Transfiguration, Freedom, and Valentinus
2 Cor 3:12-4:2, Lk 9:28-36
by Isaac Villegas
Feb 10, 2013
On the mountain, as he is being transfigured by God’s glory, Jesus stands in the company of the great prophets of freedom — he stands with Moses, the one who led Israel out of Egyptian slavery; and he stands with Elijah, the one who set the people of God free from idolatry, free from the dominion of the gods.
Now here is Jesus, talking with these two prophets of freedom, talking about the exodus Jesus will accomplish: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure [his ‘exodus,’ in the Greek] which he was about to accomplish” (Lk 9:31).
At his transfiguration, Jesus is drawn into God’s work of freedom, freedom as old as the exodus from Egyptian slavery.
The apostle Paul preaches this same freedom, the freedom of Jesus, as he says in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Here, at church, we learn to give ourselves to this freedom, we learn to give ourselves to this Spirit as we live together, as we worship, as we invite God to save us from the powers of slavery, of evil, freedom from Egypt, the systems of sin that engulf us. An exodus, in the freedom of Christ, inviting us into a new way of life.
Jesus accomplished this. But the question we are left to ask one another, the question we are left to wrestle with, is what does it mean to be free? Free from what? Freedom to do what?
A couple nights ago I watched a documentary called The Queen of Versailles. The film is a window into the lives of a billionaire family in Florida, as they build a 75 million dollar house: 90,000 square feet with 9 kitchens, 19 bathrooms, 30 bedrooms, two movie theaters, and a bowling alley — the biggest single-family house in the United States.
David Siegel is the founder and owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share vacation business in the world. David’s wife, Jackie, is 30 years younger than him — a former model and beauty pageant queen. They have an army of full-time maids and nannies to run their house and raise their seven children. In their free time, they host galas for the Miss America organization and the Republican Party, all in their modest 30,000 square foot mansion.
I don’t want to give away the whole film, because you should watch it. But there is a scene that reveals the folly at heart of some of our dreams of freedom. The film-maker asks David Siegel why he is building his new house, the mansion inspired by their visit to Versailles in France. After all, the Siegel’s live in a perfectly fine mansion. Why would they need a new one, a bigger one? Mr. Siegel responds, “I’m building it because I can.” That’s his reason. He’s got the money, he’s got an idea, and he’s going to do it. He is free to do what he wants, to build what he wants, to live where he wants.
Obviously, this is not the freedom we see in Jesus, as he refuses to stay on the mountain of his transfiguration, separated from the people. Instead, in Jesus we see a movement of God’s freedom that is for everyone — freedom, not as a possession, but a movement of the Spirit that breaks the chains of bondage, that frees people from slavery; freedom as a shared experience of struggle for life, for God’s life to restore all of life.
In Durham right now the city council is making laws that free people to live in denial, to live as if the poor are not among us — a freedom from the hungry and homeless, freedom as the illusion that we can live without being responsible for one another, that we do not belong to others, that we are not our sister’s and brother’s keeper.
A few weeks ago the Durham City Council approved an ordinance that made it illegal to ask for money while standing on medians in the roads, which is where most of the people we eat lunch with on Wednesdays do their begging. The city council also said that Durham will no longer issue new permits for panhandling — which means that if your spouse dies this year and you are overwhelmed with depression and you lose your job and your house is taken from you and you are living a life you never imagined for yourself, where you carry all that you have in a backpack and move between the homeless shelter and a friend’s tent in the woods, drinking away the pain with the cheapest alcohol you can find; you will beg in the median at the corner of 15/501 and Mount Moriah no matter what the ordinance says, because you must, because there’s nothing else for someone like you, and the Durham police will give you a warning at first, then they’ll issue you tickets, which you won’t be able to pay, so at some point they’ll have you spend some nights in jail, as punishment, as if your life doesn’t feel like a punishment already, and the nights in jail will be dehumanizing, as if begging in the middle of traffic isn’t dehumanizing enough, especially when people throw trash at you, from their cars — an apple core, a McDonald’s bag — and yell at you, and tell you that you are scum, as if you didn’t already know that, as if you didn’t already believe that, as if you didn’t hate yourself already, for what you’ve become.
The new panhandling ordinance is an expression of our desire for freedom, freedom from having to see these painful lives on our way to buy a new sofa, on our way to lunch, so we can eat and spend without feeling guilty — freedom from them, freedom to keep our distance, freedom to control our human encounters, freedom to pursue our own happiness without the imposition of strangers, without their sad faces in our minds. Freedom from the impulse to share, to give — yet sharing is a desire as natural to us as our very bodies, these clumps of flesh and blood that remember all that we borrowed from our mothers, all that we took from them, from their generosity, their hospitality. We live by sharing. We have life because someone shared her flesh with us. To outlaw begging in public robs us of encounters that expose our greed and invite us to listen to, to feel, our desire to share, situations that free us to give.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” In Jesus we see a life of freedom, a ministry that throws off all the sins that keep human beings from experiencing life together, shared life, nonviolent life, reconciled life — a new creation, freed from the sins that corrupt us, freed to give our lives to one another like Jesus did, the one who would rather be killed then stop preaching against our economic systems of greed, our political systems of violence, and all the ways we use God to justify ourselves, all the ways we use our spirituality to justify oppression, the way we use our piety to secure our place in the world, our freedom, our distance from all that is unclean, all that is messy, the complications that come with human relationship.
In Jesus we see a picture of freedom as a way of life that makes room for others to live, to live with hope, with joy, to find healing, to experience God’s affirmation, God’s love.
And, as we all know, Jesus gets killed for this. And so did a pastor from the 3rd century, Valentinus, also known as Saint Valentine. Legend says that he lived during the reign of Claudius II, a Roman emperor who was fighting wars on all fronts. Claudius persecuted Christians because he knew that their worship of Jesus as Lord meant that they weren’t good citizens; Christians, at best, were people with divided loyalties, questionable allegiances. He outlawed marriage for a while because he noticed that married soldiers weren’t very good at fighting — the young men were known to abandon their posts in foreign lands and return to their families. Pastor Valentinus ignored the edict and continued to bless marriages, illegal weddings, unlawful unions. The emperor had him arrested and imprisoned. While in prison, he healed the jailer’s daughter.
Before he was executed, he cut out a heart from parchment and sent it to the daughter, a declaration of God’s love for her. Valentinus had been making these hearts for a while. He would send them to persecuted Christians throughout the empire, to remind them of God’s love, even in the midst of death. The notes were confessions of God’s love, declarations that they were free to love God, to care for one another, even though they were threatened with death, because the Spirit of the Lord is freedom, the freedom of resurrection, life beyond death, the promise that all of life will be transfigured with God’s love — this life, our life; this world, God’s world.