A Homily from Mark 9:1-10
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
March 5, 2000 (Transfiguration Sunday)
One of the most comfortable feelings in the world is to have the right label for someone. So-and-so, she’s an accountant, and you know what they’re like. What do you expect, old so-and-so, he’s a Republican. A whispered word, a quick glance at a business card or someone’s car, can be all it takes to get the right label.
Sometimes the label is ironic, but even then it’s helpful. Howard Hughes was a billionaire who’s grooming and dress would have made people think that he was a homeless person. I can just picture his staff whispering, “Can you believe that he’s rich? That’s not how a rich person should act.”
Sometimes, of course, the label is wrong, and we have to come up with a new one. Every once in a while I’m sure someone comes in here and says, “I’ve never seen a Southern Baptist Church like this one before. To which, I’m sure, any self respecting Southern Baptist would reply, “Thank God.”
But why? Why should anyone care when a label doesn’t fit? Maybe because it takes us to an uncomfortable place. When we can attach a name, a title, a job, an organization to someone, we can pin them down. We know what their limits are. We know what is “normal” for them, and that helps us understand what is normal for us. And when I say “we,” I very much mean myself as well. Once I know what “camp” a person is in, I immediately judge everything they say by it.
For example, and this involves a bit of a confession, there is a well known psychologist who appears on Christian Radio all the time. I can’t stand him. The sound of his voice sets my teeth on edge. Sometimes, if I’m in a bad mood, I’ll listen to him so that I can feel even worse. Then I get to feel smug and superior to the inane, perhaps blasphemous things this man says in the name of Jesus. As soon as he makes another assertion, I immediately start formulating my rebuttal. Oh yeah, Dr. Blank! Well how about this…
One problem. Sometimes he’s right. Of course, I don’t realize that until I’ve been arguing at the top of my lungs, with my radio mind you, for a bout five minutes.
Sometimes this man, who’s ideology I oppose vehemently, is insightful, compassionate, Christlike, and wise. What, then, does that make me? Well, let’s just say old Ba’alam could use my jawbone pretty effectively.
All of a sudden the tables are turned, and I’m confused and a little embarrassed. And it’s because Dr. What’s-’is-name has broken out of the little hole that I’ve put him in. And if he’s not who I think he is…then am I who I thought I was? It can get pretty confusing,
as I’m sure the three disciples in our text can understand. Up until pretty recently, they thought they were following your average, run-of-the-mill prophet. Yeah, sure, he did heal people; and there was that whole walking on water thing, but you expect prophets to do some pretty cool stuff, otherwise no one takes them seriously. Besides, everything that Jesus had done up until now has convinced them that they were on the winning team. He still said some strange things, but there was no question about his power. He knew evil’s name and it fled at the sound of his voice.
Then Jesus started saying things that sounded weird, even for a prophet (for those of you who don’t read the Hebrew Bible very often - trust me, that’s pretty weird indeed). He started talking about suffering, and crosses, and death - for everyone! Now I happen to have some knowledge of the kinds of sermons that will get you fired, and that kind is one of them. If you tell people that following you means death and misery, they won’t come back. If you tell them that things will be easier and more pleasant somewhere else, they’ll go somewhere else.
Peter knew this, and he took Jesus aside and told him to stop saying such silly things. People don’t want to be confused by their religion. They spend their whole lives trying to make it as neat and predictable and understandable as they can. They want to hear how to live better, as long as it doesn’t sound too flaky or too difficult. They don’t want to find out how to be more miserable; and they definitely don’t want to find out how to die.
But that was just the kind of sermon that Jesus preached; and suddenly Peter, James, and John realized that they weren’t dealing with someone who was normal, or even what was normal for a prophet. They were dealing with a lunatic.
Of course, by this point, that label fit pretty well. And yet they still followed, even when this lunatic decided to drag them to the top of a mountain. Higher and higher they climbed, watching the back of this kooky carpenter as he steadily progressed through the scrub and gravel. I imagine they exchanged a few glances with each other on the way up… “Where’s he taking us now?” … “You don’t think he’d kill us up there do you?” … “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”
Higher and higher they climbed, until the place they’d left behind seemed another world entirely. It had disappeared some time ago, lost beneath the clouds beneath them. And still they climbed, long past the call of human voices, past the sounds of animals working and resting, past the whole chaotic murmur that is the soundtrack for everyday human life…into the heavens.
And when they get to the top, they discover that this person whom they have called friend and teacher and lunatic…is GOD. His clothes shine a brilliant white that no human touch could produce. Suddenly, even the most basic label, “human” , doesn’t fit him any more.
A person could live their entire life as a Christian and not have a single one of those moments…one of those times when the veil is lifted and we are reminded that everything that seems so important and so real is nothing compared to the reality, the enormity, the holiness of the God whom we try to serve. If we are lucky, those times do come when we need them. When we can’t remember who or why we are here…we suddenly remember that this Jesus guy that we are always talking about is real, is alive, is eternal, and is God.
