Mark 9:2-9; Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36
Have you ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra? If you have, you’ve probably had a moment when you realized that you were, for all intents and purposes, part of one large instrument. Your voice in the choir was like one pipe in an organ. You were part of one large, organic instrument comprised of many voices, all being played by the director or conductor. It’s a wonderful experience to be part of something like that, to know that you’re part of something large and beautiful and organic which, if it’s done right, can, in its magical way, completely transport people. It’s a humbling feeling to know that you are helping to bring this powerful yet ephemeral thing into the world, a thing composed only of sound, a thing that was not in the world before the conductor raised his baton and will vanish when he cuts off the last note and its echoes die in the hall.
It’s an amazing experience. And it all works beautifully as long as everyone learns their part. And they all follow the conductor. And they all play or sing the same piece. All it takes for things to start to unravel, though, is for someone to decide they’re not happy with the conductor. Little rebellions lead to great ones. It can start with something as minor as the woodwinds rushing the conductor’s beat. It could end with the disgruntled first trumpet player playing Trumpet Voluntary in the middle of Mozart’s Requiem.
That seems to be Peter’s problem when Jesus tells him what lies ahead for them in Jerusalem. He’s not happy with the conductor. He has been traveling with Jesus for a while now. He has watched him feed multitudes of people. He has seen him walk on the sea. He has watched Jesus cast out demons and heal people. So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter naturally replies, “You are the Messiah!” It seems like the obvious answer. After all, who else could do all those things? But Jesus is cautious with Peter’s answer. In all three synoptic gospels he sternly orders his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah. “No Messiah talk. Are we clear?”
That didn’t sit well with Peter. And then Jesus starts to tell his disciples and everybody else that he’s going to go to Jerusalem to speak truth to power at the corner of Religion and Politics. He tells them that the Powers That Be are going to reject him, and abuse him. He tells them that they will crucify him. And on the third day he will rise again.
No one wants to hear that. That’s crazy talk. Peter cannot bring himself to sing along with that chorus. He will not. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.
Think about that a minute. Peter rebukes Jesus. And apparently the other disciples are kind of half-way behind Peter on this one. Both Mark and Matthew write that Jesus turned and rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re not setting your mind on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus has a few more things to say to his disciples and the crowd about what it takes to be a disciple—namely, a willingness to take up the cross. But Peter and the disciples are silent.
Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes Peter.
And then silence. Six days of silence.
It’s easy to miss that. Things move fast in the gospels. Jesus moves quickly from one thing to the next. The phrase “and immediately” occurs frequently in Mark’s gospel. But not here.
Six days later. Six days of tension between Jesus and Peter? Six days of anxiety for the disciples? The gospels don’t say. The gospels are silent. And maybe Jesus and the disciples were, too.
Finally, Jesus decides that Peter needs a “come to Jesus” meeting. Or a come withJesus moment. So he asks Peter, James and John to come with him up the mountain.
And there on the mountain they see him transfigured—shining white and radiant, light within and light without, they see who their teacher really is inside his humanity. They see Moses and Elijah, the law-bringer and the great prophet, the two most important figures in the history of their people appear with Jesus and converse with him.
Peter, whose default mode seems to be talk-first-think-later, babbles out, “Lord, it’s a good thing that we’re here! Let’s make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” The gospels tell us he didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified. Well you would be, wouldn’t you.
And then all of a sudden there is a cloud throwing a shadow over them. All the brightness is dimmed. And a voice comes out of the cloud and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
And as suddenly as it all started, it’s over. There’s no one there but Jesus. And as they head back down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
It took a lot to get through to Peter. It took six days of silence and a hike up the mountain. It took seeing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah as he was shining like the sun. It took hearing the voice of God speaking to him from a cloud saying, “This is my Son. The Beloved. Listen to him!”
That’s what it took to get Peter to play the same tune and follow the conductor.
Is that what it takes for us?
There have always been people who try to bend Jesus to their agenda instead of bending themselves to the way of Jesus. There have always been people who call themselves Christian who don’t seem to listen much to Jesus.
For a long time now we have seen a strain of pseudo-Christianity in this country and around the world that has little to do with the teaching of Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels. It is based on triumphalism and a theology of glory. It worships and celebrates power and ignores the call to enter the into world’s trials and suffering as Christ entered into our trials and suffering. It walks hand-in-hand with nationalism and, often, racism. It sees baptism as a get out of hell free card and not as a way of life in the beloved community. It has co-opted the name Christian and Christian language and symbols, but it has not learned to do justice, to love kindness or to walk humbly with God—to love the neighbor as oneself.
So many, like Peter, want a militant messiah. But that’s not the way God does things. That’s not the way of Jesus.
Six days before their trip up the mountain, after Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus rebuked him back, Jesus had this to say to the crowd that had been gathered around them: “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. For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Indeed, what can they give in return for your life?”
Jesus was not giving a recruitment speech designed to conjure the rewards and glories of conquest and victory. He was issuing a realist’s invitation to a subversive movement where participation could have deadly consequences. He was calling them, and is calling us still, to confront the powers and systems that diminish and oppress and marginalize and antagonize and lie to people wherever we find those powers and systems. Following Jesus can be dangerous. Listening to him can put you at odds with family and friends. It can complicate your life. But your life will be meaningful.
Jesus wanted to make it clear that he was not a white-horse-sword-in-hand messiah. He wanted his disciples and everyone else to understand that his way of confronting injustice and oppression was to free people from its weight, heal their wounds, and then simply stand in front of the things that assailed them and speak the truth. That was the music he was bringing. That was the song he wanted the world to sing with him. Peter didn’t like that song at all. He wanted the White Horse and Sword Cantata.
So six days later, Jesus took him up the mountain to show him who he was really arguing with. So Peter could see him shine like the sun. And so he could hear the voice.
Sometimes we all need to be reminded that Jesus leads and we follow, that he’s the conductor and we’re the players in the orchestra and singers in the choir. Sometimes we all need to go up the mountain to be reminded of who Jesus is inside his humanity. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of those words from the cloud: “This is my Son. The Beloved. Listen to him.”
Especially those last words.
“Listen to him.”