It had begun the week before. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are agreed about that–the week before, with that never-to-be-forgotten conversation at Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps “conversation” was hardly the word for it. It had been more of a quarrel, really, if we are to trust Matthew and Mark, although Luke, as is his habit, tends to gloss over that.
To tell the truth, it started well enough. They stood together with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, a little group of good Jews in the middle of a pagan town, surrounded by pagan idols, and Jesus asked them straight out, “What are they saying about me? What’s the word on the street?”
So they told him. “They’re saying you’re a prophet—in the line of the prophets. They hear you telling us God is about to act. Israel’s exile will be ended. Her sins are forgiven. All this pagan trash”—they waved at the idols—“will be cleansed from Israel. Yes, you’re a prophet. Some even think you’re John the Baptizer, back from the dead. That’s the word on the street.”
He nodded. “Yes. I see. And you, what do you think?”
There was a pause. They looked at each other. They were all thinking the same thing—but up till now, every time anyone actually said it, or anything like it, he told them to shut up.
But then Peter blurted it out anyway. “You’re not just a prophet, you’re the One who’s going to do it. You’re the Messiah.”
Jesus came back with his standard response, just as usual, “Don’t tell a soul.” But he was very gentle when he said it—seemed quite moved, really, and they noticed he didn’t deny it. And for that moment everything felt wonderful. It was really coming. The kingdom. God would return to Zion. Victory over the Romans! The land cleansed! A new beginning! He was the one. God’s One. The Messiah.
But then he drew them closer, and his eyes were not sparkling as they thought at first, but full of tears.
“Listen,” he said. “It isn’t going to be the way you think. The Son of man isn’t going to lead an army into battle to defeat the Romans. I can’t do that because that’s not what God does. I can only offer the world God’s compassion, God’s grace, because that’s what God offers. And because this is a world that is afraid of compassion, and crucifies love, I shall be mocked and scorned and finally crucified. And only through that, the way of love, will I be vindicated, raised from the dead—because that’s God’s way.”
All that was bad enough. But there was worse to come.
“Listen,” he said, “if any of you really wants to be my follower, that means coming with me. It means taking up a cross like mine every day of your life: your cross, of course—no two are alike—but a cross, all the same, and following me. If you try to keep your life safe, I tell you, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.”
He paused, and then went on.
“You find the thought of a Messiah who is willing to suffer at the hands of sinners and pagans shameful? Humiliating? I tell you: that is God’s way. It has been God’s way with Israel. It has been God’s way with the world. As the prophet said, ‘All the day long, I have held out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people.’ If you are ashamed of that now, then you are ashamed of God, and in the end God will be ashamed of you. And I will be ashamed of you.”
Well, they were appalled. In some ways, they felt betrayed. Of course, they ought to have seen it coming. All those odd things Jesus had been saying, about “loving the enemy,” and “turning the other cheek,” and “if a Roman soldier compels you to carry his kit for a mile—as he is entitled to under Roman law, but no further—be generous, and carry it two.” It was all pointing in the same direction, if they’d cared to listen: but they hadn’t, they hadn’t drawn the conclusions. And now he had laid it out plainly, and they didn’t like it.
So a week passed. Not a pleasant week. According to John, who tells the story rather differently, it was about this time that some of those who had been disciples left and went back home. But the twelve didn’t leave, nor the women. After all, as Peter said, “Where else shall we go?” So they stuck around. But there was a lot of muttering in corners, and it was not a happy time.
Well, not the women, it has to be said: they didn’t mutter. They just seemed to go on as before. Mary of Magdala—“fish-pickle Mary,” as Matthew used to call her, since that was how she had made all that money—and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward: they kept on paying the bills, and when the male disciples muttered to them, they just said, “Ask Mary, his mother!”
And then when they asked her, she just smiled and said what she always said, “Do whatever he tells you!”—which, as somebody pointed out (it may have been Thomas) sounded very wise and long-suffering and noble, but somehow didn’t seem to get you very far.
Anyway, the upshot of it all was that at the end of the week, in the evening, Jesus came up to Peter and James and John, who were sitting in a row looking depressed, and said, “Come and walk with me, lads. Come up into the hills.”
