Does anyone else remember actually wanting to do chores when you were a child? For some people, this behavior might sound a little strange; still I’ll bet some of us have seen small children push around pint-sized brooms and vacuum cleaners because they want to help Mom and Dad clean the house. Some children have tiny tool boxes to pull out on a moment’s notice to help Mom and Dad in the wood shop or to help with those pesky household repairs. Some of us couldn’t wait until we were old enough to mow the yard, work on the car, use real tools around the house, and use the stove and oven to prepare meals people could actually eat.
In the area of transportation, many of us started with a tricycle, moved to training wheels on a bigger bicycle, and then it was a HUGE day when we lost the training wheels. From bikes we moved to motorcycles and/or cars. Remember not being able to wait until you got your driver’s license?
And then there was the magical age of 18 when we became REAL adults and our parents could no longer tell us what to do; that is, if we could afford to move out of their house. Because I don’t know about you, but in my family the mantra was “Our house, our rules—regardless.” Shortly after 18 came 21 when we could go to clubs and drink alcohol—only legally this time. I personally loved turning 25 because my car insurance dropped by over half.
When it came to education some of us couldn’t wait to get out of kindergarten and into big boy and big girl school—1st grade! Middle school kids can’t wait until junior high; junior high kids can’t wait until high school; high school kids either want to finish school and be done with it, or join the military or head to college for freedom.
All these behaviors are normal. They are all part of our drive to become adults—to somehow succeed in life. And people define success differently, too. For some folks, it isn’t enough to have a roof over their heads; it has to be a particular kind of roof in a particular location. For some people, being at a healthy weight isn’t enough; they want six-pack abs, tight glutes, and a chest that turns heads. Other people don’t stop until they have the corner office or top position in their chosen profession–a view of life from the top, if you will.
One word for this type of behavior is “ladder climbing,” and it can apply to every area of our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting these and other markers of success. As one writer says, however, “the problem with finally getting what we want is that then we’ve got it!” That is, the longed-for prize can become just another new responsibility, another step on the ladder. REAL success is still somewhere else. Or as an old French proverb puts it: “You not only have to want what you want, but you have to want what your want leads to.”
History is full of ladder climbers, even in the Bible. Take Peter, James and John, for example. In one gospel, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in the afterlife—one to sit at Jesus’ left and the other at his right—and in another gospel it’s James and John’s mother who is said to have asked for this favor for her sons. And Peter? Well, Peter—the one Jesus called “Rock”–was always putting his foot in his mouth. Most people believe Jesus called Peter “Rock” because of the words attributed to Jesus about Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Who knows? Maybe Jesus called Peter “Rock” because he was so hard-headed. But, that’s just me.
So considering the personalities of these guys, you can imagine what a feather in their caps it was for them to be invited by Jesus to spend some quality alone time with him away from everyone else. Imagine a supervisor you really admire inviting you to join a hand-picked small group of people to go on a mountain retreat—all expenses paid. And what’s more, everyone in your immediate group of colleagues knows about the invitation because the supervisor offered it to you right in front of them! We might think to ourselves, “Yes! Finally I’m starting to move up and be recognized.” We might even start humming the theme song from that old sitcom “The Jeffersons,” “Movin’ On Up.” Do you remember the words? “Well, we’re movin’ on up to the East Side, to a deeeluxe apartment in the sky!” Only in Mark’s gospel (9:2-9) it’s to the top of a mountain—a place where the ancients believed God’s presence could be found.
So Jesus, Peter, James, and John head up the mountain to pray. While there, Jesus’ clothes begin to glow brighter than bright. Now that would be strange enough, but the situation gets even stranger when Moses and Elijah show up and start talking with Jesus.
Peter, James and John are understandably quite frightened. After all, it isn’t every day your rabbi’s clothes suddenly begin to glow and two of your tradition’s greatest—and long dead—prophets also show up and start carrying on a conversation with your rabbi.
