What the Usual Suspects Saw

Matthew 17:1-9 – Transfiguration Sunday – for Sunday, February 26, 2017

“But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” (Matthew 17:7-8)

“Don’t be afraid.”

So Jesus said.

So we tell children when the creaks and groans from the house, in a winter’s storm, sounds like the approach of a monster.

So I’ve told groups of young hikers—accustomed to lights that easily switch on, televisions that glow with entertainment, and street lamps that brighten the neighborhood—when darkness shrouds the mountains and a flickering campfire is the only light.

So a million and more spouses have encouraged their beloved when they’ve headed inside a cancer center for another treatment.

Afraid we are. Of strange sounds. Of the dark. Of death.

Fear transfigures us.

Hope also does.

Once, midway through the Gospel accounts (in three of the four versions of the good news), Jesus invited the usual suspects—Peter, James, and John—up to the mountain with him. Though not on the peak for Moses’ forty days and nights, they lingered long enough to witness Jesus’ transfiguration. In a swirl of light and sound, of holy voices and legendary figures, Jesus’ countenance glowed, and his clothes shimmered as bright as the noonday sun. The child from Nazareth was proclaimed as one that pleased God.

The disciples, Matthew succinctly stated, “fell on their faces, filled with awe.”

What had they seen? What had they felt?

“Don’t be afraid.”


When the scene returned to normal—which is a lie, for normal hadn’t been part of following Jesus up to this point, and normal had nothing to do with what they’d just experienced—they stumbled down the mountain. Jesus, in Matthew, implored silence about this “vision” until later . . . when “the Human One is raised from the dead.”

Readers are not privy to what Peter, James, and John inwardly thought or how they outwardly reacted to Jesus’ request. Perhaps they all compliantly trudged along the hillside trail, focused on avoiding loose rocks so they wouldn’t fall on their faces for a different reason. Perhaps they trusted Jesus’ “Don’t be afraid,” and weren’t afraid. Perhaps, mindful of Jesus’ many worthy assurances and warnings, they tucked away their mountaintop memories, each vowing in his own way that they would zip their lips until . . .

And yet what in hell or heaven did Jesus mean about “raised from the dead!?”

How could they not be afraid or leery or stunned after “seeing” Moses and Elijah, hearing the Holy announcement, and then wondering why Jesus mentioned death?

When imagining the possible stories within this story, of what the brightest and dreariest thoughts were that gripped the three disciples, I never picture them completely trusting his calm reassurances.

I was a child once. And afraid. I’ve heard those monsters.

I’ve been in dark mountains in dark nights. Afraid.

Loved ones, maybe not in a cancer treatment center, but with their very lives at stake, have been told the worst about their health. And all (including me) were afraid.

Awe-filled the transfiguration was.

Awful too?

Coming down the mountain . . .

Jesus asked me to remain silent, Peter may have mused, as he planted one step in front of the other. Of course he would keep silent, for already, mere moments later, he doubted that he’d really seen anything other than a strange, feverish daydream. It was crazy! Or he was crazy to keep following Jesus, and having experiences that he couldn’t explain? But this one was different. Did Jesus not want him to talk about it? No problem! He was afraid. Why talk about something that would only confirm to others that Peter had lost his mind when he found his faith? Still, Peter vowed to find time to learn what James and John thought.

Jesus asked me to remain silent, James may have mulled over, while gazing forward and never once desiring to look back. He had no interest in rehashing the fearsome events that just happened. Indeed, what had occurred? He was a practical fellow. Feed the hungry? James would seek a way to feed them! Clothe and shelter the poor? James believed there were always options for finding a coat and hearth to share. But to understand or explain visions? Not for him, thank you very much. Just give him a task to accomplish. He nodded toward Jesus and hurried along the trail. Still, James vowed to find time to learn what Peter and John thought.

Jesus asked me to remain silent, John may have muttered, not loud enough for the others to notice, but he kept repeating it. Silent? Me? Of course . . . and yet how blessed he was to have seen those Holy events! But faith was personal and John didn’t fancy boasting about his beliefs (or admitting his fears). When Jesus talked about loving neighbors—and even his enemies—John heartily agreed. Don’t criticize others. Find ways to help. Never call attention to yourself. He was convinced God had no need for another to preach or teach (let Jesus do that!), but that God did need those who quietly deepened their faith. Still, John vowed to find time to learn what James and Peter thought.

Of course I don’t know what these “usual suspects” believed in or fretted about. And yet I don’t doubt each approached faith differently. Each saw—or wondered if they saw—the brightest of lights on that mountain and the boldest of voices . . . and likely interpreted the moment differently.

The account of the transfiguration does seem a mid-point for Jesus’ ministry. Now, after the mountain, he will head for Jerusalem. Half of his ministry is finished. The next half will finish him with nails hammered into flesh.

With a nod to Moses’ mountaintop meetings with God in Exodus, Jesus’ transfiguration was part of the ongoing story of encountering Mystery and forever being changed. And yet it’s not a story like the parable of the Samaritan, where one unexpected person comes to the aid of a sworn enemy or a tale about giving away possessions instead of hoarding them. No, this transfiguration was ephemeral, enigmatic, inexplicable . . . a reminder that labeling or limiting God with only my “right” interpretation leads to failure.

How you interpret the transfiguration will be different than how I view it. If anyone, claiming to be a believer, thinks her or his understanding is the only correct one . . . then (I believe) we’ve abandoned the truest part of what the usual suspects saw. I believe, in the scariest times, in the darkest times, in the times when facing death, our loving God calls us to lean on and learn from each other.

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  1. Like this a lot, Larry. Too bad i’m not preaching transfig Sunday or I would steal, i mean use with credit given


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