’s more.

A further reason for this declaration to tell no one may be affirmed by our own life experiences. Perhaps many of us have learned from experience that “talk is cheap,” and that “actions speak louder than words.”…

So, then, perhaps the point of Mark’s gospel, and the point of Mark’s version of the Transfiguration, is not something that we can capture in a verbal pronouncement. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the story is that the most powerful experience of Transfiguration that any of us could ever have is that transfiguration is about actions, not words, and that transfiguration is about evidence that the sick are healed, the suffering are soothed, the prisoners are freed, the poor have enough, the widows and orphans are safe, and the so-called foreigners and aliens in our land are welcomed into our midst.

Perhaps the main point of Mark’s gospel is that the grandest expression of transfiguration didn’t take place on Mount Tabor but, instead, takes place as we are changed and as we become change agents with and for others, in ways that reflect the tangible healing, filling, and nurturing ministry of the earthly Christ.

Simply put, when our actions emulate the life of Christ, then others know that we have been transfigured and our world bears the mark of today’s gospel.

God grant that we may be living witnesses of this odd and ancient phenomenon that our ancestors called transfiguration. Amen.