Our reading from Mark today is the report of the Transfiguration. This event occurs in the middle of the gospel and is the prelude of Jesus going to Jerusalem. Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a “high mountain” There he is transfigured: his clothes become radiant and white as white can be. Elijah and Moses appear and engage Jesus in conversation. It was a startling – and for Jesus at least – a life changing event. Have you ever had a mountain top experience? Well this is where that term came from. The Transfiguration is the original mountain top experience.
Jesus had brought the three disciples to the mountain after days of preaching and acting. Jesus has fed the 5000, healed the possessed, but most of all he has challenged the government and the traditions. He has called them into question. He socialized with taxes collectors and sinners, both despised groups of people. He allowed his disciples to pick from the grain fields on the Sabbath because they were hungry … a forbidden activity, since it was work. He continued to heal on the Sabbath … and now with the powers watching him and objecting as he does it. He stood up for the dispossessed and the poor and the hungry. More and more people were following him now and the powers-that-be were feeling very threatened. And now Herod was getting wind of him. They began to plot his downfall. And this was just what was happening in the countryside. Even his mother and brothers were frightened for him.
Finally Jesus challenged the disciples about who he was. It was Peter who recognized him as the Messiah. But when Jesus told him that the Messiah must suffer, die and be resurrected in three days, Peter argued with him and Jesus scolded him. Jesus had reach the point in his ministry where he needed to leave the countryside and go to Jerusalem where the powers-that-be reside. He must confront them and he knew that that very likely would lead to his death. And Peter couldn’t accept that Jesus would die.
He brought Peter, John and James to the mountain in hope they would finally understand what he was doing. But they don’t get … at least not entirely. Peter – who has become the de facto second in command – doesn’t get it.
Peter wants to build three booths. And Mark says to us that he didn’t know what he was doing. But Peter thought in knew and understood. He sees the Transfiguration as a sign that the “last days” have finally arrived and God was once again going to liberate the Jews from their oppressors … this from time the Romans instead of from the Egyptians. Elijah is the herald of the “last days” and Jesus is the expected Messiah. He wants to commemorate the coming of the new Exodus. During the Feast of Booths (i.e., Sukkot) the Jews set up booths to commemorate the Exodus. So Peter wants to set a booth for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, to commemorate the new Exodus. God is in breaking into the world to transform the world from oppression to freedom.
But Peter thought that he and his fellow disciples were the vanguard expected to organize and lead the revolution … and he, of course, would be their leader, second only to Jesus. He knew there was much work to be done, but he was focused on the triumph over the oppressors and the glory of victory. He definitely wasn’t thinking about suffering and loss … and even possible defeat and death.
But Peter – and James and John for that matter – missed what Jesus had been telling them all along. The Son of God – the Messiah – must suffer. Earlier he had outright said this to them and Peter rebuked him for suggesting such a tragedy. And Jesus in turn rebuked him with “Get behind me, Satan. These are not God’s thoughts but men’s.” Even after this rebuke, Peter still thought that the Kingdom of God was imminent and coming in victory, not in suffering.
And this misunderstanding is why Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about what they saw. He didn’t want them misleading the people or the authorities. Jesus has been telling the disciples and us over and over again, that the way to the Kingdom of God is not through some righteous fight or righteous conquest. Rather it is a humbling experience of speaking truth to power with love. Jesus taught that the Kingdom embraces everyone … even those we hate.
He even called a tax-collector, Matthew to be one of his disciples. Tax collectors were seen as traitors: Jews who collected for the hated Romans and by doing so enriched themselves.
Even though he had alienated the synagogue authorities he would return to the synagogue and once again heal a man: not because it was urgent, but because it was the compassionate thing to do … to give the man back his livelihood without delay.
And again and again he accused the authorities and leaders of being self-serving and bound up by their greed for power and wealth. And he did this publicly in front of crowds of people who were the victims of the powerful.
And again and again he cast out demons and healed people in greater and greater numbers exerting his power over the demons and the illnesses and thereby claiming power over the leaders: not a power born of swords and spears, but of compassion and healing. This was more frightening to the leaders than traditional weapons … for with compassion and healing his allies were not powerful princes and kings, but the multitude of peasants.
And now Jesus knew he had done all he could in the countryside. He must go to Jerusalem and confront the authorities and power. For even his disciples don’t understand. He must show them in no uncertain terms how the Kingdom of God will come into the world.
So where is all of this now? Throughout the history of Christianity we have all too often taken Peter’s interpretation. We as individuals and individual faith communities have done wonderful compassionate work … with Jesus walking with us every step of the way. But as Christianity developed and became a significant influence that impacted the way our civilization developed over the past two thousand years, it has sided frequently with Peter. In the name of Jesus we have often used top-down coercion and violence to impose our way of living on others with the claim that it is the Christian way.
The Crusades come to mind, of course. For us that is ancient history and a terrible expression of our religion. Yet the Church justified it as acceptable Christian approach. And of course there were the Reformation wars where Protestant and Catholics fought each other for decades.
All of these stem from the notion that the Messiah is a righteous leader that God sends to us to bring about the Kingdom of God. This was Peter’s notion. Even today it echoes through our foreign policy where we insist that our way of living and of governing is the righteous way and the world would be a better place if it conformed. It leads to our belief that we have a right to wage righteous war against enemies. Our two recent wars are a clear example of this. And yet, I do not believe that good Christian officials bothered to ask what would Jesus do in the circumstances that we claimed justified these wars. Rather they accepted the age old idea that God is with us on the battle field, indeed, that God is commanding us to war.
Well, God is with us on the battle field … but God is weeping over the dead and dying, over the destruction, the senselessness and the inevitable damage that will echo through generations.
And Jesus understood that what he was proclaiming was not going to be easy. What Peter and the disciples thought he was doing was what their society taught them to expect, just as our society teaches us the same. Jesus was going against this grain and he knew it was going to be a long, long struggle. But now on that high mountain I suspect that all he wanted to do is keep the flame glowing that the thread of peace and justice, love and compassion would stay alive.
And so as they left that mountain, the disciples would follow Jesus now to Jerusalem, town by town, until Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey proclaiming peace and hope, while his followers saw righteous battle, victory and glory. He would challenge the authorities and the leaders to reflect on how they have bought into a self-destructive system. But most of all he was challenging the people to see it too. And he taught how they could live as if the Kingdom of God had already come … and thereby bring the Kingdom into the world.
But the disciples followed, not really understanding. They would be with him in Gethsemene and Peter being Peter would draw his sword. And Jesus would order him to put away his sword proclaiming those who live by the sword shall die by the sword … and how right Jesus was as we look over 2000 years of war and violence. And the disciples would flee the cross …
Yet the flame of love and hope shines on. It shines on in our faith communities that strive for peace and justice, that reach out to the poor and hungry, that open their doors to one and all without judging. The flame shines on. It has not died and it will not die.
Each of our faith communities must always ask what would Jesus do? But not just in our individual personal lives, but in our social and political lives. What would Jesus do about undocumented immigrants? What would Jesus do about people needlessly suffering because they have no health insurance? What would Jesus do about terrorists? What would Jesus do about Iran and Syria? What would Jesus about unemployment? What would Jesus do about the hyper greed of the few? What would Jesus have us do?
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …