Forming Faith Blog

Who Are You? (February 23, 2020)

Transfiguration of Jesus (2004) by Armando Alemdar Ara

Well, the end of the Epiphany season is here, and Lent is nigh. As such, the passage assigned in the Narrative Lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday makes for both a crescendo of revelation and a transition to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem.

Who Are You?

“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.

… Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For whatever strange reason, the questions Jesus poses to his disciples in Mark 8:27-30 make me think of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. In that scene, a particularly discombobulated Alice encounters a Caterpillar smoking a hookah who asks her a drawn-out “Who are you?” This is clearly not the question Jesus was asking or even what the disciples were asking at that time (though they certainly were back in Mark 4:41 when Jesus stilled the storm). But this is the question that Jesus’ audience is asking him. And, I think you could summarize the entire Gospel as the answer to that question. Alice may have been uncertain, but neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer is.

Survey Says…

Epiphany is a season of revelation, of stories that tell us who Jesus is. After all, Jesus’ authority demonstrates the power of God’s kingdom. In the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gives his disciples a pop quiz. He starts with an easy question, a survey of popular opinion. “Who do people say that I am?” Ignoring the mutterings of the religious leaders, the disciples answered with three possibilities.

  1. John the Baptist
  2. Elijah the Prophet
  3. A Prophet

For the disciples, the Gospel writer, and therefore us, the first answer is ridiculous (though it is Herod’s thought). We have seen John and Jesus stand side-by-side. John is dead and Jesus (at this point) is not. The second is a bit more uncertain. Mark doesn’t give us a birth narrative; Jesus just walks on stage as an adult. But he has a hometown and family, and this is clearly wrong. The third is the most uncertain. In the categories given in their Scriptures, Jesus closely fits that of a prophet. He claims to speak for God and does miracles as Elijah and Elisha did. So, this is not so much incorrect as incomplete.

The Question

Now comes the test. Have the disciples been paying attention? “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, ever the eager student, raises his hand and responds: “You are the Messiah.” Ding, ding, ding! Correct answer. In part, at least. Peter got the identity right but understood it incorrectly or at least incompletely. As you might know, a common understanding of the promised Messiah at the time was that of a military or powerful spiritual leader who would kick out the oppressing forces (Romans) and re-establish the Davidic monarchy by any means necessary. This is likely at least informing Peter’s thoughts. I think that part of why Jesus wanted to keep this a secret is that he didn’t want to incite a violent rebellion in his name.

A Teachable Moment

Jesus takes this opportunity to teach the disciples what being the Messiah really means. Most interpreters entitle Mark 8:31-33 as a prediction or foretelling, commonly spoken of as one of three “passion predictions.” What makes more sense to me is Dr. Rolf Jacobson’s reading of this as “Interpretations of Messianic Identity.” It’s as if Jesus was saying, “You got the answer right, but in case you missed the point (as you likely did), this is really what it means to be the Messiah.”

Wait…What?

I imagine that this announcement was met with a lot of confused stares and even fear. That is not what the Messiah is “supposed” to do. And, wait, did our beloved Rabbi just tell us he was going to die soon? Peter puts all the disciples’ confusion into words. “That can’t be right,” he might have said to Jesus, “don’t talk like that!” Jesus was a bit harsh in his reply, calling Peter “satan.” Ouch. But this might not have been as cruel as it sounds to us. One of “Satan’s” main works was as a tempter. Could Jesus be indicating that part of him wished Peter was correct? He will ask God to “remove this cup from me” later in Gethsemane, so it’s not out of the question. And “behind” the rabbi is the proper place for a disciple. Peter was almost literally out of line.

Priorities

Peter spoke out of turn because he had a hard time keeping his mouth shut. But mostly he got his priorities wrong. He was focusing on the most basic priority of every living thing: staying alive. Jesus, ever turning things upside-down, contradicted him with a paradox. “You have it wrong. If you focus on staying alive, then you are going to die. It’s when you die as my disciples that you will truly live. And this is not just any death. You will die a humiliating and painful death as criminals and traitors.” This would be scandalous to his hearers. Don’t forget, this is the first time in the Gospel (that I can find) where a cross is mentioned. It is certainly not the last.

Not Completely Wrong

Almost a week later, Jesus takes Peter, as well as James and John, up a mountain. Perhaps they thought this was a master class. And, in some ways, it was. If Mark 8:31-33 was Messiah 101, now it was time for Messiah 201. The first class focused on the Passion, with a brief note about what would come next. Here, Jesus shows them a foretaste of the resurrection with a brief metamorphosis, or peek behind the curtain. Jesus is also clearly connected to the history of Israel and the whole of Scripture with a visit from Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets.

The Final Word

Moses and Elijah did not speak to the disciples (only privately with Jesus), but they were two witnesses to how cosmically special Jesus was. To drive home the point, a cloud (perhaps like the pillar of cloud leading the Israelites in the exodus) overshadowed them and the voice of God spoke a second time in this Gospel. This second message was almost identical to the first, identifying Jesus as God’s Beloved Son. The differences come from who the message is directed to. At his baptism, God was speaking words of love to Jesus. At the transfiguration, God was speaking to the disciples, adding a necessary admonition: “Listen to him!” “However,” Jesus added in verse 9, “don’t talk about it. This is part of the secret, too.”

Free Resource

Jesus’ command for secrecy had an expiration date, fortunately: “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” We are not under that ban. Actually, the command was reversed. “Don’t tell” became “tell everyone!” The first step in telling Jesus’ story is knowing it well, internalizing it. Participants can be engaged in the story this week using a fun activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) product called “The Transfiguration.” Here the story is acted out with people-puppets (you’ll have to read it to understand). This activity is designed for an intergenerational classroom setting, but it can also be used with older children and youth (and adults who are willing to get a little silly). With practice and adaptation, this can even be used in worship.

May you experience the power of God’s kingdom this week!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)


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