Rev. Adrianne Meier
February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday
St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
The Only Acceptable Way Forward
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Mark 9:2-9 NRSV, emended
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And then appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 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.” Peter did not know what to say, for they were all terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Dear Abby once wrote, “This is maturity: To be able to stick with a job until it’s finished; to do one’s duty without being supervised; to be able to carry money without spending it; and to be able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even.” It is that final line that has been rattling around in my head the last few days. What does it mean to bear injustice without wanting to get even? Surely there is no maturity in allowing inequity to go unchecked. When does not seeking revenge become resignation? What happens on the mountaintop in today’s gospel reading is, I think, Jesus’s witness to Peter and the other disciples that there is another way forward: not revenge, not resignation, but transfiguration.
I have to confess that I am never really sure what it happening in the Transfiguration story. It is clearly woven-through with symbols and metaphors, some of which are lost to time: the dazzling clothes, the exclusive guest list, the cloud, the voice, and then the sudden disappearance of everything. This year, I noticed there is an interesting introduction to the story, it says, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” Six days later. Okay. So what happened six days ago?
Six days ago, Jesus and the disciples were headed to preach in Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After some guessing, Peter, apparently, gets an A for the day with the answer, “You are the Messiah.” And then Jesus proceeds to tell them what this really means: before a triumphant rise, first, a humiliating death. Peter wants nothing of this. He denies this reality and rebukes Jesus. Jesus fires right back and then turns to the crowd and spells it out: “If you want to follow me, deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow me.” Pause for a moment and remember Jesus has not been crucified. They do not know the cross as we do. They only know the cross as a brutal instrument of torture, intimidation, and death. Take up your electric chair, your guillotine, your noose, Jesus says, and I’ll go first. Who willingly takes this on? What are we doing here? No wonder Peter denies this reality! Why would I take on the death sentence due someone else? We have to admit this is ridiculous.
It is ridiculous because we divide the world into innocent and guilty. We resign ourselves to the wrongs of those we deem innocent. We accept their reasons and excuses; we wonder about their elaborate backstories. And mostly, by the way, the innocent are us. But when it comes to the guilty, we allow no mistakes – everything is done on purpose, and likely with the intent to hurt others. Their past history does not matter. We convince ourselves that we will only get closure if we get retribution. We see only resignation or retaliation, but Jesus shows us a “still more glorious way.”
So, Jesus takes the deniers and doubters up the mountaintop – you know, people just like us – and there Jesus gives them a foretaste of the feast to come: Jesus is transfigured before them.
Now, I want to fast forward a little bit. We tend to think that Mark’s gospel is super simple – he uses really simple sentences and he really, really likes the word “immediately,” though translators try to get clever and vary how they’re translating it. If you were to flip to the end of Mark’s gospel, you’ll see that the very last story – the resurrection – ends with a line that is something like, “They said nothin’ to nobody because they were afraid.” Boom. The end. Nobody has liked that ending – in fact, your Bible likely has a few bonus endings trying to make it work. The Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued that Mark just got his resurrection accounts out of place, and this story today – the transfiguration – is actually Jesus appearing after his death.
I don’t think Mark is super simple. I think there is a very complicated form to this gospel. In Mark’s story, Jesus shows his disciples an image of resurrected life, right smack-dab in the very middle of the book. Everything in the gospel is written to serve this end. The transfiguration is a peek at what is to come and a direct answer to all the doubts and denials the disciples have lobbed at Jesus. Not resignation, not retaliation, not whatever Peter had planned. Jesus will settle for nothing less than transformation, complete change. Something new.
Of course, when the disciples see it, they are terrified. It is frightening to simply admit we might need to change, let alone become someone altogether different than we are now. But this is a way forward. I said this a few weeks ago, but I will return to it: the unity of the gospel is based upon our complete transformation. And that is what God is working in us.
Jesus took the doubters and deniers up the mountain and gave them a foretaste of the feast to come. And each week we participate in welcoming doubters and deniers, and sinners who are saints, and saints who are sinners. Here, friends and enemies worship the same God. Political rivals, haters and people who hate haters – all together. The pandemic has stretched our understanding of what happens here – but we are still gathered around the gospel which alone has the power to change us. We are not gathered here because we are worthy, but because here God makes us worthy. Because here we are all transformed.