The transfiguration story in the Gospel of Mark is, not too surprisingly, about transformation, but not of Jesus, it is about transformation of ourselves. Allow me explain. God tells Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus. On the mountaintop God says to them, "listen to him". As an aside here I would like to once again say how much I love the simplicity of the biblical text. The clouds part and the voice of God Herself is heard and what does He say? God does not go into a lengthy treatise of the divinity of Christ, or the theological reasoning behind the Messiah, rather God simply says, “Listen to him”. I love the simplicity for two reasons. First, it is an effective story telling device. Keep the profound simple and the message is enhanced. Second, it allows the reader or listener to interpret the text in the context of their time, the context of their personal situation and in terms of where they feel the Spirit of God is leading them.
Having said that, let us get back to the story of the Transfiguration. God says to John, Peter and James, “Listen to him”, that is of course, listen to Jesus. How do we interpret that? Presumably, on a fundamental level that means believe what Jesus is saying. Believe what he is teaching you and what he is showing you by example. And what he is saying in part, in this part of the Gospel of Mark, is that suffering and rejection and the cross and resurrection are all a part of his journey. He tells his closest followers that there is no other path for him except the road to Jerusalem and the cross will be his earthly destination.
I don’t know about you, but this part of Jesus’ journey and ministry It is never fully explained, at least to my satisfaction, why this must be so. Why must Jesus go through suffering and ridicule and torture and ultimately death? Because we know the story so well perhaps we take it for granted. Because we know Easter will happen as a result, perhaps we don’t question why the awful mess of the passion must happen in the first place. It is never fully explained. God says, “Listen to him”, and Jesus says the cross is my destiny, and his followers never really ask why this must be the case. To a very large and important degree we must accept that the reason for the passion story is a bit of a mystery understood only by God. Even at the cross Jesus himself seems unsure. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? It reminds me of that wonderful line of lyric from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar where, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus challenges God and says, “You are far to keen on where and when and not so hot on why”.
However, the inevitability of the passion was obvious. Jesus wanted God' s kingdom on earth and that meant upsetting the political, religious, economic and social powers that would of course react in a very negative way. You cannot tell those in power that they are hypocrites without expecting a reaction. You cannot tell the rich and the powerful that they must give up wealth and authority in order to have a more equitable society without expecting pushback. You most certainly cannot condemn the structures of a society for being unjust and deaf to the marginalized without expecting those who benefit from the status quo to react with all the might they wield to protect their privilege.
Given Jesus’ teaching and message the passion of the cross was indeed inevitable. However, even though we may not know exactly why, even though we may not know the precise plan God was formulating, the passion ironically made possible the transformative power of Jesus' love as a palpable force in reality. The cruelty of torture and injustice was turned upside down and the love of God, in a new and dynamic way, once again dwelt among us. In a very crucial sense, that is the way of the cross. Love transforming all that is evil and all that is darkness is the way of the cross.
What I am also saying here is this does not mean that the way of the cross is suffering and therefore to suffer is good and that we are in some way called to this. I know of a person, a kind of acquaintance by way of another friend, who told my friend that she would like to get cancer so that she can suffer and therefore be assured of a place in heaven. True story. I have no idea what church this person goes to or where she picked up this idea or this theology, but if I ever met her I would gently but firmly try to tell her this. God loves you as Her very own child and would never; never want you to suffer for the sake of suffering. That is simply not the God that I know. You may well suffer in life as we all do from time to time, but God is there for us, and loves us and does not want us to be nailed to a cross. I would say to her as I say to you, Jesus did not die to end all suffering and evil and injustice. Jesus died because of evil, and suffering and injustice and while his love does not defeat them, his love exposes them to the light and opens the door to transformation. When Jesus say, “pick up my cross”, Jesus is not saying suffer with me, Jesus is saying work through me and work with me to end the evil of suffering in all its forms.
We are therefore called in our own way not to a passive love or to bear a cross of personal or collective suffering for the sake of Jesus, rather we are called to aggressively pursue what is right and counter the forces that would thwart love. We are further called to believe and to experience that the way of love is transformative for us as well, as we try to transform our world. Saying to someone, “I hear you and feel your trouble”, changes us as well. Saying to someone, “I am angered at the injustice you have lived with and am there for you to try and end this cruelty”, changes us as well. You Saying to someone, “I love you”, and mean it, even if it is your enemy, changes you as well.
So now we move back to the story of the Gospel reading for today and the delicate but powerful message it is sending. The Transfiguration most certainly reveals the uniqueness of Jesus. God says, “Listen to him”. God does not say that about anybody else in the Bible. But there is also the mystical and the hidden character of his Messiahship. James, John and Peter witness first hand the divinity of Jesus. His clothes turn a dazzling white, he speaks to Elijah and Mosses and God Himself speaks to them about His son. There really is for these followers of Jesus no other explanation that Jesus is the Messiah. And yet, when Jesus’ Transfiguration is over, what does he say to them? Jesus says, forget what you saw and tell no one. Why might this be? Why does Jesus underplay this event?
Let me explain by way of an example. Televangelists proclaim Jesus divinity as a given. They loudly proclaim, and I quote, “Jesus is Lord”! According to their theology this is all you really have to know. Jesus is Lord, period. The full divinity of Christ is a given and with that knowledge you can proudly go on your way and act accordingly, safe with the understanding that you are right. But as the Transfiguration story tells us, Jesus himself takes quite another approach with his closest followers. Jesus says to them, don’t build an edifice to the occasion, don’t go and tell everyone you see what has happened. He says to them, think about it and ponder these things in your heart.
I believe Jesus is saying to us that his divinity is a matter of personal revelation. It is a subject upon which we are meant to ponder and consider over time and through our own experiences. The divinity of Jesus is not about personal power or status. He did not want the disciples, given their witness to the Transfiguration, to go down from the mountain and with fists raised in the air and proclaim that they are powerful and get out of our way. Jesus did not ever elevate himself or his followers; rather he pointed the way to God and taught that our mission is to bring God’s Kingdome here on earth.
We find our way; we find our journey by looking at, and accepting and living out the transformative power of the love of God. The people in the civil rights movement in the American South did not challenge force with force, though they could have. They did not challenge prejudice by acting in a similar manner knowing they could get away with it because God was on their side. They did not seek vengeance for the centuries of injustice and wrong. Rather they marched with the humble knowledge that the love of God could transform others as well as themselves. Love may seem small, it may seem outnumbered and vulnerable, but in the end love is stronger than all evil and all darkness.
The Transfiguration was magnificent, but only to a few. They had to go back into the valley and to the real work. The had to go back down into the valley and change the world the way Jesus was teaching them; with love, one person and one moment at a time.