The story of the transfiguration is one of the strangest of the episodes of Jesus’ ministry – so strange that some writers have suggested that it didn’t happen during Jesus earthly life at all, but is a resurrection appearance which has got misplaced in the gospel.
But if this is a resurrection story, it’s a very odd one – nowhere else do Moses & Elijah appear with the resurrected Jesus, or does anyone offer to build a shelter for Jesus, and in no other resurrection story is Jesus silent.
I think we learn most from the story when we take it that Mark has put it in the right place in the narrative of the life of Jesus: and in fact we learn most when we stop looking at what Jesus is doing, and pay more attention to the disciples: James, John & Peter.
Everything that happens in this story is directed at the 3 disciples:
Jesus led them up the mountain
He is transfigured before them
There appeared to them Moses & Elijah
A cloud overshadowed them
They saw no-one with them
Jesus ordered them to tell no-one what they had seen.
Whatever happens on that mountain, it is for the disciples’ benefit, it is to help them understand more about Jesus’ identity and purpose: it offers them a glimpse of the glory that truly belonged to Jesus, and which is normally veiled in his earthly ministry.
Jesus wants these three disciples to understand his true identity – but then he swears them to secrecy.
You may well have noticed this theme of secrecy throughout Mark’s gospel – after any statement or display of his identity, Jesus is often heard saying ‘tell no-one’.
This can seem puzzling: does Jesus want his followers to know who he is, or not?
Mark starts his gospel with the clear statement that he is writing ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Mark is in no doubt about who Jesus is – God made flesh. But as the gospel is told, Mark wants his hearers and readers to understand Jesus’ identity in the context of the whole of his life.
It is almost as if he wants us to see the jig-saw pieces falling into place, rather than being in too much of a rush to cheat and look at the whole picture on the lid of the box. It may well be that Mark wants us to understand how it was for these disciples – slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that their friend and master, Jesus, was the incarnate Son of God come to save the world through his death and resurrection.
As the narrative of Mark’s gospel starts to move us towards Jerusalem, and as in our church year we are about to begin Lent and the journey to Easter, we come face to face with the transfigured Christ. Whatever happens to this man Jesus in the days to come – the opposition, betrayal, arrest, scourging and crucifixion – even death itself – is happening to the Son of God.
And Peter James and John are the ones entrusted with the clearest vision of who Jesus is, so that after death and resurrection, they can help everyone to make sense of what has happened among them in Jesus.
However we envisage the transfiguration of Jesus, we cannot escape the parallels with another time Jesus was alone with James John & Peter – a time which perhaps shows another attempt by Jesus to tutor them into a better understanding of his identity.
The next time when Jesus draws these 3 disciples away from the others will be in the garden of Gethsemane. They will hear Jesus pray ‘Father, take this cup away from me – yet not my will but yours be done’.
This Jesus, their friend, is revealed to them at the transfiguration as the one who bears the whole of the glory of God. God himself says ‘this is my son – listen to him!’. And then as the point of death is very near, as they listen to Jesus, they hear him accept the will of the father – even though he knows he will have to drink from the cup of suffering.
And what about us? Thanks to Mark’s gospel, alongside other sources, we are privileged to know just who Jesus is – the Son of God, come, veiled in flesh, to live and die and live again for love of the world.
As Lent begins next week, can we find ways to deepen our knowledge of Jesus, explore his identity more fully, and share our faith with others?
Can we be part of the company of those who help the full jigsaw of the story of Jesus to be completed – in what we say to others and what we do for them?
Here at the table of the Lord we are welcomed and invited to share in his life and death and resurrection as we celebrate with this bread and wine.
May we see and know and grow in the love of Jesus Christ – to God’s glory. Amen.