Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)What was it like to have been one of the disciples following Jesus?
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there 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." He did not know what to say, for they were 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 any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Certainly, they would have been moved by his compassion in healing the people who came to him. They would have been in awe of the "physical" miracles of turning water into wine, walking on water, and multiplying food to feed the huge crowds. And there would also be the powerful teaching that inspired hope, called for righteousness, and revealed the love of God.
On this occasion, a smaller subset of the followers got to see the transfiguration.
As good Jewish boys, Peter, James, and John would have been very familiar with the story of Moses and how he got a glimpse of the glory of God on the mountaintop. Thus, this experience would have been terrifying as it happened and upon reflection after the fact, astounding.
As I read the story here in the 21st century, where does my reflections head toward?
First, Jesus is no mere mortal. Between the miracles, the teaching, and the resurrection, this episode would add to the conclusion that Jesus was no mere mortal.
One wonders if this type of thing happened on other occasions when Jesus went off on his own? But that would be speculative. Rather what we have here appears to be an occasion that Jesus wanted to reveal something about himself to Peter, James, and John. It would add another stone in the foundation of their understanding of who he is.
Second, the appearance of Jesus in conversation with Elijah and Moses would plant Jesus as in continuation and culmination of the Jewish narrative arc. Sometimes, people think of the Old Testament and New Testament as separate entities. But it obviously is not disconnected.
With all the quotation of the Hebrew Scriptures by Jesus and by the apostles, there is a clear connection and continuation with the past actions of God. What is clear from the Gospels is that Jesus was in contention with a particular manifestation of Jewish faith in the from of the Pharisees. We know from Genesis 15:6, "Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness," that Abraham was reckoned righteous by belief/trust in God. That teaching continues into the New Testament.
Third, I think this story tells us something about us a fallible people. These three disciples saw something amazing. Yet, they still stumbled and struggled with their faith even after such a dramatic experience. The Israelites saw fantastic things in the Exodus, yet, they had trouble following the ways that God had set before them. The disciples, seeing the miracles, hearing the teaching, and in the case of Peter, James, and John getting a glimpse of the divine nature of Jesus, often faltered in their faith. Where does that leave us?
Indeed, even with mountaintop experiences in our faith journey, we still struggle. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to us. What we have is a gracious and forgiving God. Peter faltered but is restored (see John 21). Paul was opposed to Jesus initially but was captured by the grace of God (see 1 Timothy 1:12-17). And so the same is true for us today.
Another take home from this episode would be for us to give more thought and appreciation for the Old Testament. It is understandable that Christian churches would focus a lot of time and effort to preaching and teaching the New Testament. However, the fact that Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah means that the Old Testament is God's story as much as the Gospels and the Acts and Letters are God's story. Paul appeared to make this point in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11.
And finally, we must keep our eyes on Jesus. We get glimpses of him in our "mountaintop" experiences but we also get glimpses of him in quiet moments of reflection. He is worthy of being followed. His exorbitant claims are backed by his deeds and teaching and his life vindicated by resurrection. Mountaintop experiences and quiet moments, these are valuable stones in our foundation of faith. Our life of faith is in the day-to-day meat-and-potatoes of ordinary life where we need to trust in the grace of God for our failings, rely on the strength of the Spirit to live a life of love and goodness, and follow the example of Jesus' compassion and artful truth telling. We keep in mind who he is gleaned from our "mountaintop" experiences as well as more silent and subtle moments where we have met him.