Sometimes our ideas of who someone is can overshadow the person. Sometimes we think we know someone well, but then we get new information that is hard to fit with our idea of who that person is. Maybe we find out the person has tattoos, or has been to jail. Sometimes our prejudice can cause us to be surprised when we learn that our cab driver actually has a PhD in Neurobiology. Our perceptions can sometimes overshadow the person.
Something similar happened to the Apostle Peter, who is often the spokesperson for the disciples. Just before our Gospel reading today (ch 9:18) we witness an interesting conversation between Jesus and the disciples. They are walking along the road and Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them "who do people say that the son of man is?" They respond by saying "some say John the Baptist (who had been killed), but others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets?" In our world we would get a variety of answers to the question, "Who do people say Jesus is?" There are no shortage of positions. If we ask a fan of the Da Vinci Code we might hear that Jesus was the husband of Mary Magdalene and the ancestor of the bloodline of European royalty. Others might say that Jesus was an alien in disguise. Some think Jesus was a confused and idealistic young man. Others believe Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary. And we could go on and on. I'm sure you've heard your share of answers to the question, "who do people say Jesus is?"
After the disciples answer Jesus' question, Jesus turns and asks them a more important question. His second question is not about what people say, but what they say. Saying what others believe can be a way of distancing ourselves. It can allow us to fence sit and not really make a decision. Jesus turns and asks his disciples (and us), "who do you say that I am?" This is a more personal question. He is saying that there is a time to get off the fence and decide who he is. And that decision will have implications in our lives. If we answer, "A nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice" that might not impact our lives much. But if we answer, "My Lord, and My God" then our lives will need to be transformed to follow suit with our beliefs.
I don't know how long the silence was after Jesus asked the question, but eventually Peter spoke up saying, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God". Jesus praises Peter for his answer saying it was a revelation from the Father in heaven. But something strange happens after this. Right after Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus praises him for it, Jesus then starts teaching about how he will suffer in Jerusalem at the hands of the authorities and be killed. At this point in Matthew's gospel (Ch 16) Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he will die. It seems like there was no room for this image of Jesus in Peter's mind. In Peter's mind the Messiah is someone who is a great military leader. He leads his followers to reclaim their land from the oppressive Roman forces. He assumes leadership of the temple and the nation. That is what the messiah does. He liberates the people from oppression. ... A suffering and dying messiah is a nonsensical image in Peter's mind, and in the mind of most Jews of the time.
In Matthew's Gospel, Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him, "God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you." Peter was persistent and passionate in rebuking and correcting the one he called teacher and master. Jesus responds strongly, "get behind me , Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Peter is imposing his image of the messiah onto the messiah. Peter just couldn't combine the image of suffering and death with his image of the messiah.
Of course we do this to Jesus all the time. We impose our image of who we think he is onto him. We don't see him as he is, we try to make him into someone else. Often we grab onto one piece of him and forget about the rest, which skews our image of him. Some might only see Jesus as dealing with forgiveness of sins and that's it. While this is one attribute of Jesus, he also wants us to be transformed and the world with us. Some will glorify other teachings of Jesus and will make him into a kind of social activist who stands up for the rights of minorities. While this is also a part of the image of Jesus, it is not the whole picture. We often decide on the kind of Jesus we would like to follow and then we impose that idea onto him, rather than following Jesus as he presents himself to us.
That's what the Transfiguration is about. It is about showing the disciples Peter, James and John who he is. Right after Jesus speaks about how he has to suffer in Jerusalem, which Peter is not able to accept, they go up a mountain. Mountains to ancient people were almost like suburbs of heaven. That's why they are often the place where people go to meet God. And our modern minds might think that's a bit silly, but when you stand on top of a mountain you can start to get a sense of why people might have thought that way. So Jesus takes his three head disciples up the mountain to a thin place- a place where heaven and earth overlap.
Suddenly they see Jesus transfigured. He is changed. He is transformed. He is shining- glowing like the sun. Even his clothes are bright. He looks like a heavenly being, which is of course who he is. He came from heaven, he existed before his own birth. Suddenly two others appear with him. They see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah both had experiences with God on mountains and here they are with Jesus. Here they speak with Jesus which shows that what Jesus is doing is in line with what God has always been doing. What Jesus is doing is supported by the representatives of the Law and the Prophets.
In this experience they see Jesus as he is. What they experience is a revelation. It is an "apocalypse" in the true sense of the word. both those words have the sense of the lifting of a veil to reveal what is underneath. In the transfiguration the thin veil that covers reality is taken away and the disciples see Jesus as he truly is.
Peter, not knowing what to do, but feeling he should do something speaks up. "Should I set up three tents- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?" even this shows that Peter still isn't getting it. Peter might be thinking that his image of the messiah as the warrior-ruler is coming true. Tonight they set up camp and tomorrow they head to Jerusalem with Moses and Elijah to set up the kingdom. But of course that still leaves out the unpleasant suffering bit that Peter wanted to forget about before.
While Peter is still speaking a bright cloud- the Glory of God- surrounds them, and they hear a voice, "This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" They hear the voice of the Father and he declares that He has a special and intimate relationship with Jesus. He is His beloved Son. I can't imagine another time in all scripture where God points to someone and says something like this. That is how intimate the relationship is between Jesus the Son and the Father in Heaven. The disciples are reassured that Jesus is indeed in line with God's will.
I'm sure the Father's last words echoe in Peter's ears- "Listen to him". Peter, who rebuked the one he called master, and imposed his ideas of Messiah on. God says, "listen to him". I'm sure that if you hear God tell you to listen to someone your ears would be especially attentive to the next sounds that come out of the person's mouth. And what does Jesus say next? First he says, "Get up and do not be afraid". Then he tells them to keep this experience secret until he is raised from the dead. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, and then mentions his own death, which was the truth Peter was unwilling to accept.
It can be easy to poke fun at the disciples as they stumble around trying to figure out who Jesus is, but we really aren't all that different. There are parts of who Jesus is that we don't want to see. There are parts we see, but we are just unwilling to incorporate into our life. The transfiguration is addressing a kind of spiritual blindness. We are still confused by the veil that sits over reality. We are blind to the unseen forces all around us. Those forces might be magnetic fields, or radio waves, or subatomic particles, but they also include spiritual forces.
If we were given the grace to see this church in all its depth of reality, I wonder what we would see. We might see all those fields and waves and particles we are normally blind to, but we might also see heavenly beings worshiping with us. We might see angels, the messengers of God, ministering to those of us that are struggling.
Then we would be witness to the Son of God, who promised that he would never leave us, and who promised that wherever two or three of us are gathered that he is here with us. We would see him, not in a book, and not in our imagination, but in the depth of reality. We would see the Son of God before us- dazzling- and if we saw it we wouldn’t have the words to describe it. We would start talking about whiteness and light, and bleach, and clouds, and glory, and voices. And we would see all the rest of reality oriented around Christ. We would see that everything is revolving around him who is before us- everything is drawn by his gravity and all finds its proper orbit according to him.
If we experienced the revelation of Reality as it actually is, we would hear the Father's words with a new kind of gravity, “Listen to Him!” And those words would change how we hear every Gospel reading because we would see Jesus as He is.