From time immemorial people have told stories of divine encounters on mountain tops. This is true of Moses and Elijah and many others.
I have a great love of mountains. While Mount Shasta is one of my favorite spots, I was strangely moved by my experience of the glory of the Swiss Alps. On the day we ascended the Stanserhorn, the mountain was shrouded in clouds. Think of the description of Mt. Sinai in Exodus. We wondered whether the clouds would block our view of the Alps, but as we ascended the mountain on the cable car we broke through the clouds into bright sunlight. When we arrived at the top of the mountain, the sight was exhilarating. While off in the distance we looked upon the higher snow-capped peaks of the Alps, it was the sight of the fog-enshrouded valley below that gave the sense that we had been caught up in the heavenly realm.
As we gather this morning on Transfiguration Sunday, we’ve heard Mark’s story of Jesus’ trip to the top of Mount Tabor in the company of Peter, James, and John. This journey to the mountain took place just six days after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God (Mk 8:27-30). While the disciples had begun to sense that Jesus was the messiah, they still had questions. I’m guessing that Peter’s confession of faith was a bit tentative and needed more seasoning.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems out of place in the modern age. Since we Disciples have typically embraced a reasonable faith, we tend to look at stories like this with a critical eye. With Alexander Campbell, we want the Gospel facts. The story of the Transfiguration, however, asks us to dive below the “facts” to the deeper spiritual truths of the Christian faith. Disciples are not known for embracing mystical theology, but this story invites us to enter into the world of Christian mysticism. So, I appreciate this word from the twentieth-century Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky: “The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church” [Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 8].
With that in mind, we can hear more clearly Mark’s point that Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John. Whatever transfiguration is, it was meant to be witnessed by these three disciples. In other words, this event was for their benefit.
Now, using our imaginations we can picture Jesus standing on the mountain. The three disciples had given Jesus a bit of space, but they could see him clearly. To their amazement, he was transfigured before their eyes. In this story, something about Jesus’ identity is revealed. It’s like a veil is taken off the eyes of the three disciples, so they can see the light of God that defines Jesus’s full identity. As they watch in amazement at this dazzling display of light coming from Jesus’ inner being, they notice two figures have joined Jesus on the mountain. It’s Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet. They begin to talk with each other. We can’t hear what their saying, but we are overwhelmed by it all. Peter and his companions have to be wondering—who is this Jesus that he becomes light itself and talks with Moses and Elijah?
As we ponder these questions, the story invites us to consider who this Jesus we follow really is? Melinda Quivik points out that “Jesus’ transfiguration does not alter who he is but gives to those who see the changed visage a new understanding of him because they see him outwardly in a different light” [Working Preacher]. The medieval Orthodox theologian Gregory Palamas goes even further. This is what he shared in a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday:
According to the theologians, when Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was, opening their eyes and giving sight to the blind. Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light. It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. [The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (pp. 45-46). Mount Tabor Publishing. Kindle Edition].
To truly understand who Jesus really is, we need to see him with spiritual eyes. That takes us beyond simple facts. It takes us into the realm of mystery.
Perhaps this is what terrified Peter and his companions. They saw something they’d never seen before. Their eyes were opened to a spiritual reality they couldn’t explain. While Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, what he experienced on the mountain took him far beyond what he was able to comprehend. Perhaps that’s why, according to Mark, Peter didn’t know what to say. So, in his confusion, he simply offered to set up tents so the three figures might have a place to stay the night. I’m wondering if Peter was hoping to extend the moment so he could figure out what was happening before his eyes.
Then the story takes another turn. Just as Peter was making this offer, a voice from heaven rings out. The message is similar to the one Jesus heard at his baptism, but this time the message wasn’t for Jesus, it was for the disciples. That message was: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Yes, listen to Jesus! Then you can walk in the light that is Christ.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we’ve entered the realm of mystery. We’ve been invited to see Jesus with unveiled faces so that we might be transformed by that encounter. And as we walk in the light, we can shine this “little light of mine” into the darkness.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 14, 2021