Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 23, 2020
2 Peter 1:16-21 Commentary
To paraphrase an old cliché, for the RCL’s preachers and teachers, “It’s a good thing Transfiguration Sunday comes but once a year.” After all, it can be challenging enough to proclaim the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. The challenge may become even greater for those who choose to proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday.
Of course, there are riches to be mined from 2 Peter 1:16-21. Its messages of eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration as well as the reliability of the Scriptures can prove, with the Spirit’s help, to be a fertile source for proclamation of gospel truths. But those who try to link 2 Peter 1 to the gospels’ account of Jesus’ transfiguration may have little more to draw on than a somewhat skeletal rehashing of what those gospels portray far more vividly.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might choose to emphasize just one half of it. Verses 16-21 recount Peter’s experience with the Transfiguration’s display of Jesus’ power, coming and majesty. Jesus’ disciple caught an almost blinding glimpse of Jesus’ honor and glory. That majesty was then confirmed, says Peter, in some disciples’ hearing by God’s announcement that Jesus is “God’s Son,” whom God loves and with whom God is “well-pleased” (17).
2 Peter 1’s proclaimers might also choose to focus on its verses 19-21. They present a somewhat skeletal theology of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation,” Peter writes there. “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Yet the RCL’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might also want to link those two halves, Jesus’ majesty to the Scriptures’ reliability. We would, frankly, been helped had the Spirit inspired Peter to include in his account of Jesus’ transfiguration the part of God’s message that the apostle omits: “This is my Son … Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). That would have at least linked the need to listen to the Scriptures (19) to Peter’s audience’s need to listen to Jesus. But the apostle leaves us only with his insistence that “we ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (18).
So how might the Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers link the two halves of it? Peter doesn’t provide his readers with a natural link between his message and our need to listen to God’s Son. Yet might he be offering God’s adopted sons and daughters two reasons for trusting the Scriptures’ reliability? Some of those Scriptures are products of eyewitness accounts, as in the case of Peter’s recounting of Jesus’ transfiguration (16-18). But even those that are not the testimony of eyewitnesses, as in the case of the prophetic writings, are inspired by the Holy Spirit (19-21).
This may prove to be a fruitful approach for those who proclaim 2 Peter 1 in the 21st century’s context of skepticism about nearly everything that can’t be somehow “proven.” Our contemporaries assume that each of us has our own story that, while valid to us, is not necessarily valid for anyone else. Your story may not, in other words, be reliable for me.
What’s more, there’s much talk about the loss of American trust in institutions like politics, the church and even big businesses. To that Christians might want to add a loss of trust in the Scriptures’ reliability. How, some of our contemporaries wonder, can we trust an ancient text to provide us anything more than a few moral lessons as well as a glimpse into its outdated world?
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may offer a way to speak to that particular loss of confidence. Peter sets it in the context of “cleverly invented stories” (16). Those myths seem to have revolved around the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (16).
Yet while we generally understand that “coming” to refer to Jesus’ second coming, some scholars suggest that the word translated as “coming, parousia, simply refers to Jesus’ presence. In that case, Jesus’ ongoing presence among his believing followers may serve as a confirmation of the truth of their proclamation. Others can trust the words of those followers because Christ remains present to, with and among both those who proclaim them and those who hear them.
Peter insists that not only his message, but also its source is very different from those promoting falsehoods. Peter was, in fact, an eyewitness of the Lord Jesus Christ’s “majesty” (16). He heard God announce that Jesus was God’s “Son, whom I love; with him am well pleased” (17). So unlike the false teachers and prophets, the apostle received his message directly from God.
Of course, as my colleague Scott Hoezee points out, even after the Transfiguration’s startling display of Jesus’ glory the reliability of that message didn’t sink it right away for Jesus’ followers. Almost immediately afterward, after all, those disciples tried to wrangle the best seats in God’s kingdom for themselves. They also tried to convince Jesus to launch a political coup against Israel’s Roman occupiers. And when religious leaders conspired with the Romans to “shoot the messenger,” Jesus’ disciples fled him as quickly as their feet could carry them.
But the Holy Spirit’s descent into Jesus’ disciples transformed them. The Spirit made them realize that in Christ they’d heard God speaking to them. The disciples also came to realize that God expected them to share that holy truth with the rest of the world, including Peter’s letters’ first readers.
That truth, Peter goes on to insist in verses 19-21, also applies to what the prophets relayed through what Christians think of as the Old Testament. Those biblical prophets are trustworthy, unlike the false prophets whom the apostle condemns in chapter 2. In fact, at Pentecost the Spirit made “the word of the prophets more certain,” (19) perhaps making that word more obviously the product of that Spirit’s inspiration.
The Old Testament prophets didn’t speak their own words, or even their own interpretations of God’s word. Nor was the source of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others’ message in “their own will” (21). Instead, the prophets spoke their words “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that we can trust God’s Word as the prophets, Peter and others deliver it to us because their words are, in fact, the words God’s own Spirit inspired them to say and write. Those words are reliable enough that God’s people can live – and die – by them.
Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld wrote an article in the Scientific American’s January 1, 2010 edition entitled, “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” It begins with Kirk Bloodsworth’s story. In 1984 Bloodsworth was convicted of raping and murdering a nine-year-old girl. The testimony of five eyewitnesses helped sentence him to die in the gas chamber. Yet after Bloodsworth had served nine years in prison, DNA testing proved him to be innocent.
Arkowitz goes on to write, “Surveys show that most jurors place heavy weight on eyewitness testimony when deciding whether a suspect is guilty. But although eyewitness reports are sometimes accurate, jurors should not accept them uncritically because of the many factors that can bias such reports.
“For example, jurors tend to give more weight to the testimony of eyewitnesses who report that they are very sure about their identifications even though most studies indicate that highly confident eyewitnesses are generally only slightly more accurate—and sometimes no more so—than those who are less confident. In addition to educating jurors about the uncertainties surrounding eyewitness testimony, adhering to specific rules for the process of identifying suspects can make that testimony more accurate.
“The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them.
“On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is ‘more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording’.”
It’s a good thing, then, that the Spirit’s inspiration kept Peter, the prophets and other biblical eyewitnesses’ memory sharp.
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