I’ve always thought it somewhat strange that the first words out of Peter’s mouth weren’t something like, “Jesus, with all due respect, this is all just a bit weird, OK? I mean, why are your clothes glowing, and just how is it that Moses and Elijah are here? After all, our scriptures DO tell us there was never a body found after these guys died.”
No, Peter speaks up and says, “Hey, Jesus! This is great! Let’s build a memorial for each of you!” Of course he was probably shaking in his sandals; but, hey! Never let ‘em see you sweat, right?
Now there has been all kinds of speculation as to why Peter would say such a thing. Maybe he just couldn’t handle the silence and awe of the situation and spoke out of pure fear. Perhaps he wanted to honor these great prophets.
There is, however, at least one other possibility…
Have you ever considered Peter’s idea might have been another step up on the ladder of respectability for the Jesus Movement? Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tries to fly under the radar sometimes, telling people to keep quiet about what they’ve seen or experienced. In fact, he does it again in today’s story.
Not Peter—noooo! Peter wants to burn down the Jesus Closet. And what better way to do that than to commemorate this experience by building three memorials on the top of a mountain—a place where God’s presence is revealed? What an attraction! What a way to fund their movement! Of course, repeating the whole glowing clothes and dead prophet moment might be a little tricky. And who was there to witness it all? Peter, James and John—Jesus’ own inner circle! Yeah, finally some concrete evidence to back their claims about the unique and superior nature of the Jesus Movement!
Peter’s vision for a mountaintop Jesus attraction, however, was not to be. At the same time, note how Peter was not rebuked for this idea. God doesn’t say, “Seriously, Peter? Three memorials? How lame is that?” More importantly, Jesus says nothing at all about the idea. No, Mark’s version of the story records God saying, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him,” followed by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. Then they head back down the mountain, but not before Jesus tells the guys to keep quiet—for now.
Strange little story, isn’t it? It’s called “The Transfiguration.” I don’t see the Transfiguration as literal history, but as a story about focusing on what is important. See, Peter, James and John—while faithful in their own ways—were also easily distracted by a multitude of things—most often their desires for position, authority and success.
In this story we also see the validity of past tradition and other prophets represented by Moses and Elijah. They, too, however, can become distractions. Who knows? Maybe that’s the reason for their disappearance in the story. Like Peter, we, too, can be distracted by the desire to build memorials to traditions and past prophets, rather than truly honoring them by focusing on what they taught and doing our best to follow those teachings in our own ever-evolving contexts.
And once again we have that annoying directive from Jesus to remain quiet—at least for now. Why? Well, I think it’s possible Jesus knew what would probably happen if Peter, James and John were allowed to build those memorials and start claiming their versions of the experience as authoritative for everyone—and you know all three of them would probably have different versions of the same story, right?
And then what would happen? That’s right! People would start investing their time and money honoring and maintaining those memorials—those institutions—and only listening to a select few “apostles,” seeing them and their descendants as the only way to experience God’s grace, rather than focusing on following the teachings of Jesus by putting those teachings into action and experiencing the presence of God already within them for themselves.
My point here isn’t that respecting institutions and their leaders is wrong. It isn’t. Yet, for followers of Jesus, these institutions, leaders, and traditions were never meant to be the primary focus of our attention. In fact, I don’t think these things and people were ever meant to be the focus of any faith tradition. For followers of Jesus, actively following his teachings was—and still should be, in my opinion—our focus. And why is that focus so important?
Well, like James, John, Peter and yes, even Jesus, we can’t indefinitely stay on the mountain top. The view from the top might be fabulous; but we can’t live there forever. From the top, however, we can obtain a clearer view—a clearer focus–of what it means to be successful in life in new, exciting, and challenging ways–ways that focus on service, peace, grace and justice. And trust me, when we come down from the mountain and mix it up in the joys and challenges of everyday life. we’re going to need all the strength and focus we can get. Amen?
So let’s focus, and in so doing, may we perhaps experience a whole new and much less stressful way of being successful on our life journeys.
Blessings to all!