+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when Jesus had put saliva on the man’s eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” The man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again, and the man looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then Jesus sent the man away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
Ever since the first time I read that story, I’ve been fascinated by it. On the one hand, it’s a healing story, just like many that appear in the gospels in general and in Mark’s Gospel in particular. On the other hand, of course, it’s not at all like those other ones, because it includes the almost unbelievable detail that Jesus’ healing apparently doesn’t take the first time. In my more irreverent – or, perhaps, more honest – moments, I’ve taken a strange comfort in the knowledge that Jesus seems to mess this one up; the one who was fully God and fully human looks a lot more human than he usually does, after all, in a story where his incredible power doesn’t accomplish Jesus’ goal. At other times, it has just puzzled me: Why the need for a second shot at this healing?
You might be wondering why I’m spending time on a text that isn’t part of what has been appointed for today’s service, especially since there’s plenty in that appointed reading to begin with. Well, as I’ve had occasion to reflect on this week’s text, the story of Peter’s confession, Jesus’ teaching about discipleship, and the incredible scene on the mountaintop where Jesus’ face shines with the glory of God, I’ve become convinced that the story of that healing and the passages that form the basis of today’s service are bound up together. In fact, I think that this curious little story holds the key to understanding the experience of the disciples and the way that we are called to approach the tension between cross and suffering that confronts us on this Transfiguration Sunday.
Jesus asks his disciples a question at turns simple and profound: Who do people say that I am? After rattling off a series of answers, Jesus makes it more personal: But what about you? Who do you say that I am? The answer from Peter may have stunned the rest of the disciples: You are the Messiah! Jesus doesn’t correct Peter, but he does order him and the others to keep that thought to themselves. Why? Because while Peter may have thought he knew what that meant, the reality is that when he looked at Jesus, he wasn’t seeing clearly yet. If he had understood what Jesus was all about, he wouldn’t have been so quick to rebuke Jesus when he started talking about where his mission was going to take him. When it came down to it, Peter was just like the blind man who said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
Six days after Peter’s confession, Jesus takes three of the disciples up a mountain to pray, and suddenly everything is different again. The glory of God shines in the face of Jesus, and the disciples see two of Israel’s greatest figures standing and conversing with their teacher. I’m sure it was an incredible vision, and, on the one hand, it’s hard to fault Peter for his reaction to what was going on in front of them. On the other hand, of course, if Peter had remembered what Jesus had said to him less than a week earlier, he may not have been so quick to suggest that it would be good for them to stay up on the mountain. Once again, Peter was like that blind man, who said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
Perhaps I’ve made my point about the text before us. In the story of that two-stage healing, we see a physical enactment of an idea that would be demonstrated by the disciples throughout the rest of the gospel: that the ability to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry is not a one-time gift, but an on-going process of looking again and reckoning with Jesus’ insistence on challenging his followers, pushing them beyond their pre-conceived notions, and causing them to re-evaluate their priorities in light of the Reign of God.
That’s a powerful thing to consider as we prepare to enter the season of Lent later this week. Today, we revel in the confession of Peter that reveals part of the truth about Jesus’ identity as God’s anointed one, and our minds soar at the thought of Jesus’ beauty and majesty revealed on the mountain. That’s a perfectly natural reaction to these passages and the images they conjure in our minds, and yet that reaction cannot be the end, because in the midst of these images is the far less pleasant – though no less important – teaching about the way of the cross. Jesus’ earliest followers would have interpreted this teaching literally, and with good reason; they were much more likely to face the choice between remaining faithful to Christ and compromising that faithfulness for the sake of self-preservation. Tradition tells us, for example, that almost every one of the Twelve Apostles eventually followed Jesus to suffering and death. That we will likely never face such a choice does not make this teaching any less significant for us. What does it mean to deny self and take up the cross in a world in which literal death is probably not on the table? And what does that have to do with people who look like walking trees?
If the way of the cross doesn’t mean physical death, then it must mean something that cuts to the core of who we are and changes us by God’s grace into people who reflect God’s image more clearly. I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but I’d like to suggest one possibility for how we might think about this. Fr. Richard Rohr, who has taught and lectured for decades on Christian spirituality, has pointed to our human tendency to “create” identities for ourselves. Some of what makes us who we are is given, such as the family we are born into or the places we grow up and have formative experiences. On some level, those things will always be a part of us. Much of our identities, though, stem from our own choices, conscious or unconscious – things like our occupation, the friends we keep, the organizations we belong to, the way we try to present ourselves to other people socially or professionally or otherwise. As you can imagine, all of this is messy, but the overall point is this: that we spend much of our lives creating and defining our own identities. If he’s right about this, then perhaps the way that Jesus’ message about the cross can speak to us is this: If anyone wants to become my disciple, they should deny the self that they have constructed, take up the cross that puts that self to death, and follow Jesus on the path that leads to new life.
The Christian life, then is this: looking at ourselves and letting go of everything that defines us in any way that conflicts with our identity as children of God who bear the name of Christ and the seal of the Spirit and the promise of inheriting the Reign of God. That is the work of Lent, work that intensifies during this season and lasts throughout our whole lives. As we get ready to enter that season, let us pray that we might hold in our minds not only the story of Christ’s transfiguration, but also the story of that blind man who had to take a second look at Jesus to see him clearly. When we do that, perhaps we’ll be aware enough to know when we see people who look like trees walking, so that we can ask God for the second sight that will give us clarity about ourselves and God’s purposes for us. Let it be so among us. Amen.