Luke 9.28-36 Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 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. 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. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 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.
Reflection For many years I read Luke’s gospel text with my eyes glued to Jesus and his glowing religious experience. The image of Jesus’ changed face and dazzling clothes blinded me to Peter, James and John’s phenomenal mountain top experience. I was swept away by Jesus’ special status, the chosen one with access to the wisdom of the prophets and divine favor. Like Peter, I wanted to build a church around Jesus, proclaim a glow in the dark theology and make Jesus separate, sovereign and detached. I struggled to capture him with words and creeds, doctrine and denominational politics. But the cloud of unknowing finally descended and opened my eyes to recognize Peter, James and John’s indubitable religious experience and finally to hear the voice from the cloud… “Listen to him.”
Listening to Jesus is not easy. So rather than listening to him, many of us find it far less challenging to argue about him. “How did his face actually change? If there was a video camera on top of the mountain would we see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah? Does this glowing moment mean Jesus is more than merely human? What is the true nature of Jesus anyway? What is his relationship with God? Is he of the same substance of God, or us, or something else? How shall we preserve and ritualize this moment? What type of organization shall we establish to insure that everyone says and believes the correct things about Jesus? Who determines what the correct things are? Talking and arguing about Jesus and institutionalizing rituals, creeds and ideas to insure conformity is the stuff of theology and ecclesiology. And, I believe it may have little to do with listening to him.
I wonder if Peter, James and John fall silent because they did listen to Jesus when he preached to them and what he said was very hard to hear? “I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matt 6.13, 27-28, 31) That is what Jesus says to the disciples and us in his sermon on the plain. Are we listening?
Or do we prefer to postulate that Peter, James and John must have eaten some poison mushrooms before climbing that mountain with Jesus? Or maybe we could spend years deciphering ancient manuscripts looking for clues that whoever is telling the story of the transfiguration has some kind of neurological or psychological condition that accounts for the religious experience? Are we listening?
Or are we more concerned with the institutional aspects of religion and preserving our buildings? Are we listening?
Or are we so caught up systematizing our thoughts about religious experience that we fail to recognize the unseen order revealed in religious experiences? Are we listening?
Or are we determined to defend denominational walls at the expense of trusting religious experience and adjusting our lives to live harmoniously for the common good?
Out of the cloud of unknowing that descends upon the mountain comes a kind of deep and irrefutable knowing that is not made of the stuff of this world. And the disciples hear, “This is my Son, the chosen. Listen to him.” Are we listening?
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