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SECOND SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
Transformed by Love
GENESIS 15:5-12, 17-18
Have you been in a bus or train terminal lately? Or, have you had the occasion to engage in a bit of people-watching at an airport? Surely the following scenario strikes a familiar chord. The waiting room is filled with people in expectation of an incoming flight. After the plane lands and taxies slowly to the terminal, the travelers disembark and make their way through the tunneled walkway. There they are met by a sea of expressionless faces with searching eyes, darting from one passenger to another looking for the welcome of a familiar face. Then comes the moment of recognition and, in that moment, eyes come alive and faces are transformed by the power of mutual love.
Similar scenes are played out in maternity hospitals every day. Expectant parents sharing the ordeal of labor are intent, serious and anxious but in that moment when a new life is born into the world, a tiny red and wrinkled face causes an eruption of joy, clearly in evidence on the faces of his/her parents. Forgotten are the pain and anxiety as both child and parents are transformed by love.
As that child grows and develops he/she too will come to know the transforming quality of love. When a mothers love can kiss away the hurt and tears or a fathers loving presence can evaporate the fright of a nightmare or the monster in the closet, the power of love will be known. Later in life, as hurts grow more serious and real dangers threaten, the transforming quality of familial love will provide the security and spiritual stamina to survive and endure.
In todays scripture readings, the gathered assembly is invited to consider their own human experiences of the transforming power of love within the context of the Lenten season. Through each reading, believers are privileged to share in the spiritual transformation experiences of three of our heroes in the faith, Abraham, Paul and, of course, Jesus.
In todays gospel, the gathered assembly is privileged to look over the shoulders of Peter, John and James and to share with them the experience of looking at Jesus, transformed by his love for God and by Gods love for him. In that moment of grace, the disciples were able to pierce through, at least temporarily, their usual confusion and lack of understanding as regards Jesus identity and purpose. Transformed by love, Jesus was identified as the Son and Chosen one who, in turn, would enable all of humankind to experience the saving and transforming power of Gods love.
The Genesis author shares the story of Abram, our father in the faith. Transformed by the covenantal love of God and by his own loving response to God, Abram the wandering Aramean from Ur of the Chaldeans became Abraham, the father of many peoples. Through him and with him, all the nations of the earth have been invited to enter into a covenantal relationship with God and, in the course of that ever-growing and deepening relationship, to be transformed by love.
Writing to what was perhaps his most beloved ecclesial foundation, Paul encouraged the Philippians to follow his example. Before his Damascus encounter with the risen Lord, Paul had been a stalwart defender of Judaism and just as stalwart a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. Transformed by love, grace and faith, Paul emerged from his conversion experience with a new heart, mind and will. Totally given to Christ, he helped others to welcome that same transforming power of God into their own lives. Aware that the Christians in Philippi were being pressured to forego their allegiance to Christ, Paul reminded them that their persevering faith would be rewarded in heaven; there they, and all who remain faithful, would experience the ultimate transforming power of Gods love, viz., a share in Jesus resurrected glory.
While we await our own ultimate transformation, the weeks of Lent afford us ample time to consider those aspects of our daily living and interaction with one another which may be in need of transformation. During this season of surrender, each of us has yet another opportunity for welcoming the transforming power of Gods love and of cooperating with the transforming power of Gods grace.
GENESIS 15:5-12, 17-18
In the Qur-an, the sacred scriptures of Islam, Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans is told by God, I will make you an Imam to the nations (Sura II: Bagara # 124). According to the commentary on this text, the title Imam is defined as: (1) a leader in religion; (2) a leader in congregational prayer; (3) a model, pattern, example; (4) one who guides and instructs. From the time of his calling by God, somewhere in the mid-eighteenth century B.C.E., Abraham has indeed been the Imam of the worlds three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In that capacity, he continues to teach the believing community how to live in fidelity and obedience, transformed by the power of Gods love.
In addition to portraying the quality of Abrahams faith, this excerpted narrative also describes the character of Gods covenant with him. According to the ancient authors, God promised the great patriarch both progeny (descendants as countless as the stars in the sky) and a land of his own, and counted Abrahams faith as an act of righteousness. Centuries later, Paul would cite this passage in an appeal to the Jews to follow their ancestors example and believe what God had done for them in Jesus; then, by their faith they too would be counted as righteous, i.e., justified or saved.
Acknowledging Abrahams faith, God then proceeded to enter into a covenant relationship with him, a covenant which was at once unilateral and unconditional. Probably the Hebrew terminology for making or more literally for cutting a covenant (berit karath) is derived from the manner in which covenantal pacts were sealed. According to ancient ritual, animals were first sacrificed and divided. Then the contracting parties stated the terms of their covenant, and swore their oaths of allegiance while standing between the slaughtered animals, thereby signifying that they would accept a similar fate if they breached any aspect of their agreement. The prophet Jeremiah referenced this practice in one of his several warnings to his contemporaries whose covenantal loyalties were on the wane. . . Thus says the Lord: The people who violated my covenant and did not observe the terms of the agreement which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two, between whose parts they passed (Jeremiah 34:18).
It is significant that in making the covenant with Abraham, God did not require the patriarch to walk through the midst of the sacrificed animals. Abrahams trance, or more properly, a divinely induced deep sleep (tardemah in Hebrew) was a signal that a special revelation was about to be communicated. Represented by the smoking brazier and flaming torch, God alone passed through; by this unilateral action, thus revealing that Abrahams life would not be required should the covenant be broken. The covenant God made with Abraham was purely gratuitous, conditioned only by the mercy and transforming power of divine love.
