The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
"Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so," he added, "shall your descendants be."
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.
He then said to him,
"I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans
to give you this land as a possession."
"O Lord GOD," he asked,
"how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
He answered him,
"Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat,
a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon."
Abram brought him all these, split them in two,
and placed each half opposite the other;
but the birds he did not cut up.
Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses,
but Abram stayed with them.
As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram,
and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.
When the sun had set and it was dark,
there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces.
It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram,
saying: "To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates."
Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters,
and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us.
For many, as I have often told you
and now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.
Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their "shame."
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters,
whom I love and long for, my joy and crown,
in this way stand firm in the Lord.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
"Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my chosen Son; listen to him."
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.
How long can an insight last? All of us have a sudden flash of knowledge that we don’t reason to but is suddenly there. One I distinctly remember occurred in the middle of a sophomore study hall almost 65 years ago. I’d always studied, even did all my homework. But I did these things just to get good grades. Then out of nowhere came the conviction that there’s something valuable in study itself, even if I never took another exam. That thought only lasted a split second, but it’s been guiding me all my life.
I bring up insights today because most Scripture scholars believe we’re dealing with an insight when we hear the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. The narrative contains the classic trademarks of a biblical myth. For instance, it’s chuck full of biblical symbolism: the cloud, the voice, and the unique participants. Notice also that the name of the mountain isn’t mentioned; we can’t track down the geographic place. These elements – and others - seem to imply that the story is rooted in an insight many of Jesus’ followers experienced in their encounters with him. This particular itinerant preacher was unlike anyone they’d ever chanced upon.
In their minds Yahweh not only sent and confirmed this Galilean carpenter, but to follow his teachings and example placed one squarely in the middle of the teachings and example of the Hebrew Scriptures. The special person the Chosen People had anticipated since the days of the Exodus is in their midst right here and now. No matter how one put that insightful experience into words, their biblical attempts tell us some of Jesus’ few followers at least had a hint Jesus of Nazareth was the one.
Yet it’s clear from today’s second reading that no matter how intense the original insight, for some Christians that “illumination” eventually faded away. Due to Paul’s reference to “their stomach,” scholars believe the fallen-away Philippians to whom he refers could be within the community’s Christian Jews who have returned to keeping Judaism’s dietary regulations. Instead of giving themselves over to the ever-changing risen Jesus, they feel more secure in giving themselves over to a set of never changing concrete laws.
Our Jewish faith ancestors no doubt had parallel insights revolving around Yahweh at work in their daily lives. The historical Jesus certainly did. Today’s Genesis pericope reminds us they locked some of those insights into a covenant with Yahweh. When they’d gather to renew that agreement – as they did yearly during Passover - they’d recall those special moments. In the world before photographs and tape recorders, remembering them would be the only way to make them live again. In the case of the Passover, they would especially recall the moment when they realized for the first time that Yahweh, not a set of accidental circumstances, was freeing them from slavery.
Based on his Jewish heritage, Jesus also weaved his community’s insights into a covenant, an action especially to be remembered in their celebrations of the Eucharist. But as Paul warned the Philippians, unless people imitated him, they could fall into the same trap as those whose glory became their shame. We know from his letters, imitating Paul revolves around learning how to die and rise with Jesus.
From I Corinthians 11, there’s no doubt in the Apostle’s mind that the best place to experience that dying for others is in the community’s celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. If the celebration is done correctly – and we actually give ourselves to and for one another – there’s a great chance many of us will have frequent insights about the presence of the risen Jesus among us.
Afraid there just aren’t any lasting insights that come from mouthing empty rituals.