It was in 2008, I received an invitation to make a presentation at a World Council of Churches conference at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Those were the days I was reading Paulo Coelho’s novels, where he explains the beauty of Rio and specially its laid-back beach culture, of course the Copacabana beach, the carnivals, samba, and not to forget the favelas, which were the slums in the outskirts of the city. As I received that conference invitation, I was excited to travel to that part of the world to experience all that I have been reading about. One other exciting thing I really looked forward to was to see the famous Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue. After landing at Rio, I was taken to the conference centre, a Catholic guest house, which was on the top of a mountain, from where we had a beautiful view of Christo Redentor statue, with his hands wide open facing us. It was a great sight to view that statue from our conference centre. Every day, I was hoping to get closer to the statue to see its magnificence. On the last day of my conference, with the sun shining brightly, I made arrangements to go and view this Christ the Redeemer statue. The statue was located at the peak of the 2,300 feet Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city if Rio. I was all excited to see this magnificent statue of 98 feet high placed on a pedestal of 26 feet. To reach the mountain top, I took a cog train and it was a splendid 20 minutes ride through the forest. My excitement grew stronger and stronger as I got on the train to see this world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue. In that 20 minutes the weather suddenly changed, it got cold, with clouds gathering thick and dark. As I reached the mountain top to see Christ the Redeemer statue, these thick and dark clouds covered the entire mountain, and it was a total disappointment for all the visitors that day that none of us could see the statue clearly, for the visibility was very poor. I stayed till the evening near that statue on that mountain top, hoping against hope that the clouds would disappear and I could have a glance of the statue. It was one of those disappointing moments for me, for I had to return from that mountain top of Corcovado mountain without viewing the statue clearly due to the thick clouds. I travelled back home from Rio, only with the memories of viewing Christ the Redeemer from a distance, from the mountain top of my conference centre and with a disappointment of not being able to view it clearly from its footstep.
The text for this Sunday from Mark 9:2-9, is a passage where Jesus takes Peter, John and James to a mountain top and transfigured before them. Jesus meets Elijah with Moses and speaks to them there. On seeing these things happening Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified (5-6v). Later a voice came out from the heavens saying about Jesus “this is my son, the beloved; listen to him” (7v). The three disciples saw only Jesus at the end, and they had to come down the mountain to get back to their ministry and mission engagements. All that what has happened with Jesus’ transfiguration and the voice appearing from heaven, I would want to call it an experience of wonder, to which the three disciples had to opportunity to capture it. Having had the opportunity to see for himself that wonder of transfiguration, Peter was disappointed that on the one hand he could not build the dwellings for the Moses, Elijah and Jesus on that mountain top, and on the other hand the cloud had overshadowed them, and at the end had to return without memorialising that rare encounter of Jesus with the two significant faith pioneers from three historical time periods meeting at that transfiguration mountain. Peter, James and John were the only witnesses to this Jesus’ transfiguration on that mountain, and I want to reflect on their reactions, in particularly Peter’s reactions to this experience, which led to his disappointments. What they see is not what they get. In those moments of wonder, Peter responds and blurts.
1. Peter wanted to capture the wonder of transfiguration religiously:
Mark records that, six days later, Jesus took Peter, James and John to this mountain top experience (2v). In a way this is to say that it was on the seventh day that this transfiguration experience happened, perhaps it could be the day of Sabbath. On that day of Sabbath, it was their tradition to spend that day with several rituals and religious observances. Imagining it was a day of Sabbath, and the transfiguration of Jesus happened on that mountain, he saw Elijah coming with Moses speaking to Jesus, and Peter wanted to capture that experience religiously by building three tabernacles/tents/ booths/dwellings for them to make it a truly Sabbath experience. Peter tried to memorialise the wonder of transfiguration religiously, thinking that would impress Jesus, Moses and Elijah and the rest of his companions.
2. Peter wanted to capture the wonder of transfiguration rigorously:
Mark records in verse 7, that, “Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” As he was caught in that wonder of transfiguration and the aftermaths of it, Peter and his companions were terrified not knowing what to say. In not knowing what to say, Peter said he wanted to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He wanted to capture those moments scrupulously with constructions, with buildings, with structures, with memorials, with something that will have a permanent memory of that event. Peter wanted to put in hard work in setting up those three dwellings, in a way repeating what their ancestors did in erecting memorials whenever they have encountered such wonder experiences. Peter tried to memorialise the wonder of transfiguration rigorously, thinking that would impress Jesus, Elijah, Moses and the rest of his companions.
3. Peter wanted to capture the wonder of transfiguration rigidly:
On experiencing that wonder of transfiguration, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here…” (5v). Peter wanted to remain there, in that mountain top experience rigidly, for he knew it was a rare experience, it was once in a life-time experience, and it was an experience beyond any human comprehension. He did not want to give away that experience to pass by without any mark of it, rather wanted to build dwellings there and make it a religious site, a pilgrim site, and a site to inform the world that Peter and his two companions were the witnesses to that event. That mountain top experience was far from all the struggles of life, from all the evils of the empire and was far from all the problems and conflicts, so Peter wanted firmly and rigidly to stay on that mountain top experience, enjoying the encounters of Jesus, Elijah and Moses.
At the end, the proposal of Peter in setting up three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah and Moses did not come true, and he was left disappointed. Jesus did not approve of such constructions of structures and memorials, for if that was the case, Jesus should have encouraged Peter and his companions in doing it before that wonder passed away. I think Jesus did not want the wonder of his life to be captured and built as memorial sites or as pilgrim sites or as tents or as temples on his name, rather wanted his life and his experiences to be lived out by his disciples and followers, by being with people in their struggles offering hope and healing. I also see the disapproval of Peter's proposal of building three dwellings from the voice that came out from the heavens to them. The cloud overshadowed them and the voice said, “This is my son, the beloved; listen to him” (7v). The voice from heavens was reminding Peter and his companions to recognise that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, and the voice came with a call to asking the disciples to listen to him. The message of transfiguration is to celebrate the wonder of Jesus by recognising that Jesus is the Son of God, to listen to Jesus throughout, and reflect Jesus in all walks of life. For Peter, he has to get down that transfiguration mountain top experience in disappointment as his proposal was disapproved.
In drawing a relevance of this text for our context today, where on the one hand we observe this Second Sunday in February as Racial Justice Sunday in the UK and on the other hand people celebrating love on this 14th of February, I want to infer three signposts for our discipleship today.
Firstly, we are called to listen to the wonder of the gospel in love. Most often in our Christian life and in the life of our church, we apply rules and rituals based on religiosity and give love a backbench. There are many who want to be literalists, trying to stick to the book, repeat the same things to do again and again, with little respect to the changing contexts. The learning from this text is to capture and share the wonder of the good news of Christ in love, for love is at the heart of Christ’s voice, and also in reimagining to share that love relevant to our times and situations. Even though we do not know what to speak and how to speak, all it takes in Christian discipleship is love alone, love without any boundaries. To recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and to listen to Christ’s voice today is all about love for the other, particularly to people who do not look like us. When love thrives, equality is shared and supremacy of colour, race, ethnicity, power will be driven away and racial justice is ensured.
Secondly, we are called to listen to the wonder of the gospel in graciousness. It is not in building memorials, pilgrim sites, buildings, temples and shrines for Jesus, but in being gracious to one another, in receiving and accepting one another and in being with one another. By creating a sense of belongingness to people who are different to us and by being open in listening to each other’s perspectives we celebrate the love of Christ today. There are varied expressions of God’s wonder today, let us be gracious to one another in listening and accepting one another. Lack of graciousness for the other is one of the reasons for racial injustices today, and practicing justice and equality in graciousness is the need of the day towards racial justice. From this transfiguration mountain, Jesus now sets off his face towards Jerusalem and moves on in his life healing and transforming people and communities in grace and with grace.
Thirdly, we are called to listen to the wonder of the gospel in humility. It is easy to stay on the mountain top experiences, but Jesus wants us to get down the mountain to be with people in their needs. This calls for gracious humility today. People take pride in their ethnicity, race colour, religiosity, history, tradition and in that pride, they develop arrogance and try to humiliate the others who come from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Jesus did not deem it a privilege speaking to Elijah and Moses and kept on staying with them, rather came down to journey towards the other mountain of Calvary, and also brought the disciples down from the mountain to preach and practice God’s love and justice to all people.
If we don’t listen to the wonder of the gospel in love, in graciousness and in humility, we might be disappointed, for Christian life is all about these values. We as followers of Jesus Christ are called to champion racial justice in our localities by creating preferential options of affirmative actions for people of different ethnicities and colour, and we as churches should be in the forefront towards such a racial justice mission engagement.
May God grant God’s strength so that we are not disappointed because of our religiosity, rigour and rigidity, rather listen to the voice of Christ in the gospel and demonstrate love in action to all people and to all of the creation. After I returned from Rio from that conference, I realised that Christian discipleship is in translating the vision of Christ the Redeemer in the contexts where I serve and keep demonstrating the love of Christ and not worry about missing to view the world’s greatest statue in clear visibility.
Raj Bharat Patta,
12th February 2021
Pic credit: https://freewalkertours.com/what-to-do-in-rio-de-janeiro-on-a-cloudy-day/