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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before February 7, 2016

Luke 9:28-43

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

37On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

What I Am Learning:

We often read the story of the transfiguration of Jesus by itself. It is a fascinating story with many references to the Hebrew Scriptures. It links Jesus with Moses receiving the law on Mt. Sinai. It links Jesus to Elijah who met God on the Mountain. Jesus is the new Moses and the new Elijah. It is full of implications about the identity and mission of Jesus: he gives the new the instruction of love and is the new messenger of truth.

It can tell us a lot about the mission of the disciples who later join Jesus in this mission and identity.

But when we read it by itself we make a mistake. When read alone it sounds to us like superstition or fantasy, both empty and outdated in a this time of CGI.

When we read it alone we forget what Luke is trying to tell us about what Jesus is up to.

The most important words in this passage is "on the next day". Using this phrase, Luke is telling us that what happened on the mountain was now going to happen in the valley.

Jesus is met by a man whose son was overcome by a "spirit." This spirit seized him, makes him shriek, convulses him and mauls him. The man told Jesus his disciples could not cast out this unclean spirit.

I don't really believe in non-corporeal beings running around.

I used to think that such possession was simply a reference for mental illness or some other physical disease by people who lived before the scientific method. Perhaps sometimes this is true, but this is too easy an interpretation. You may remember that in Luke chapter eight that Jesus casts out demon whose name was "legion." This of course a Roman military term for about 5,000 soldiers. The term "legion" comes from the term "legio" which meant military conscription. If you were conscripted, you did not have a choice. You were compelled to be a part of the military.

Most Biblical scholars now think that demonic possession is more akin to the power of the larger society working on people without their consent.

A few examples:

  1. When I was a boy of 12 I spent some time putting together an emergency pack that I hid in my closet. I was afraid that the Russians were going to bomb the US. Yes, as a 12 year old I became a "prepper." Here the spirit of the Cold War atmosphere conscripted me into the army of the fearful.
  2. I knew a young girl who was not pretty by media standards. She saw herself as ugly and therefore unworthy of love. She sought out attention from boys by being willing to engage in any sort of sexual act. These activities only increased her self-loathing. Here the spirit of the Beauty Industrial Complex conscripted her to to the army of the self-despising.
  3. I met a man in the hospital who was dying of cancer. His children would hardly come to see him. He had amassed many millions of dollars by working 80 hours a week. He thought that would make him an admired and honored human being. He told me on his dying day, that he would trade it all for for the chance to be a more active and connected father to his children. He died without his family being present. Here the spirit of Competitive Capitalism robbed this man and his family of time and love together, in life and death.
  4. I met a woman who lives in a predominately African American section of Chicago. The police did not treat her and other black citizens well. The economy in that part of Chicago was very bad. There were no grocery stores.. She wore the weight of this like a coat made of lead. When she goes to church, however, she feels the load lighten in part, she said, because they speak the truth about the issues of the community there.

Ancient peoples described these larger social forces and their capacity to form and deform human beings "demonic spirits." These forces can inhabit individuals and groups in such a way that we lose some of our selves to them.

The Roman Empire also had a "spirit". This spirit was the spirit of a dog-eat-dog competition for power over others through military and economic colonialism. Imagine how you would feel if you knew that your whole life, the life of your family, and your whole nation was to be the dog being eaten? What if you knew you had virtually no chance at life? What if you knew that the only chance you had was to be a tax collector and be despised by your people? What if you knew you had to join the Roman army to feed yourself and your family, and be a part of occupying and dominating your own people?

You can see how this might sicken and destroy a young person, the only son of a family!  Perhaps the combined pressure of all of these conscripted this young man into the army of the despairing. Despair, as anyone who has ever experienced it knows, makes us sick, tired, and angry.

The point of the transfiguration is to say that when Jesus calls this young man back to himself and frees him from the army of despair he is shining with the glory of God. The healing this young man and his family experienced is the point of all the glowing, shimmering mountain top experience.

Ireneus one of the early teachers in Christianity said, "The Glory of God is human beings fully alive." Perhaps today we might include, The glory of God is human beings and human communities, fully alive.

Every time God calls us back to ourselves, to remember the hope that is within us, to cast off the social forces that warp and bend us Jesus shines. Every time we help a sister or brother remember who they are, share the lead jacket with them for a moment Jesus shines. Every time we are freed from the conscription of the Army of Fear, the Beauty Industrial Complex, Competitive Capitalism, and the ongoing racism in our nation Jesus shines.

He shines not to show how powerful he is, but to show the healing power of God to remind us that we are God's beloved.

May he shine in, with and among us!