Epiphany is truncated this year, so we’re on the mountain this week to witness the Transfiguration – the climax of the Epiphany narratives. We need to recognise that the Transfiguration looks very different, the moment we realise that the controlling text is Mark 8: 34-35. This bathes the scene in the light of Golgotha and crucifixion, rather than resurrection. It makes a real difference to how we read it, and how it informs our own discipleship of Jesus.
Not your Sunday School Transfiguration story …
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:31-2)
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to 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. ’” (Mark 8: 34-5)
Who’d be a disciple – particularly of someone who is saying, “Listen carefully. There’s no way around this one: this whole project is going to go belly-up. However good it’s looked up until now, get one thing absolutely clear: I’m going to certain extreme suffering, rejection and death. Now, who’s coming with me?” What is surprising is that the disciples – the new community – are up for following Jesus! They don’t say, “Sorry Jesus, but this isn’t what we signed up for! It’s been great up to this point, but you’re on your own from here!”
Instead, they keep on with Jesus – and try to impose their own terms on what following means. Their strategy is collective resistance. They decide to take control of Jesus. They will follow Jesus, but only in order to ensure that Jesus will follow their roadmap! And so this crucial mid-point of Mark’s narrative opens up a second narrative cycle – the struggle between Jesus and his disciples over which “way” they are going: the way of triumph or the Way of the Cross. And the clearer the path ahead to suffering becomes, the more fiercely the disciples resist.
There are 4 instances of blatant misunderstanding:
- Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ political fate (8: 31-3)
- Peter misinterprets the transfiguration vision (9: 5-7)
- The disciples discuss who will be greatest among them (9: 33ff)
- James and John try to secure the highest rank (10: 35ff)
Taking up the cross
The controlling text is Mark 8:34-5. To those who already assume they are followers, Jesus says, “Not necessarily! You have to become my followers by the only way possible: deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me to suffering, rejection and death. Either you lose your life for my sake, and find it, or you try and avoid that, and lose it. There’s no other way!” The disciples are determined that there is another way, with a happy ending. So we see in this section the willful blindness and deafness of the disciples to the Way of the Cross, emphasised in the narrative by Jesus healing two blind men and two deaf and dumb people.
The second moment of revelation (cf 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6)
At this crucial point in the narrative, we have the second “apocalyptic moment” – the transfiguration. Like the baptism (the first moment), the heavenly voice confirms that it is Jesus’ way that is the right way, and that the things the disciples find hardest to hear are precisely the things they must hear. It couldn’t be clearer: “This is my Son, the Beloved! Now listen to him!” Listen to precisely what, though? Listen to the call to follow. And be prepared to accept the terms, because there’s no room for negotiation.
The Transfiguration in the shadow of the cross
The shadow of the cross hangs over the narrative. And it is the cross, not the resurrection, which is emphasised here on the mountain. Bultmann and others have interpreted the transfiguration as a prefiguring of the resurrection – a resurrection story inserted here into the narrative because the risen Jesus doesn’t appear anywhere else in the gospel (other than in the longer, later ending). But this sort of exegesis does precisely what the disciples want to do – to look for a triumphalist, “happy ending” escape from the cross! In this case, it’s an escape that goes, “Yes, the cross is a terrible tragedy, but don’t worry, because, after all, there’s resurrection, so it wasn’t really that bad after all, was it?” We need to realise something important – we who already know how the whole thing ends … and then begins again! The resurrection doesn’t dilute the horror and evil of the cross! Mark cannot emphasise this too strongly. Jesus predicts suffering, rejection, death and resurrection – but the resurrection is no comfort to him! He dies, screaming in bewilderment, “My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Hardly the cry of someone who knows he just has to hang on till Sunday and it will all be all right.
Secondly, it is clear that, as far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus may as well have been speaking Martian when he talked about the resurrection! Look at Mark 9:9. Jesus tells them not to speak about what they see on the mountain until they understand the meaning of the resurrection! The gospel ends with the disciples in fear and trembling, wondering what on earth it means. But it is not only the disciples who have to learn its meaning: Jesus does too! If not, he would not have died in bewildered despair!
