The first summer after Suzanne and I married, we went on a vacation visiting the five national parks in southern Utah. Out first stop was Moab. Back then we just looked for motels with vacancies. Today we don’t go anywhere without a reservation.
The next day was for Canyonlands, then a brand new national park. The National Park Service’s intention with Canyonlands was to keep it free from improvements and as natural as possible. The only thing they built was a visitor’s center and a road to it. We went to the visitor’s center first. The heart of Canyonlands is the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. We decided to take the dirt road from the plateau of the visitor’s center to the river bottom.
We had a 60 something Pontiac Bonneville. The trip involved driving down a cliff – with switchbacks. At about half way down, it looked like the road ended into the cliff. I thought I could go back in reverse, but the road was only wide enough for one vehicle at a time and there were no guard rails. So I drove to what looked like the end and as it turned out it switched back again and we continued down the cliff.
After we got down to the bottom, I looked at the map and it indicated a jeep trail that would be a lot shorter way back to Moab. So we took it. It amounted to a lot of up and down driving through dried out creeks in a 60 something Pontiac Bonneville. Then to add frosting to the cake, it would repeatedly vapor lock.
Suzanne had trusted me to get to the bottom, but taking the jeep trail was testing her faith in me. At one point a long jeep full of tourists passed us going the other way. To reassure her I said, “Well someone knows we’re here.”
Between the slow jeep road and vapor locks, the short cut took about four hours. The one thing of note was seeing Dead Horse Point from the bottom. Our vacation continued to the other three national parks and one national monument. And we made it home alive!
Jesus had an inner circle of friends that Jesus included in significant parts of his ministry, to the exclusion of the rest of the apostles. They were Peter, James, and John. Jesus seemed to put more trust in these three than the other disciples.
It is these three that Jesus one day invites up a mountain with him.
Our gospel reading takes place six days after Jesus makes his first prediction of his passion. Jesus’ disciples did not accept this prediction. Most of all, Peter told Jesus off. The NRSV politely says Peter rebuked him. Jesus responded with name calling, specifically calling Peter, Satan.
The synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all place the Transfiguration right after this argument between Jesus and Peter. They begin by saying it was six days later and have nothing happen in those six days. Maybe it took Jesus and Peter six days to cool off!
It is probably no accident that when Jesus goes up the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter is invited along with the other two of Jesus’ inner circle. Peter doesn’t get what Jesus is up to and maybe, just maybe, when Peter sees with his own eyes what is going to happen, Peter might just get it.
There are times when Jesus includes only his inner circle and leaves the other nine apostles behind along with any other disciples who are traveling with Jesus. The other nine apostles get very little mention before and after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew is an exception only as far as having a gospel named after him and Matthew is the only gospel where Matthew has any prominence. In Mark, Matthew is only mentioned in a list. The other gospels don’t include him.
It may not be a coincidence that the prominent apostles after the resurrection are the same three that are part of Jesus’ inner circle. We can only speculate whether Jesus had some foreknowledge about these three or because they were closer to Jesus than anyone else and that formed them into the prominent apostles they became.
So, did Jesus not trust the others as much as Peter, James, and John? Possibly. After the event of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells the three that they are to keep the most stupendous thing they ever saw to themselves. That had to be tremendously difficult. When we see or hear about something exciting or astonishing, we want to share the news or experience. But Peter, James, and John had to clam up – keep it to themselves.
I think an argument can be made that the others wouldn’t believe the story if they heard it. They have all displayed a capacity to take some of what Jesus says with a grain of salt. I mean, Elijah and Moses come back to earth to talk to Jesus and those guys are long dead and there was a cloud and God spoke and it all happened in a few minutes – really? They might have thought, “If this was such a big deal, why weren’t we up the mountain too?”
It was only after the resurrection that the big three are allowed to tell the others about what happened that day on the mountain. It only made sense after the resurrection that a glowing Jesus could talk to Elijah and Moses.
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to many people. The gospels record some of those stories. John says there were many more but John decides not to include them all. Paul mentions Jesus appearing to more than 500 people. Jesus was obviously more than a human being. Jesus was somebody that could appear so bright that it would hurt your eyes.
I think what we have here, among the many ways to look at the Transfiguration, is one of faith and trust. Jesus may not have trusted the other disciples to either comprehend the event of the Transfiguration if they saw it and/or he might not have trusted them to keep their big mouths shut after the event.
Faith and trust are almost synonymous. I might just as easily say that Jesus did not have faith in the other disciples to comprehend the event and/or keep quiet.
Before we get married, hopefully before we get married, we develop enough faith in another person that we are willing to commit the rest of our lives with them. We trust that this other person will be faithful. And when I say faithful, I don’t necessarily mean sexually faithful, but faithful in all things. When that faith is broken, trust is broken. The marriage enters a crisis.
To me, the story of the Transfiguration is among other things, a story of faith and trust. Jesus has faith that the inner three will comprehend the event and trusts them to keep it under their hats until after the resurrection.
When I see hospice patients I see people with great faith in God, little faith in God, and no faith in God. For those who have no faith in God, they have no experience of God or if they did earlier in their lives, they dismissed those experiences as foolish. Some may even think, “What has God done for me? I am dying and where is God?”
The other apostles never heard the story of the Transfiguration, right away. They never had the chance to say, “I wasn’t up the mountain. Where was God for me?” They weren’t ready yet to hear the story. They didn’t yet have the lens of the resurrection to see the Transfiguration.
Some of those hospice patients haven’t seen their life beyond death because they don’t have the lenses of the resurrection. We have faith in those resurrection stories and with that faith we trust that we will live beyond this life. We haven’t seen the risen Christ. We were not up that mountain that day Jesus was transfigured. But we trust that Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured and that that transfigured Christ is the one who broke the bonds of death.
Where do we put our faith and trust? Do we put in a loved one? Do we put in relatives? Do we put in friends? Do we put in celebrities? Do we put in our elected officials? Do we put it in the clergy? Do we put in three ordinary men, of whom at least one of them was rather dim? Do we put our faith and trust in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?