Seeing what's really there

Sometime on the way Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him some folks thought he was John the Baptist, and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. Jesus clearly got people’s attention, but they didn’t quite know who he was. So Jesus asked the disciples. They had been following him around for a while, listening to his teachings, and witnessing his miracles. They had had opportunities to hear and observe him in a variety of settings, so he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[1] In Sunday school, he would get a gold star for giving such a splendid answer, but this wasn’t Sunday school. This was Jesus in the villages and on the streets of Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. And Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Which is odd, because you’d expect that the Messiah announcing the kingdom of God would want the word to get out.

It appears Peter gave the right answer, but he may have given it too soon. The amazing teachings, the astonishing healings and miraculous feedings were not the whole story. So Jesus began to teach the disciples about the road ahead; he told them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter wouldn’t hear it; he took Jesus aside for a little constructive feedback, something along the lines of “You gotta be kidding; are you serious?” Because in Peter’s book, suffering and death were not included in the job description for God’s Messiah.

Peter, spokesperson for the disciples, gave the right answer, but it was the wrong answer, because he thought he knew the playbook for God’s Messiah. He didn’t yet grasp that declaring Jesus to be the Christ meant that no one but God and Jesus himself would determine what the implications would be. To follow Jesus didn’t and doesn’t mean to watch him live up to our hopes and expectations, but to have our hope and our lives shaped by him.

In the next scene, Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and talked with them about discipleship. He taught them and teaches us what it means to say to him, “You are the Christ.”

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. [2]

To follow Christ is to trust that the way of the cross is indeed the way to redemption and fullness of life, and that kind of trust doesn’t just happen overnight. And so before the journey takes us to Jerusalem, we follow Jesus up a high mountain. And don’t go looking for this mountain on the map in the back of your Bible, and don’t go looking for it on your trip to Israel. Because this mountain, as Tom Long reminds us, “juts out not from the topography of Galilee, but from the topography of God. This is the mountain of revelation, the mountain of trans-formed vision, the mountain of true seeing.”[3]

There, Mark tells us, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. There was fire on the mountain. It was like light bursting through the seams of Jesus’ clothes—his face and hands and feet shining with luminous beautyand everything was bathed in this glorious light. It was as though time collapsedMoses and Elijah appeared, the great prophets of old, and they talked with Jesusit was as though heaven and earth had merged into one or the veil separating everyday reality from what’s really real had been removed. A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This is the first and only time in the gospel that the voice from heaven addresses the disciples, addresses us, showing us that this is as much about us as it is about the identity of Jesus. It is not enough to say that Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, because it is our perception of him that is changed. We see who he really is, his true identity as beloved by God. We could never have seen that in the plains of everyday, let alone down in the dark valley; we could never have guessed that he is beloved by anybody. Admired, perhaps, during those moments when he drew crowds with his miraculous actions, but otherwise misunderstood by his disciples, rejected by folks in his hometown, drained of his power by his neighbors’ scoffing unbelief, and plotted against by the authorities. Beloved? Hardly. And even more powerful winds of hell were about to be unleashed.[4] He was after all on the way to Jerusalem.

But before the storm, before the darkness of Golgotha, the veil separating past, present and future is lifted, and we are given a glimpse, a foreglow of the glory of life’s redemption and fulfillment and a divine affirmation of Jesus who accomplished this redemption and fulfillment on the way of the cross.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” They looked around and they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. But now they could no longer see him or the world as they had once done. What they had witnessed on the mountaintop, they did not leave behind. What they had seen there now permeated what and how they saw here, in the plains and valleys of life.

And the plains and valleys is where their journey with himour journey with himtakes the disciples. It doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of pure spiritual splendor. Jesus leads us down the mountain to the plains and valleys below where the whole world is awaiting its transfiguration. Down the mountain, to the places where life’s brokenness seems to always have the last word; where people languish in camps and shelters, longing to go home; to the places where ignorance and chaos seem to reign and where men, women, and children experience life as though they were the playthings of demons; down the mountain, to the valley where the heavy blanket of despair threatens to suffocate all hope.

Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world, but deeper into it as servants of God’s reign; as followers of Jesus who dare to believe that his way, the way of the cross, is the way of life because we have caught glimpses of what love can heal, and every glimpse changes what and how we see. And so we follow him down the mountain and then on the long climb up to Jerusalem and to the hill they called Golgotha.

On Golgotha, there is no bright cloud overshadowing the scene, but rather a great and dreadful darkness. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, but under the cross soldiers tear them into souvenir rags. On the mountain, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, but on the cross he is taunted by bandits. On the mountain, a heavenly voice spoke truth, but on Golgotha a hostile crowd is shouting ugly insults. On the mountain, our friend Peter wanted to stay and build dwellings, but at the crucifixion he is nowhere to be found. The contrast is startling and stark. On the mountain of the transfiguration, we reflect on our desire to see and be with God, but at the foot of the cross, we reflect on God’s desire to be with us. We climb this mountain before the long journey of Lent so we remember in the darkness of Good Friday that it is God’s Beloved whom we betray, deny, judge, abandon, mock and crucify, and, even more importantly, that God’s desire to be with us has overcome the power of sin.

Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” but he didn’t know what he was saying. On the mountain, Peter heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But only after he had failed repeatedly to stay awake and pray with Jesus in Gethsemane, after he had denied Jesus three times, and after he had fled from the cross was Peter ready to follow the Messiah who suffered, died and was raised. It was not on the mountaintop, but at the lowest point of his life that Peter began to fathom who Jesus is. When there was nothing left but hopelessness and the love of Christ, and love prevailed, that’s when Peter knew the Messiah.

On Wednesday we begin the long journey of Lent, a journey that is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. In humility and hope, we follow Christ from ashes to glory. We ask for the light of God to shine in our hearts that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus, as the apostle Paul so beautifully put it (2 Cor 4:6). The whole journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It is about our re-creation in the image and likeness of Christ, the beloved of God. In the company of Jesus, we begin to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved, and that love is the light of God shining in our hearts. The light of love opens our eyes to see what is really there, in the face of every man, woman, and child: the beloved of God.


[1] See Mark 8:27-30

[2] See Mark 8:34-35

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Reality show,” The Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006), 16.

[4] See Long, Reality show.

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