So how is the cross present on this mountain? Firstly, it is present because of the white robes Jesus wears. These are not so much resurrection robes as the robes of martyrs. Mark, you will recall, has Jesus evoke the image of the Danielic Son of Man – the Human One. The scene in chapter 7 is the judgement throne. The Ancient of Days is dressed in robes as white as snow. The context is the apocalyptic judgement of the kingdoms. Yahweh is sovereign. Yahweh gives dominion to the Son of Man in a kingdom that is to prevail over the lesser, arrogant human kingdoms. White robes in apocalyptic literature are symbolic of power – but also of sacrifice and martyrdom.
So what is happening on the mountain? Mark evokes the Danielic image through the white robes and the description of the terror the vision induces to do two things. Firstly, the truth is that the kingdom Jesus has preached as having drawn near in his person and ministry is the Kingdom of God. Jesus, Mark tells us, is the one to whom God has given dominion. But secondly, the thing that the disciples are to listen to is what Jesus tells them about the way of the cross. This Kingdom can only be established through his suffering and death. Remember the conditions for following? (1) Deny yourself (2) Take up your cross (3) Follow.
“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow”
The setting for this three-fold demand is not some inward spiritual asceticism. It’s not about giving up chocolate, coping with a difficult boss and attending church! The context is the court room. This is written in the context of a Christian community under persecution. When you’re in the dock, Jesus says, “You have two choices: deny me, and save your life. Or confess me, denying yourself, and lose your life – and save it in the process! Follow me. That is what I am facing. If you want to follow me, face it too”. Indeed, “take up your cross” was probably the recruiting slogan for some Jewish extremist organisations who carried out attacks against the Romans, knowing fully that they were likely to be caught and crucified!
Yet how does losing one’s life for the sake of Christ save it? Mark is invoking the Danielic Son of Man in a double-edged manner. Jesus is the one to whom dominion has been given in the court of heaven. In the earthly court, however, Jesus will be in the dock. There is an irony: because Jesus is the one to whom ultimate dominion has been given, he is the one to whom all must give account. Those who threaten death to Jesus and his followers will be powerless – because Jesus and his followers are challenging and smashing their ultimate power. Their ultimate power is the power to kill. They use the threat of death to demand and obtain conformity and co-operation. Their kingdoms are built upon death. And Jesus intends to resist – and accept the penalty! He will not bow the knee, or make the compromise, or take the bribe, or back down in fear. Jesus is resisting the powers. Resisting the powers of our day is what it means to follow this Jesus.
Elijah (cf 2 Kings 2: 1-12)
The second sense in which the cross is present is through the presence of Elijah. The gospel writers all clearly understand John the Baptist as an Elijah figure. Note how, immediately at the conclusion of the episode, the disciples ask about Elijah’s coming (v11). This is part of the resistance to the way of the cross: if Elijah is still to come, then this cannot be “the end” as Jesus supposes. Jesus says in response, referring to John, “Elijah has come – and they killed him! He and I are part of the same mission. It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer because that is the fate of the prophets!”
In other words, the Transfiguration is different from what most of us have been brought up to believe since we coloured in our first picture of the event in Sunday School. This is not a moment of glory, or of hope. It is confirmation of the second great cycle in Mark’s narrative: the Way of the Cross. The Way of the Cross is about engagement with the powers of the day. It will bring about suffering and death. It is the only way – both for Jesus and for would-be followers. The Transfiguration confirms the call to suffering discipleship issued in 8:34f. The divine voice underscores it: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to what he tells you!”
It also continues the story of the disciples’ resistance to Jesus and their attempts to control him. Look how Peter addresses him in v 5: “Rabbi”. He abandons the language of Messiah in favour of “Rabbi”. This is astonishing in itself. He has just witnessed something incredible happening to Jesus, and his response is to downgrade his language! This is presumably part of Mark’s strategy to ensure we don’t get the wrong end of the story and tell it as a “glory story” (sorry, Bultmann!). But significantly, this is the term used by the disciples at two other key points in the gospel when they side with the dominant Jewish ideology over against Jesus: when the disciples argue with Jesus over his repudiation over the temple (11:21) and Judas’ greeting at the point of betrayal (14:45). Here Peter responds, not by listening, not by following, but by proposing a cult of adulation – part of the triumphalist, Messiah-shaped spirituality and expectation that Jesus is explicitly disavowing!
