Questions Abound -- A Lectionary reflection for Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Who is Jesus? Isn’t that the question that’s on our minds? It’s not just Christians asking the question—it is a question that crosses religious lines. There are many answers to that question running from those given by Dan Brown to N.T. Wright. Is he a mere human or the second person of the Holy Trinity? Even the Gospels are a bit coy about how to answer the questions. They reveal some things, but they keep other possible answers shrouded in mystery. What the Gospels have to say differs in some ways from what we find in Paul. The Synoptics differ from John.
Transfiguration Sunday serves to highlight a moment when the veil is pulled back and something important is revealed. There is in this story that appears in the three Synoptic Gospels a divine witness to the person and calling of Jesus. While the witness is given to a select few, it is not to be proclaimed more broadly. It’s just our little secret—at least until after the coming of Easter.
The Transfiguration of Jesus offers us a witness to Christ’s identity. The first part of the witness seems to come from within as Jesus takes on a different countenance. His presence, including his clothing, which becomes a dazzling white, exudes divine glory. Not even bleach can get the robes any whiter. The second witness comes from Elijah and Moses who appear on the scene as Jesus is being transfigured. Their presence seems to serve as a way to connect the mission of Jesus with that of these two great prophets of Israel. We’re not privy to their conversation and when Peter offers to build booths for them – dwelling that could either suggest either hospitality or worship—they disappear from view. The next part of the witness comes from above, as a voice from a cloud that descended from the heavens and enveloped them. From the cloud comes the voice that declares that Jesus is the “Son, the Beloved” of God.
The three forms of witness suggest that there’s something special about this person whom Peter, James, and John journey with. For their part, the event on the mountain top—remembering that mountain tops tend to be thin places where divine encounters occur—they are unsure as to what to make of all of this. They may be among those closest to Jesus, the inner circle, but they remain uncertain about who Jesus really is. Therefore, their reaction to all of this is confusion and fear. Perhaps they’re beginning to realize that there’s more to Jesus than they had previously thought. Obviously they’re not sure what to make of this experience.
As we ponder this scene, which for many of us is as familiar as the back of our hands. Every year Transfiguration Sunday comes around and we read one of the three accounts. This year it’s Mark, next year Luke, and so on. Something that I seem to have missed before is the way the story begins: “Six days later.” So, what happened six days earlier? Well, Jesus was in a conversation with the disciples and the crowd. Peter had managed to first acclaim Jesus the Messiah and then rebuke Jesus for talking about his death. Six days earlier Jesus had been teaching the crowd that if they took up their cross for the sake of the gospel. In closing Jesus tells the disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 8:27-9:1). Six days later Jesus is transfigured.
Six days later (or eight in Luke) there is a Sabbath perhaps? And something powerful occurs. Jesus is transfigured. He doesn’t do this to himself. It simply occurs. What is occurring in this moment? Karl Barth writes:
In other words, the transfiguration, for the Evangelists at least, was a first and provisional fulfillment of the promise contained in that saying. But the six (eight) day interval between promise and fulfillment is no doubt intended to suggest that the transfiguration with its fulfillment of the saying marks the dawn of a special Sabbath. We are obviously in close material proximity to the resurrection story. [PREACHING THROUGH THE CHRISTIAN YEAR a selection of exegetical passages from the Church Dogmatics, p. 139]
Could it be that these three disciples have been invited into that moment when the kingdom of God is revealed? Barth writes further about the signs present in the pre-Easter story that point to what will be revealed in the post-Easter story.
This would seem to imply that the miracles of Jesus are to be taken as “signs” in the sense that they point to what he already was, to the hidden presence of the kingdom of God which would later be unveiled during the forty days in an abiding manifestation, in a σκηνουν (to dwell) of the Lord in the midst of his disciples—a disclosure which will become definitive and universal at the end of all time in his coming again. [Ibid. p. 140].
The disciples see and hear and yet seem unable to make sense of what Jesus up to. They see signs and miracles but they remain rather thickheaded, which may be why Jesus wants them to keep quiet for now. They saw a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus, but they wouldn’t understand until after the resurrection occurred. They were in close proximity, but they weren’t there yet. They had to wait until they had experienced a fuller unveiling of what was already present.
Who is Jesus? Who do we say that he is? In what way is the realm of God revealed in his person? Perhaps we too must wait for a fuller unveiling, but we have seen a glimpse of the realm as present and revealed in Jesus the Christ of God. In the meantime what does these glimpses, these theophanies, say to us? What does it instill in us?
Peter wanted the vision to last, so he offered to build tents. We build buildings hoping to capture the glory of the kingdom. Messages cast in stone and glass. They often do give a glimpse, but we still await that full unveiling. As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I now only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Even if it is through a mirror dimly, is there not enough that has been unveiled that we might come and sing songs of praise to the glory of the one who comes to us in Jesus and reveals the kingdom?
Note -- the image of the Transfiguration is from a Romanian Orthodox Church in Jericho, found on the net: https://patmcinerney.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/jericho/