Oddly enough, that is a label that Peter can handle. He stares in awe as Jesus chats with the two holiest figures in our ancient history: Moses and Elijah. Two people so holy that tradition teaches that they never actually died but, like Enoch, were simply carried into heaven. Suddenly Peter understands that all of this talk about suffering and death is really about life, life in a perfect, eternal way that is beyond his comprehension.
The author of Mark tells us that this realization was so powerful that Peter did not know what to say. Most of us, standing in an otherworldly place in the presence of divinity, with nothing to say, would keep our mouths shut. I have always felt a kinship with Peter because, having nothing to say, Peter speaks up immediately. I always thought Peter would make a fine politician, or perhaps even a pastor.
“Let us build dwelling places,” he pleads. Let us make something tangible, something solid, so that we can always remember who you are and what happened here. A very tempting idea, when you think about it. Let us build churches and scriptures and congregations and hymns that remind us that this Jesus person, while being person, is also God. Help us to cling to those brief glimpses that take us beyond all the silliness that seems so important.
Unfortunately, it does not work that way, and no one even bothers to answer Peter’s request. Instead, the voice of the Almighty Creator of the Universe speaks. Perhaps some people here imagine a deep baritone, a voice not unlike James Earl Jones or Barry White. Personally, I hear …
However you hear it, the source is the same. Our Creator speaks, and says, “This is my child whom I love, do what he says.” And of course, we don’t. These same three trusted friends won’t even be able to stay awake long enough to comfort Jesus before his execution. We humans have brief memories and vast desires, and even little glimmers of divinity can be drowned in our own fear and weakness.
Nevertheless, God tries, and these three mortals have the rare privilege of hearing the very voice of God. You can almost see the wheels turning in Peter’s head. This might be the very thing to get back all of those people who left when Jesus started talking about death. If they could find out who Jesus really is, they would follow him anywhere.
Unfortunately, Jesus isn’t willing to play around. It doesn’t matter what the polls say, if people are going to follow him they have to be willing to walk the streets of Jerusalem with him. They have to be willing to share his last bread and cup. They have to stand at his trial, and weep at his crucifixion. Then they can join him for that final resurrection - his - and theirs.
That’s where it gets absolutely impossible to pin a label on Jesus. When prophet and crazy man did not fit, God certainly seemed to. There’s no question that that’s who he is. Certainly Peter, James, and John don’t doubt it a bit. Except for one thing, he doesn’t seem to act very godlike. For all the ways we’ve stylized and modernized and romanticized the cross; it’s still an instrument of torture worse than any medieval rack or modern electric chair. And our God, this radiant being of light and love whom these three apostles saw in all his glory, will die an agonizing death on a peasant’s cross in the company of murderers.
Even worse, that same God, this Jesus, marches right back down the mountain into a world of unbelievers, and his friends to secrecy about the one thing that might make all of this bearable.
But is it ever, really, bearable? Perhaps what the apostles saw just made it harder. Jesus, fully human, perfected before their very eyes. The one hope of humanity, the full potential of who we are, revealed. Glorious, beautiful, pure, holy. For a moment, and then just a memory that will soon fade to nothing as they watch their brothers and sisters spit upon, tear apart, and murder the only hope humanity has ever had…God…human…perfected and transfigured…and killed.
Is it ever bearable to see potential wasted? To see those things that transfigure us…that call to the divine within us…dying, dampened, or dead? To see bodies racked by disease? To see minds destroyed by drugs or violence or ignorance? To see lives ended by greed? To see hopes crushed by selfishness?
If Peter, James, or John had found the courage to stand at the cross (and Mark reminds us that none of them did) they would have had to watch as the face that they had seen as the very face of God writhed in agony and finally emptied itself of all hope and all life.
Yet that is exactly where Jesus, the Christ, asks them to be…exactly what He calls us to see. To be a Christian of any age is not to camp out in the glory of who we can be…it’s not to dwell in the glory of the world to come. Our hope is there, it is our heart’s home, but our hands and our lives belong in the messy, wasteful, dying world around us.
If Jesus had allowed the apostles to tell what they had seen, the crowds would have rushed to the top of that mountain, staked out the most “holy” spots, and (knowing human beings) probably sold souvenirs. Those that were willing to leave, would have only done so hoping that they would have a better chance of seeing the glory of God if they followed Jesus. They would never have signed on for the parts with the death and the agony.
But that is exactly what Jesus has called us to. In a few days, the majority of Christians will enter a time of reflection on suffering: the suffering of Christ, the suffering of Creation, and even the suffering of the Church. In the Transfiguration itself, we see a glimmer of why…because somewhere on the other side of all of that suffering is hope, eternity, and resurrection.
When we look at the story itself, however, we understand that we cannot stand on that moment, and point down to the suffering below and the resurrection on the other side. The call of the Christ is not that simple. These three apostles were lucky enough to see that firsthand. A radiant God who bleeds and dies. There is no label and no logic that can make sense of that. It simply is what it is. That which is perfect and divine must take on the suffering and the pain of a broken world.
And as our Saviour is complex, so too are we. As comforting, as self-sustaining as those labels are…they fail the image of a transfigured Jesus. If the glorious God can become bloody peasant…how much else…who else…that we think we understand…have labeled…is simply a victim of fractured divinity?