Peter was speaking the truth: it was good for the disciples to be with Jesus, to see the glory of the Lord. But Peter liked the place so much that he proposed setting up camp, putting up tents to accommodate not only Jesus, but also Moses and Elijah, who have now appeared. Peter focuses on the place, on the “here” of the mountain: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here…” (Mk. 9:5), as he says. Peter’s getting concrete, putting down roots, extending the momentary “here” of a particular time and place into something more substantial and permanent.
The trouble is, the “here” of “It is good for us to be here” (Mk. 9:5) can’t bear the weight of continuation. The “here” of the Transfiguration is a transitional moment, one that moves forward quickly without lingering too long. Before they know it, the moment has passed, and Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus orders them to tell no one what they’ve seen until after he’s risen from the dead. In the meantime, Jesus and the disciples move on to the next place without any further ado.
The “moving on” quality of the Transfiguration experience shouldn’t surprise us, though apparently it did surprise Peter. Poor guy, in the Gospel he can hardly get anything right. If you can put your foot wrong, Peter will do it; no sooner does he get it right than he flubs it again. Peter’s someone I can identify with: maybe you can too? In our Gospel today, he misses the point that Jesus and the disciples are on the move, and not ready to make camp.
Again, it shouldn’t have been surprising. Think for a moment about Moses and Elijah, the figures who appear alongside Jesus. They offer us clues as to the meaning. Let’s start with Moses, who led the greatest exodus of all time. He led the People of God from one place to another, for forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses was a transitional figure if there ever was one, led on by God from place to place. Moses saw the promised land from a distance but he never entered it. The Letter to the Hebrews counts Moses among those who were “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Moses was a pilgrim, a journeyman, as he led the pilgrim People of God. He was never “here” for very long at all.
The prophet Elijah also appeared with Moses, on the mountain of Transfiguration. As we heard in the Second Book of the Kings, when Elijah had come to the end of his course, he took his successor Elisha with him and set out to the East, beyond the valley of the Jordan: back into the wilderness from which Moses had emerged, in fact. There he parted from Elisha, and was taken up in a chariot of fire, and ascended into heaven. For his part, Elijah could not be contained by any “here” in space and time, but was set on a road that led out of this world and into the kingdom of God.
The transfiguration is a transitional moment for Jesus. He has his eye on Jerusalem, and the great transition that lies at the end of his life. He’s just foretold, for the first time, his death and resurrection: the first of three times. The scene was visibly shifting for Jesus. It was good for him to be there on the mountain, but not good for him to put down stakes. He needs to be on the road, heading for the place and time set by God.
Remember what the angel says to the women at the tomb, when they come early on the day of resurrection. “He has been raised; he is not here” (Mk. 16:6). That’s right, not “here.” Then the angel says, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mk. 16:7). The disciples are to move on, to go to Galilee. It’s as open-ended as that.
That’s not a bad way to describe the Christian life: a movement from where we are to where we need to be. We need to abide in Jesus, as it says in John’s Gospel, but not become root bound. “Here we have no continuing city” (Heb. 13:14), it says elsewhere in Hebrews, which means our discipleship is open-ended. We don’t want to get stuck, to come to the end of the dead-end road. We want to head to Galilee.
As Christians, we’re in transition, seeking to share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is inherently transitional, leading from death to life. Our confirmands this morning are joining in this great transition, as they move from where they are to where they need to be as disciples. It is good for us to be “here” this morning, to see the glory of the Lord, but also for us to move forward in mission and ministry. It’s a transitional moment in the lives of our confirmands, and in the life of this congregation. The question for us is: do we dare imagine the good things that still lie ahead?