[Most weeks, I spend my Thursday lunch hour with a handful of other ‘preachers’ for a group called Preaching Peace. We read the Gospel for the week (from the Revised Common Lectionary), and we ask a simple question: “How would we preach this passage for peace this week?” This post comes out of those conversations.]
Sitting with the Ancestors
A friend shared in our group shared this week about a news report of a First Nation group who prepared a meal for their broader community. They said that when they brought their food and offer it to others, they felt like their ancestors were sitting down with them. This connection to the past through a present encounter is the perfect lens for the story of the transfiguration.
The transfiguration story is one of the strangest stories in the Gospels, but it is fundamentally a story of Jesus and three disciples sitting down with their ancestors, connecting their story to the story of the Patriarchs and Prophets. It puts the ministry of Jesus and his disciples at the centre of God’s unfolding story of redemption.
In this reading, Jesus ascends a mountain with three of his top disciples. Alone in that space, Jesus is “transfigured.” His clothes become dazzling white, and he is joined by Elijah and Moses. Peter awkwardly offers to build a shelter for the three of them. Then, a thick cloud appears and a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.” And suddenly it all disappears and the disciples are left alone with Jesus.
On the way down from the mountain, Jesus instructs them to not tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Seizing upon these words, they began debating the resurrection of the dead and the timing of the Day of the Lord as it related to prophecy of the return of Elijah.
Problems as Pathways
This passage troubles all of my modern sensibilities. I find it more unbelievable and less convincing than passages of healing for example, where Jesus is doing all of the things I would want a Jesus to be doing. But this is Mark’s story, to Mark’s audience, and it is precisely the problems of the passage that lead to the treasures of the passage.
I’m stuck trying to figure out who needed this strange display of authentication of Jesus? Why Elijah and Moses? Why did Peter want to build a tent? Why a voice coming out of a cloud? What purpose does this passage serve in Scripture and for the Church?
Jesus within the Jewish story
The appearance of Elijah and Moses obviously tie Jesus’ story to the Jewish story, and particularly as the Son of Man, foretold by the Prophets. But perhaps more importantly, their presence is a simple affirmation of something else—They were alive, not dead. If they were alive, there was life after death, and immortality of the soul, which not very Jewish sect believed. This story affirms that the Gospel of Mark believes and promotes a the centrality of resurrection in Christian belief.
I also want to know how Peter even knew this was Elijah and Moses. The only hint we have is that Jesus was talking with them. From that conversation Peter seems to recognize who it is Jesus is speaking with. The image of Jesus conversing directly with the voices of the Law and Prophets is striking. Again, for a Jewish audience, this passage weaves the Jesus story into God’s story of redemption.
Take this experience with you
It is interesting that Peter’s initial response is to build a tent, or shelter. Mountains were spaces touching the heavens, above where people live and work. Elijah and Moses appearing was like a portal opening, bridging heaven and earth. Out of this Peter draws the conclusion, “we should build something here, stay awhile, or maybe memorialize this place.” But this transformational experience was to be taken with them, integrated into their ministry, and not contained to a far holy place.
The thick cloud that appears suddenly reminds us of the cloud that the Israelites followed in the desert. The voice of God the Father appears only a few places in the Testament and each time it is an affirmation of Jesus’ identity and approval. Can you hear the tenderness of those words as if they were spoken of you, “This is my son/my daughter, whom I love and am pleased with.”
That love, acceptance, and affirmation, passes from the Father to the Son and to all of God’s children. We live and work by this fundamental law of love. God love you. Knowledge of this love for us, changes everything. It is the essence of all service and compassion. People are bearers of God’s image, and they are objects of God’s love.
The transfiguration was certainly a “mountaintop experience,” but it was not to be memorialized on a far away mountain with a temple built around it. It was a transformative experience of the very presence of Living God. It is about the presence of God coming to our world, rather than us escaping our world to reach God. The disciples were left debating when God’s presence would finally break through (the Day of the Lord). “What else do we need to wait on? The return of Elijah? The suffering of the Son of Man?”
But God’s kingdom was already breaking through and beginning to take root. And it has been growing eagerly and persistently ever since. The Transfiguration reminds us of this, that God’s presence has come to us and wants to make its home among us. It is the story of resurrection, a world being made right through Jesus. He is One of God and One of Us (the Son of God/Son of Man).
So as strange as the passage still is to me. It is a theological proof.
- It validates resurrection, that Creator God brings dead things to life.
- It validates Jesus’ story as a continuation, or resolve, of the the Jewish story.
- It validates Jesus as the ‘interrupt’ in a fallen world, “the thing” by which God is changing “every thing.”
- It validates the role we play in bringing God’s order to earth, as it is in heaven.