So they walked with him, on, up, into the twilight. At first it was pleasant, cool and gentle after the day. But then the twilight deepened, and He began to walk ahead of them, quicker and quicker, and they could hardly keep up. Where was he going? What was he doing? It was darker than ever. They couldn’t see him. And now they couldn’t even see the path. Come to think of it, this was typical of their whole time with him. They didn’t understand what he was doing, and by now it was pitch dark, and they were getting frightened. Someone had said there were mountain lions out on these hills. Didn’t he care about meeting a mountain lion? Oh dear God, just for once couldn’t he behave reasonably?
Then it happened.
He was the light.
Kneeling there ahead of them, shining and filling the ravine and the path behind and before and the whole sky like the sun, so that the stars disappeared and the birds thought it was morning and began to sing.
And in that moment they saw.
That he was after all, what Moses and Elijah and all the prophets had pointed to.
That what he would accomplish as he died in Jerusalem really would be a new exodus: not like the old exodus that liberated a single people from bondage that they might learn God’s ways, but a new exodus that would liberate the world from bondage, and them with it.
No wonder he couldn’t fight the Romans! He’d come to free the Romans, too!
And they heard.
In heaven. And in their hearts.
“This is my son. Listen to Him. This is my beloved son, my Isaac, who like Isaac of old will be willing to be bound upon the altar of the cross rather than be unfaithful to me. And just as throughout all Israel’s history, whenever I have looked upon Israel, I have remembered the faithfulness of Isaac, so now, when I look upon all humankind, I shall remember the faithfulness of my Messiah, my anointed, my chosen one; from now on when I look upon humanity, I shall look upon it as found in him.”
So it was a new beginning, just as they’d hoped. But then, not just as they had hoped, for it was better! Deeper, wider, and sweeter! And nothing would ever be the same again.
Actually, in some ways it was the same again.
It would be nice to say that from that moment on the disciples understood what their Lord was doing and were able to support him in it. It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true—not if we are to believe Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to them, as the Lord set his face to go up to Jerusalem to die, the disciples continued to misunderstand, to complain, and to ask stupid questions: and when he was finally arrested, one of the twelve whom he had specially chosen as his apostles had betrayed him, and the others forsook him and fled, leaving the women alone to support him at the cross.
So nothing had really changed.
Or perhaps it had.
For it must be said that while the disciples continued to misunderstand, to complain, and to ask stupid questions, at least it was to him they complained, him they asked, and with him that they argued. And when the arrest came, the eleven fled, it was true—but they didn’t flee very far. Rather, they seem to have hung about, like a pack of cowed dogs, knowing they’ve done wrong, ears and tails down, but eyes still watching.
And so it was that when their Lord was raised from the dead, they were there to be met by him.
When the Spirit came, they were there to receive it.
And when the commission was given, they were there to accept it.
Even then, they didn’t become perfect. According to legend Peter was still vacillating on the last day of his life. But he got it right in the end, and became a martyr, and in the meantime he and Mary of Magdala and the others had gone skipping across the Greco-Roman world, lighting a flame in human hearts that has never been put out.
It was not, of course, any strength or quality in them that led to this. They were the first to say that. It was the strength and quality of the One they followed. “This is my beloved son. Listen to Him!” He was what they had seen him to be, that night on a mountain. He was Lord of life, Light of Israel, Light to the nations, God’s Messiah. He was what they had seen him to be, and because he was that, he was able, slowly, slowly, perhaps, but always surely, to make of them the women and men they were created to be, his saints, the lights of the world. He was transfigured before them: but what that pointed to in the end was not just his transfiguration but theirs. Not just his destiny, but theirs and ours. If you want to know what not just human destiny is, but our destiny, and that of humanity, and that of the whole creation, then look to the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. “I,” says our Lord, “when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself.” “In him,” says the writer to the Colossians, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth on in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” That is our destiny! No exceptions, no exclusions.
So not surprisingly, the sparks those first disciples were able to light have not gone out, despite the fact that we human beings have often surrounded them and done our best to drown them with our pomposity and our stupidity and our cruelty and our self-righteousness. Still the darkness never overcomes the light, and the light continues to shine, down to this very day, this very hour, this very altar, your very hearts. “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.” “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you and for many.” “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you.”
So it seems that night on the mountain was a new beginning, after all.