Freedom From Our Imaginary Cages
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
The story of the Transfiguration of Christ is the hinge between the Galilee half of the gospel and the Jerusalem half of the gospel. The first half of Jesus’ ministry kicks off with his baptism. The second half kicks off with his transfiguration. Both are stories of Jesus’ radical encounters with God in which the voice of God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved.
While much can be said about the story of the Transfiguration itself, today I want to focus on what happens on either side of the mountain – before and after the Transfiguration – as this sets the tone for the last half of Luke’s gospel. It also sets the tone for our worship in the upcoming season of Lent.
Three disciples – Peter, John and James – were witnesses to the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain. They observed Jesus’ face change and his robes become dazzling white. They saw the figures of Moses and Elijah standing with their rabbi. They heard the voice of God that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
I suggest to you that the disciples on the mountain heard this as bad news, which is why they “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Here’s why:
After Jesus returns from the mountain a man begs Jesus to heal his son who is suffering from an evil spirit. His request is framed by this disheartening statement, “I begged your disciples to cast it out but they could not.”
Jesus’ angry reaction suggests that casting out an evil spirit should be well within the disciples’ abilities at this point. In fact, Luke writes earlier in the chapter that Jesus “gave [the twelve] power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” and that they “went through the villages…curing diseases everywhere” (Luke 9:1,6).
The disciples were no longer able to heal and cast out evil spirits. The reason for this loss of power is likely located in what happened immediately before Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain.
In that story, Jesus told the disciples what their ministry would involve going forward. He referenced suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection; punctuated with a call for the disciples to “take up their cross daily and follow [him]” (Luke 8:23).
The disciples were capable of great acts of healing until they learned that suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death would be a part of their lives. The whole reason they started following Jesus in the first place was that he was their ticket to live long lives of blessedness, honor, respect, ease, and power.
Suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death were not what they signed up for. How could (or why would) the disciples continue to perform miraculous healings if all that awaited them was suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death? We can imagine the group of dejected disciples encountering someone requesting healing and depressed they reply, “What’s the point?”
Which is why, on the mountain, Peter, James, and John were probably devastated to hear God say, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to Him!” Those words meant that God was seconding Jesus’ previous words; verifying the fact that their lives of discipleship would involve suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death.
No doubt the disciples who had not gone up the mountain with Jesus desperately hoped that the disciples would return from a period of prayer with Jesus with the message, “Good news, turns out Jesus was just having a bad day when he said that stuff earlier. We were right all along, everything’s gonna be great!”
Instead Peter, James, and John passed by their friends with their heads downcast, not saying a word. Their silence confirmed all the disciples’ fears.
In the accounts that follow in Luke’s gospel, the disciples’ confusion continues to grow. They bicker about who among them is the greatest. They are threatened by everyone outside their group. They threaten to wage war against Jerusalem. And eventually they abandon Jesus in his crucifixion.
To the disciples, the idea of God’s miraculous power and the reality of suffering were incompatible. They could only manifest God’s power when they thought there was something in it for themselves. Once they learned following Jesus would involve suffering, they refused to allow God’s power to work through them.
In his book on Christian contemplation Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird tells a story of walking across a moor with a friend who had four dogs. As they walked, three of the dogs would run out across the moor, leaping over creeks and chasing rabbits and joyfully exploring their environment.
But one of the dogs would only run in a small circle just in front of his owner. No matter now many miles they walked or how far afield the other dogs went, this dog would only run in a tight circle very close to them.
Martin asked him why, and he replied, “This dog was kept for his entire life prior to coming to me in a very small cage. His body has left the cage, but his mind still carries it with him. For him, the world outside the cage does not exist, and so no matter how big and beautiful the moor, he will never run out across it. I bring him here so he can breathe the fresh air, but he’s still running circles in his cage.”
Like the dog who had lived most of its life in a cage, Jesus’ disciples were caught in an imaginary cage of their own design. The disciples equated freedom with a blissful and easy life. Jesus insists, however, that true freedom is the ability to be and bear the good news of God precisely in the midst of suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death.
We all want lives of ease for ourselves and for others. It’s human nature. And Jesus is certainly not telling us to go out of our way to suffer, be rejected, bear our crosses, or die. Where we go wrong, however, is in thinking that such realities are proof that God has abandoned us. We are wrong to think that God only uses people whose lives are perfect, popular, free from conflict, and at ease. If such a person actually existed God could certainly work through him or her. We are not perfect; and it is for precisely that reason that God is with us.
May you come to recognize that true freedom is possible even in suffering, rejection, cross-bearing, and death. May God use you to perform miraculous acts of love regardless of how far you fall from whatever standard of perfection you adhere to. And may you never be ashamed to proclaim the good news of God’s grace to all people and all situations.