Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV) - The Transfiguration
17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I wonder how much warning Jesus gave Peter, James and John about what they were about to experience. Like, what did he tell them was the purpose of the walk? Did he pull them aside before the reached the top of the mountain and say, ‘OK guys. Fair warning. Stuff is about get weeeeiird.’ Or maybe he just climbed with them, listening to their stories and answering their questions, all the while trying to hide a wry smile on his face because of what was about to go down.
Either way, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing could have prepared them for what they experienced. Out of nowhere, Jesus starts shining and that’s not even one of the highlights. After Jesus has become literally brilliant, he is joined by Moses and Elijah and they just stand around talking. Peter, James and John must have thought they were losing their minds.
At such a moment, Peter’s reaction is so wonderfully human. The rest of the story might be hard to believe but Peter’s suggestion is scarily on the money. He suggests that he could build ‘dwellings’ or ‘shelters’ for them. One each, he makes clear. He’s not suggesting bunk beds.
Faced with bright lights, mystery and the walking, talking dead, Peter reaches out for structure, systems and control. He is suggesting a way of becoming static, a way of drawing boundaries, a way of formalising a conversation by turning it into a residence. This is so often our default setting.
This is beautiful. How can I bottle it.
This is wonderful. How can I recreate it.
This is powerful. How can I control it.
My family traveled through Palestine and Israel a few years ago and stopped at a site on the Sea of Galilee that is believed to be the place where Jesus cooked the disciples breakfast at the end of the book of John. Once you’ve parked and started walking towards the shore, you have two choices. You can worship in the church that has been built to commemorate that moment or you can walk to the shore and imagine it for yourself. I remember being struck by the tension between the two. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful place to be able to worship. On the other, walking into the dwelling – the shelter – puts walls between you and the place where the transcendent moment happened.
Back to our story. No sooner than Peter has suggested the shelters to Jesus, the voice of God speaks from a cloud and all hopes of control are lost.
This is my Son, the Beloved;
With him I am well pleased;
Listen to him!’
Peter, James and John fall on their faces in fear. It’s an understandable and appropriate reaction. I doubt there are many of us who could experience something like this and not fall on our faces. It’s an account of what happened but it’s also a parable about what always happens.
People have an experience of God.
They try and fail to control it.
They start to fear what they cannot control.
Jesus’ response is grace and compassion personified. He reaches out, touches them, invites them to rise up and to be without fear. To be present to the wonder of what is happening without hiding, running or controlling. To watch. To wonder. To experience.
This is Jesus’ invitation to me too. An invitation to let go. To stop trying to control or define what he does or what he wants. To stop getting in the way. To stop telling him what he can and cannot do.
I am not called to build him a box he can live in nor cower in fear before him. I am called to witness and to wonder. To listen and to love.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.