During a recent week I joined our sabbatical group on a five-day “run where Jesus walked” tour of the Galilee region. Since I had been there several times before, one of the priests in our entourage challenged me with the question: “Did you learn anything new?”
Revisiting previously-covered terrain always presents the opportunity for new learning. But this time, perhaps the learning came less in the form of new facts, and more in the form of greater insights.
We were sitting with our Arab-Israeli guide (about 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian) high atop Mt. Tabor, the “traditional site” of the Transfiguration of Jesus. (Let me stop here and admit that “likely” or “probable” feels better to this Baptist than the designation “traditional,” which seems the preference of my Catholic friends. Nobody knows for sure where the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration was located. But if you’ve ever visited the region of Nazareth and the Jezreel Valley, and viewed Mt. Tabor from a distance, it’s easy to see why early Christians sensed “this must be the high mountain; this must be the place.”)
Ghada-the-guide read the account from Mark 9.2-8, preached just a little (she was good; I told her she should be ordained), and then invited our reflections. I was the only one to respond, but something in the reading had occurred to me, and I had to say it. When scripture presents Moses and Elijah as coming alongside Jesus, it can only refer to two things: the ritual requirements of the Torah (the Law of Moses) on the one hand, and the ethical (behavioral) requirements of the Prophets, on the other.
In recognition of the significance of each, Jesus hears from both sides, from Moses and from Elijah. But then, just as the disciple Peter is making his awkward suggestion that “booths” be built for the three (so that all could be given equal honor), a cloud descends, a voice comes from heaven–and when the disciples “look around,” the only person still visible is Jesus. Only Jesus.
“This is my beloved Son,” the voice declares. “Listen to him.”
Our rituals matter. They are the cupped hands that hold our religious understanding and commend it to ourselves and to others. Ethical behavior surely matters. It is what authenticates our status as disciples, undergirds our mission to the world, and expresses our gratitude for the work of Him who has saved us from the penalty for our sins.
But there lies the point of the Transfiguration: neither religious ritual nor ethical behavior is “strong to save.” We are too impious and imperfect for that. Only God in Christ is sufficient for so lofty a task, and the salvation he has earned is accessible (as the Protestant Reformers declared) “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.”
“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus” (Mark 9.8 nrsv). Only Jesus . . .
From Jerusalem to our friends in Greensboro, Shabbat Shalom!