Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings [or, tents] here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; [Or my beloved Son] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ 10And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 11He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ 13Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’
This vision on the mountain is similar to the vision of Jesus' baptism, where "suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove... and a voice from heaven [saying], ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’" (Matthew 3:13-17) It's unclear if anyone but Jesus saw all this at his baptism. But now, the baptismal vision, and more, is specifically given to Peter, James, and John, three people whose number constitutes adequate and trustworthy witness under law.
And, clearly, the vision is a rebuttal and rebuke, not to mention an enormous grace, to these disciples whom we understand have been resisting the notion that the Messiah must suffer and die at the hands of his own people. (Matthew 16:21-23)
But why does Jesus say, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead?"
Politically, in Jesus' time, the son was the presence of the father. If the son has visited, then so has the father; if the son speaks, he speaks the will of the father. Our little city spent weeks renewing the street gardens and the bitumen along which the grand-son of the Queen would process, even leaving re-laying the bitumen of the last kilometre or so until the day before he arrived, so that Wills and Kate would arrive on a brand-newly-tarred red carpet. I rode past the town hall on the way to work shortly after 6am, that morning. People were already beginning to line the road for Wills and Kate's arrival at 11. In fact, I had to ride on the footpath, because no one was allowed on the new bitumen. Even in our allegedly secular culture, the Queen or King is second only to God, and if the son, or even the grandson, is coming, we line the road for a glimpse of transcendence.
In the tinderbox of Palestine, if Jesus is proclaimed as the beloved son of God to whom we should listen, things might go terribly wrong. Rome did not treat insurrection kindly. And Jesus has been teaching a gospel which is not about Rome, and not about political power, but about an entirely different dimension where power— real power— rests in the ability to give and to love, not to win and influence and control.
We humans can only understand what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, and what it means to become a beloved daughter or son of God ourselves, if we have seen first of all that such a person is the offspring of the Divine, and bears the imprimatur of the Divine, only as they give their life. Jesus proves to be the Beloved Son of God because he suffers and dies. So we read this text of Matthew 17:1-9 in Lent, the time of repentance, because we are being called to a profound repentance, a complete turning around of our understanding of power, and a conversion to the giving up of our lives. "Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'" (Matthew 16:24)
We cannot serve the God of Love, we cannot live in the Kingdom, and we cannot live with godly power, unless we live seeking the power to enable and empower others, seeking the power to give, the power to suffer, and the power to die. This is the hardest thing. I think this is harder than dying. Even to say it is to proclaim my hypocrisy and failure. All our lives are spent avoiding death, and shying away from any compassion and generosity which will risk death, or even a hint of it. Power, in our mind and consciousness, if we unpack it, is about avoiding and postponing death. Power is about getting our own way, making things happen, even for the good. But behind that, behind my desire for a growing and healing and evangelising congregation, for example, there too often lurks the payoff of status, and satisfaction, and self-worth which says, "I may be going to die, but I have done something good. I have been significant." Yet using the language of goodness, Jesus says that goodness is to give, and to give so that we are pointed towards death as a consequence. We may pray that the cup does not come to us, but we will drink it if it does come; that is the good life. And that, only that, is the life of godly power. All other power is infected with idolatry because it resists, at base, what it is God calls us to become, and grasps after some kind of independence of being.
We can't understand this sort of power, or this sort of being. Our mind and being rebels at the whole idea, because we have evolved to survive at any cost, and our culture, based in Deuteronomic theology, has evolved to try an end run around death by ensuring, as much as possible, the survival and flourishing of our children so that they live long in the land— Deuteronomy calls it "life ... and length of days." (Deuteronomy 30:20)
So don't tell them I am the Son of God. Don't tell them that until you have seen that I suffer and die and rise again. Don't tell them until you are prepared to do the same— to trust that death will not own you and define you. Because, if you do, if you speak too early, you will not preach Gospel— not my Gospel— you will preach only one more Empire and build a babel of spiritual abuse and exploitation. And I, naturally, have raced off and sought power, lived on the back of others, tried to build something, and shied away from my calling, in order to save my life. But the risen Lord still offers us life: "those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24-28) Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 17:1-9 - The Mountain in the Valley (2014)
Matthew 17:1-13 - There's a light upon the mountain (2017)