A mini salvation-history summit
We should note that the presence of Moses and Elijah do two other things. As well as evoking the Daniel 7 courtroom myth, Mark also evokes the Sinaii narrative. The Transfiguration is a mini salvation-history summit! The Transfiguration establishes something that Jesus claims repeatedly: what he is doing is in line with “the Law and the Prophets”. Moses is the greatest of the prophets – the prophet who gave the people the Law. Elijah (and then Elisha after him, as we see in today’s reading) is the prophet who ministers so authoritatively in the power of the Spirit. Jesus combines both.
Secondly, both these prophets experienced Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain top at crucial points in their mission when they were discouraged. In other words, Mark is telling us, they are here to encourage Jesus – because Jesus knows what he is setting out to confront, and his own disciples want none of it! The Transfiguration is there for the sake of Jesus – to confirm him and encourage him, and to get through to the disciples: “Listen, I know you don’t like what he’s saying, but he’s my Son. Listen to him! Stop trying to undermine him!”
Challenge to the Church
I have concentrated only on the gospel passage, but I make no apology for that. This is the last week in Epiphany – the point at which we find out what Jesus really is about, and what following means. We stand on the threshold of Lent in much the same place as the disciples – standing in the shadow of the cross and wriggling! The story of the disciples’ resistance to the way of the cross is the story of the next section of the gospel, and it is appropriate that we look at it in detail. It’s the only story in town, and I find the other texts pull me away from that unhelpfully.
The challenge of Easter – the Way of the Cross – is a challenge posed first and foremost to the Church. It is those of us who are followers of Jesus that must take a close, honest look at our own hearts and responses. We need to have our easy assumptions that we know who Jesus is shattered, as the disciples’ were. We need to face up to the possibility of our own blindness and deafness – particularly to a gospel that is uncomfortable. Lent is not about giving things up – it’s about not giving up on Jesus! And it’s about being prepared to deny ourselves.
The sort of self-denial Jesus is talking about doesn’t come easily or cheaply – literally! Jesus was taking on the powers that control some human beings for the benefit of others. He was intent on building a new world – the world where the least come first. That is what being his followers should mean, and look at the sort of world we have! We need to recognise that we live in the dying embers of Christendom. The world as we have it, with its endemic war and violence, starvation, oppression and gross inequality has been shaped largely by the Christian west. How can it be that so-called followers of Jesus have created such a world – unless it is because we are as resistant to the Way of the Cross as the first disciples?
We mustn’t underestimate our aversion to what discipleship entails, or our ability to blunt the clear demands of Jesus’ call, and engage in all sorts of distraction techniques and triumphalist dreams and projects. Church is, by and large, still disturbingly respectable (if unpopular). We tend to look on our unpopularity as “taking up the cross”, when our unpopularity has probably got far more to being “naff”, or unpleasantly smug and judgemental, than to do with threatening the stability of the social order that creates victims. In fact, far from the latter, the Church is among the most adept at doing charitable things that assuage our consciences while leaving the structures intact – with us among those who benefit!
This isn’t to pillory the Church or to suggest that the Way of the Cross is easy. It’s to recognise that the opposite is the case, and that it’s very, very difficult to live out what Christ calls us to. Yet it’s a lot easier when whole communities commit themselves to it, rather than acting as a collection of individuals.
Here’s a case in point: a friend of mine from South Africa – one of the saints of the anti-Apartheid struggle – decided that Christian discipleship as a white person in Apartheid South Africa meant moving into a Black township, to share in the inconveniences, deprivations and sufferings of the people. He and his wife did so. After two years, they both had complete breakdowns and had to move back into the white suburbs. The task of discipleship was simply too overwhelming. By contrast, a group of several white families from a church moved into a township for the same reasons – together! As a little community, they gradually became part of the wider community they believed God had called them to stand with – and their support for one another kept them sane and encouraged!
“Listen to him!” (cf Psalm 50: 1-6)
At the end of Epiphany, we stand on the threshold of Lent and have to be prepared to hear the call to the Way of the Cross as shocking, new, uncomfortable, divisive and repellent. We need to commit ourselves to dealing with our blindness and our deafness. In Mark’s narrative, the blind and the deaf symbolise the disciples’ condition and response to Jesus. But it’s a narrative of hope, because the deaf hear and the blind see – and the disciples on the mountain do deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus! That, too, needs to be our story.