John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets: these are identities which obscure, as well as light up, understanding of the living God in Jesus Christ. Like any other descriptor of Christ they limit as well as reveal. It is highly doubtful that they were satisfying to those who were using them. The confusion in which they were used reinforces that. For, whilst they did embody some vital prophetic characteristics of Jesus, the truth and meaning they were struggling to express could neither be reached nor held. No cultural or theological expression of Christ can ever suffice in that way.
Sadly, we human beings love the beguiling appeal of certainty, and we cling to our preconceptions and previous experience, don't we? Fundamentalists of all sorts are masters and mistresses of this, including secularist fundamentalists. It is convenient and reassuring to settle on certain names and identities for Jesus, so they may be clung to with passion or anger. This is our human reality. For we are all fundamentalists in that way, aren’t we? Each of us builds our spiritual castles in the sand. Each of us makes of God in Jesus Christ idols of our own need, experience and imagination. Each of us, like Peter, frequently misses the point, even when we also grasp aspects of it. Hence our need for God’s transforming grace, and for spiritual patience and persistence with ourselves and others.
Peter’s confession takes us to another level. ‘You are the Messiah’, he says, ‘ the Son of the living God’. Peter is not talking out of past experience alone, but out of the experience of being transformed. He is not looking back, to former revealers of God, but forward, to the Messiah, the One who comes as one unknown, as well as one who renews all that has been good and beautiful and true.
Now, I have to say, there can be problems today, even with Peter’s terminology. In a world in which many faiths, and other pathways, also resonate with aspects of Christlike love and truth, it is possible to misuse the title Messiah to confine the God of Jesus to Judaeo-Christian life and proclamation alone. When Peter calls Jesus ‘the Son of the living God’, we may rightly also wish to temper this with other descriptors. Sonship is a wonderful biblical reality, which seeks to express the image and identity Christ, and therefore we, have with God: that, above all, we are in intimate relationship with God. Yet history has shown us how it can not only obscure the feminine aspects of God but also be used to oppress actual females. Instead we are perhaps wise to focus on Peter’s final words: his description of Jesus as the Christ as the living God. We have marvelous images of God in our bible, tradition and in our reasoned experience. None of them however are sufficient. For God is not fixed in any deathly past. All of our pictures of divinity are given to draw us deeper into ever renewing relationship with our living God.
So what do we see in Jesus? One reason I love the story of the transfiguration is that it shows Jesus transformed by such light that no human description is ultimately sufficient or even possible. Rather, we are led into the unutterable mystery of God’s transforming love. This shows us not so much what Christ has been for us, as what Christ is to be, and what we, in Christ, are to be. For all the changes of our earthly lives and bodies are nothing compared to the glory which is to be revealed in our resurrection bodies and ultimate transfiguration of our current identities. All we have in our earthly transformations are mere pointers, valuable though they may be for a season. In God, we are always more than we can ever possibly imagine. So may Christ grow in us that we may grow in Christ and become what we are called to be: transfigured creatures of God’s love, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Pentecost 12 Year A, Sunday 27 August 2017