Luke 9:28-36 (NRSV)
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
It’s only the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and we as readers have seemingly come to the end of the story. Jesus takes a handful of disciples up onto a hill, where he is “transfigured” before their very eyes and transformed into something beyond this world. This is the beatific vision made manifest for the community of God. The end of the road has come. And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah sidle up alongside Jesus and converse with him; the epitome of the Law and the Prophets now stand with their fulfilment. So, Peter’s request that they build a shrine to commemorate this space is reasonable. They may not be able to capture the radiance of Jesus’s face, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t stop here and build a shrine to honor this mountaintop experience.
Except that’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t want Peter and the disciples to do. His request only makes sense if there is more to the Jesus narrative after this transfiguration - this encapsulation of the beatific vision. We, the readers, looking in on Luke’s account of Jesus’s life, know full well that there is more. But often we fail to appreciate the narratological dissonance the disciples must have felt. We have seen the glory of Messiah, the glory of Israel! What more is there to see!? What do you mean this isn’t the end!?
All we have to do is go back a handful of verses to see what is meant by the transfiguration not ending up as the end. Jesus himself predicts his death. He will be betrayed. He will be handed over to the authorities. He will die the death of a criminal. And he will raise himself to life and be raised to life.
For all the foibles and quirks of Martin Luther, and for his sometimes-complex form of paradoxical theology, there are some real gems in his writings. The father of the Lutheran Reformation makes a distinction between two theologies while speaking on the Hiddenness of God. There is first the theology of glory – it is a triumphalist theology, a victory that declares the truth of the Gospel based on the victory of God, a victory removed from the throes of human suffering, sin, pain and death.
And then there’s the theology of the cross, a theology that stands not triumphalistically, but in anguish stretched on a tree between insurgents against the empire. This is where God reveals Godself. But it doesn’t look like it. This is Luther’s point that God is hidden amidst the cross and anguish. This is not where we expect to find God, but it is where God reveals God-self.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want this Jesus. We want the Jesus of the transfiguration. We want the Jesus who stands between the Law and the Prophets, not one who hangs between treasonous criminals. I would like to suggest this is why Peter is so quick to commemorate and enshrine Jesus’ transformation. He wants the end before we’ve reached the climax of the story.
It is interesting to note that throughout the New Testament witness, only sparse mentions of the transfiguration appear. But countless allusions and arguments from, by and for the cross spread themselves throughout the apostolic testimony. The disciples were evidently not as changed by the transfiguration as we would first assume. But they were changed by the cross. God, “hidden” in the flesh of humanity, stood and stands hidden in the crucifixion. The beatific vision will one day look like the transfiguration, where the faithful will attain, as the mystics called it, “face knowledge” with God. But the glory of God is revealed in the cross.
The redemption of humanity is not found in the transfiguration. Forgiveness of sins isn’t offered on this mountaintop. The restoration of Israel, of communities, of the cosmos, takes place on Golgotha. As disciples, though we often ask like Peter to commemorate the mountaintop experiences, we must follow the instruction of our Savior. That does not mean that we necessarily follow the exact events and moments of his life. It does mean we follow the paradigm and life that culminates in the cross. The resurrection does come. But it does not come before the cross. Our lives as disciples bear witness to the redemptive act of Messiah on the cross: the healing of the nations, the forgiveness of sins, the justice of the cosmos, the justification and righteousness of persons and people. In the hiddenness of the cross, our lives are hidden with Christ… A hiddenness that is the declaration and demonstration of the life of Jesus in the body called Church.
Phil resides in sunny Southern California, having moved from Dublin to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Phil is passionate about the local church, and wants to encourage and develop deep, theological foundations for the conversations and life in the church. When not writing another paper for class, he can be found expanding his whiskey and coffee palette, composing prayer poems, travelling around a small percentage of the U.S., or engaging in another deep life conversation over a pint or two.