Transfiguration Sunday 2016
Scripture: Mark 9
When I step back and think about the Transfiguration on the mountain, I wonder what that word refers to more: Jesus’ transformation or Peter’s? Many Christians identify with Peter–do you? At times, I do. I think it’s because, to put it simply, Peter is human. He makes mistakes and when he doesn’t know what’s going on, he responds anyway. He, like the other disciples, seems kind of dense sometimes. Peter had been hanging out with Jesus for a while. He knew the guy, ate dinner with him all the time, listened intently and was learning to trust Jesus through lots of frightening situations. You might think he had picked up a little bit of, you know, the point of Jesus being on Earth, by hanging out with him so long. In fact, in Mark chapter 8, the passage directly preceding our text on the Transfiguration today, Jesus and the disciples are at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks that famous question: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples answer, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets”–all the good answers. But Jesus then asks, “Who do YOU say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time one of the disciples confesses knowing Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah sent from God.
But even though Peter confessed Jesus’ identity, Peter wasn’t so sure what that meant. He had a lot of questions. Continuing on after Peter’s confession, the author of Mark describes how Jesus began teaching about how “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). But Peter wasn’t ready to think about the deeper meaning of what Jesus was talking about, and took him aside to “rebuke him,” the text says in verse 8:32. Peter must have felt something like that nagging feeling, that intuition that comes when you know there’s more to the story but you’re not ready to deal with it yet.
But Jesus turns around and rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Jesus then, in true Jesus fashion, teaches to the crowd and the disciples about what it means to be a disciple– “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Six days later, Jesus takes his closest friends (Peter, James, and John) up on Mount Hermon and is transfigured before their eyes.
Now, it should be known that the Gospel of Mark, written around 40 years after Jesus’ death, is the most “miraculous” gospel. It contains the most miracle healings, exorcisms, and otherwise extraordinary events. The Transfiguration in our text today is actually thought to have been written as part of the Passion narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection—this was possibly supposed to be a resurrection appearance! However, the author of Mark moved this passage earlier in Jesus life, maybe to emphasize the unique-ness and chosen-ness of Jesus as sent from God.
Malcolm Guite, a college chaplain and priest in Cambridge in the UK, writes this poem imagining what Jesus’ friends experienced on the mountain.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this, this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
“How things really are.” That’s exactly what Peter was having trouble with. He doesn’t know how to respond to Jesus’ teaching after being named the Messiah because he doesn’t want to think about what being the Messiah really means. He doesn’t know how to respond to Jesus’ talking with Moses and Elijah on the mountain in our text today because he hasn’t let the message of Jesus’ mission sink in yet. And much later, while Jesus is being tried in the Sanhedrin court for treason, he denies Jesus because he doesn’t even want to consider that all Jesus has been telling him and the disciples is true. Peter is constantly in denial, constantly oscillating between confessing Jesus’ true nature and saying, “I’m not ready yet” to Jesus’ call to follow him in the mission that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ death.
Think about a time in your life when you were about to learn the truth of something you really didn’t want to think about. For us, these moments can be anything from learning who Santa Claus really is when we were children to the revealing of a family secret to owning up to the fact that we are complicit in systems of oppression, whether racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism or war. Like Peter, it is our natural instinct to say “I’m not ready yet” when the transfiguration of Jesus occurs. Because if Jesus can be transfigured before the very eyes of his closest friends, taking his place among the great people in the history of Israel, Moses and Elijah, then that must mean that Jesus is a really special guy…and that must mean that he’s not just any guy, but kind of divine too…and that must mean that he’s the messiah (which is kind of a problem, when you think about it) because people who preach and teach the kind of good news that Jesus preaches and teaches get hurt.
When confronted with information that we’re not ready to hear, or that we’re not ready to take seriously, what holds us back from listening deeply and entering into the discomfort? Sometimes learning negative information is painful. It can change how you see someone or how you understand your relationship with them. It can even make it clear that YOU are the one who must change your behaviors or beliefs. You must change how you live. And change is frightening sometimes, mostly because it is unknown. Often we have resistance to finding what is really out there. For an example of how many of us resist the unknown, think about going on a road trip to a new place. Most of us like to have road maps (or a GPS) or friends or family in the front passenger seat, helping us navigate. When walking in the nighttime, most of us like to have a flashlight or a lantern or our iPhone to help us illuminate dark paths.
But Peter didn’t have those tools, and sometimes we don’t either. Peter just had a close friend whose inspiring good news to the poor, healing of the sick and defending of the needy was getting him a lot of attention–maybe a little too much attention, in Peter’s view. Maybe Peter would agree with Shane Claiborne, one of the ministers who founded the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, who writes in his book The Irresistible Revolution, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into.” Jesus kept talking about “the Son of Man” and “righteous” people vs. “sinners” and asking questions– “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4); “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mk 3:33); “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk 4:40). He kept teaching in confusing and muddled parables–the sower and the seed, the fig tree, the lamp under a bushel basket. Hanging out with Jesus must have been really frustrating and confusing! Imagine yourself in Peter’s place: not understanding the stories your friend was telling, not being able to answer any questions intelligently, not being able to comprehend what seemed to be the most important story ever told.
Maybe all Peter needs–all we need, with our own issues–is time. Time to let it all sink in. Time to be contemplative, to hold the words and stories and deeds of Jesus in our hearts and minds. Time to figure out how to respond.
Lent starts this week, and for those of you who observe this 40-day period before Easter, you know that Lent gives us just what we need sometimes–time to sit with the story of Jesus and again try to comprehend it. During Lent, we try to understand the actions of this holy human in a new way, try to understand why he was killed at the hands of the state for loving and lifting up the poor and marginalized. We try to understand, again, why he matters to us still.
Christopher Moore, author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, writes: “Faith isn’t an act of intelligence, it’s an act of imagination.” Lent is a time when we can stretch our imagination while we sit with our many questions. We walk through Jesus’ life alongside the disciples, perhaps emulating Peter. We walk with Jesus and we hear the stories afresh. And again, as with every year around this time, we feel a tension: No, Jesus, don’t leave us! We’re not ready to hear that you’re going to die. We aren’t ready! And we don’t even want to hear the reality of the good news that comes after your death–we’re not ready, so let’s just play ignorant for a little while longer…let’s just join Peter in denial for a little longer…”
I said this at the beginning and I’ll say it again: When I step back and think about the Transfiguration on the mountain, I wonder what that word refers to more: Jesus’ transformation or Peter’s? When we encounter both the humility and the glory of the Good News, how are WE being transformed? But will we ever really be ready to hear Jesus talk about the end of his earthly life? Will we ever really be ready to see the underside of the stories he tells about being kind in this life and truly grasp the deeper meaning of the parables, the illustrations about the kingdom of God being at hand, right-here-right-now? How do we move from that strange comfort that comes with ignorance or denial to the discomfort of knowing the truth? Knowing how we truly must live and love our neighbor and welcome the stranger and visit those imprisoned and humanize our enemy? That’s uncomfortable…how do we move from “I’m not ready yet” to “Ok. I’m with you, I’m all in.” ?
That’s the beauty of being in relationship with Jesus. Though at times frustrated with the disciples, Jesus stayed with them and kept teaching them, convinced that even when he wouldn’t be physically with them, they’d know what to do because he taught them how to live. Jesus isn’t going to stop loving us because we’re not ready. But he’s also not going to stop the world and wait for us to catch up. Instead, he’s going to invite us to join him on his journey to Jerusalem.
“Take up your cross.”
“Come follow me.”
(Sermon originally preached at Central Christian Disciples of Christ)