By Steven Norris
This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday — the day we remember Jesus’ journey to the mountaintop with three of his closest disciples. There, he appeared to them in glory and they had a direct encounter with God. (You can read the full details for yourself in Mark 9:2-8.)
As with much of Mark’s Gospel, this event deals with deep questions of identity. Who is this Jesus? What does it mean that he is the Messiah? Exactly what kind of Messiah is he? What does it mean to be his follower?
To understand the Jewish expectations surrounding the Messiah, we must remember the historical context of Jesus’ day. For five or more centuries, the nation of Israel was under the thumb of one foreign power after another — Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and the Romans.
The Jewish people believed that God would provide another deliverer like Moses or one of the judges — a military leader who would guide the people out of captivity and oppression and restore freedom. The early disciples saw signs of Jesus’ unique character, power, and message. They began to question whether he was the one to fulfill these messianic hopes.
Just prior to the Transfiguration, Mark relates another conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “Well, they aren’t sure. Some say John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” Jesus then shifts to his real question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks up, “You are the Messiah.”
Immediately, Jesus redirects the conversation to his suffering and death. This was the kind of Messiah he was going to be — one who would sacrifice himself for others. It was too much for the disciples. Therefore, on the top of the mountain, God reassures them with the presence of three witnesses: Moses, Elijah, and God’s own self.
Transfiguration (and the Lenten season that follows) is a time for identity questions. I believe that the Church in America is at a crossroads. What does it mean to be the people of God in our context? What does it mean to follow Jesus today? What does it mean to follow a Messiah that delivers through sacrifice and service instead of worldly power?
The immanent Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has observed, “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
Who do you say that he is? Is Jesus merely there to endorse our preconceived ideologies and allegiances, or do we allow him to set the agenda? Do we have the courage to follow the cross-shaped life of discipleship, or will we exchange our faith for the rhetoric of conquest and power? These are the questions I hope the church might once again wrestle with in the Lenten season ahead.