Nevertheless, Abrahams faith, even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable circumstances should not be overlooked. He was elderly, his wife was infertile and yet God promised progeny. He was a bedouin who wandered with his flocks from place to place and yet God promised him land of his own. Casting these obstacles to the wind, Abraham put all his faith in God and what had seemed improbable, and even impossible, came to pass. Abrahams faithful covenant-partner did not disappoint him.
As heirs of that same covenant, Christians are also privileged to be participants in the new and eternal covenant, accomplished by Jesus sacrificial death, sealed by his saving blood, and restated at every eucharistic sharing.
What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying! This statement underscores the very real tension that characterizes many of our lives. We say one thing and behave in a manner that contradicts our words because we have not yet learned to integrate the faith we profess with our mind and lips with the life that we lead. Because of this dichotomy between who we are and who we have been called to become, few of us could extend the challenge with which Paul exhorted the Philippians. . . Be imitators of me. . . Take as your guide those who follow the example that we set.
The integrity of Pauls life and his commitment to Christ and the church was so authentic that he could issue this challenge in all sincerity. He had so conformed himself to Christ and was so transformed by love that he did not have to resort to telling his charges to Do as I say, but not as I do.
For their part, the Philippians were being subjected to the influences of others who, like Paul, wanted them to follow their lead. Unlike Paul, however, their integrity was as suspect as their teaching. Paul regarded these other influences as adversaries, calling them enemies of the cross of Christ (v. 18). Scholars suggest that this identification may have applied to any one of several groups who were hostile to the growing Christian community in Philippi. Among the more extreme pressures upon the church was that exerted by Philippis Jewish community who believed that those who accepted Jesus as messiah were perverting their traditions. Also extreme were the ultra-conservative Jewish Christians, also called Judaizers, who insisted that all would-be Christians, including gentiles, should come to Jesus by way of Moses. In other words, they would require baptized believers also to undergo circumcision, keep the Jewish feasts and observe dietary laws and purification rituals. At the other end of the spectrum was a faction of gnostic hedonists or libertines. Ascribing to a philosophy that devalued the body as evil, they used and abused their bodies with a variety of carnal orgies and excesses. No doubt, this is what prompted Pauls remark, Their god is their belly (v. 19). Scholars have suggested that this criticism could also have been leveled at the Jews and/or Judaizers because of their seeming fixation on dietary prescriptions. In any event, Paul would have the attention of his readers fixed on none other than Jesus.
A final, subtle reference to the forces which militated against the early church is included in Pauls reminder to his readers that we have citizenship in heaven (v. 20). Philippi was home to a large number of retired Roman soldiers. Having served the required twenty-one years in the army, they were granted full citizenship in the Roman Empire. Proud of their achievements and in admiration of all things Roman, these veterans wore Roman apparel, spoke Latin and adhered to Roman justice, morals and customs. In the midst of a decidedly Roman atmosphere, Paul reminded the Christians in Philippi that they held citizenship elsewhere and that their loyalties should be so directed.
With a word of hope concerning the rewards of those who would conform to none other than Jesus and thereby be transformed one day into glory, Paul reminds his readers to stand firm in the Lord.
As if to temper bad news with good news, each of the synoptic evangelists has related the narrative of Jesus transfiguration in glory, immediately after the prediction of Jesus passion and death and his challenge to his would-be disciples, If anyone wishes to come after me, that person must deny the self, take up ones cross every day and follow me (see Mark 8:31, 34; Matthew 16:21, 24; Luke 9:22, 23). Before he would be transformed in love and glory, Jesus chosen path would lead through the suffering of the cross. Always frank and honest, Jesus told his followers that their path toward transformation would be the same.
Although many scholars suggest that the transfiguration was actually a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, which the evangelists anachronized into the period of his earthly ministry, others maintain that the event took place before Easter. Without making a decision as to its historicity, it must be admitted that the transfigurative narrative has been influenced and informed by the communitys post-Easter faith.
As Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991) has noted, the Lucan version is distinct from Matthew and Marks in that he has cast the entire event as a prayer-experience, downplaying the theme of the disciples non-comprehension and sharpening elements concerning Jesus identity, glory and suffering. Jesus identity as Son and Chosen one is affirmed by the voice from the cloud. The directive, Listen to him, affirms Jesus identity as the promised prophet like Moses and is an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 which reads, A prophet like me (Moses) will the Lord your God raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. The fact that Moses and Elijah, who were figures representative of the law and the prophets, disappear from the scene, leaving Jesus there alone, further affirms his identity as fulfiller of, and new interpreter of, both the law and the prophets.
As for Jesus glory, Lukes double mention of the glory surrounding the event (vv. 31, 32), reminds his readers of an earlier reference in his gospel wherein Jesus was hailed as the glory of Israel (2:32) and of the prediction that the Son of Man would ultimately come into his glory (9:26) in the kingdom of God.
However, the glory, that was but glimpsed at on the mountain that day, would be fully realized only after Jesus passage through suffering. Only Luke tells his readers that the Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah concerned his exodus or passage which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem (v. 30). With the perspective afforded by a post-resurrection faith, the early Christians understood that Jesus passage referred to his passing over from death to life.
Given these clarifications as to Jesus identity, glory and suffering, Peters remark about the three tents may appear to be naive and confused. While it may have sprung from an enthusiastic desire to prolong such a wondrous moment of grace, it was probably prompted by the popular expectation (Zechariah 14:16) that the messiah would appear in glory during the feast of Sukkoth (Tents or Tabernacles). Thinking that he had just seen the face of the messiah in the transfigured Jesus, Peter was ready to celebrate in earnest.
However, Peters desire to celebrate the messianic era was slightly premature. The Son and Chosen One to whom they were instructed to listen had much more to tell his disciples before his passage. For their part, Peter and the others had to listen, learn and remember so that they too might follow Jesus passage from death to life where they would be transformed by the power of Gods love.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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