Monday, March 7, 2011

Eyewitnesses to the Extraordinary

“Peter. … Peter! Wake up Peter! The Master needs us. Time to rise and shine!”

Jolted from deep sleep, I said with a start, “What? Who? John?! What are you… What time is it?”

“What difference does that make, just get up. The Rabbi needs us… now!”

“Spoken like a true morning person. Remember John, some of us can’t just roll out of bed the way you and our Master can.”

“Nonsense, anybody can be a morning person if they want to. Come on, Jesus made it clear last night that he wants to get an early start. We don’t want to be late.”

Like my chipper friend John, our Master Jesus seemed to love the early morning hours. He was up before dawn almost every day, sometimes disappearing from camp for hours, and he had this way of expecting the rest of us to join him more often than I personally liked. John, on the other hand, loved it. Maybe that’s why John would later be known as the one Jesus loved… they had such similar personalities it could be scary sometimes.

I started to get out from under the blankets at this point, shaking off the chill of the early morning, and forcing myself to function at a ridiculously early hour. To John I said, “I’m coming. I’m coming.” All the while I grumbled inwardly. I was definitely not a morning person, but I especially hadn’t slept well after the disturbing conversation the Rabbi and I had yesterday in Caesarea–Philippi.

Yes, Caesarea–Philippi, capital city of Philip’s domain; a region far removed from our home in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee. There, in the looming shadow of a huge rock formation dotted with current and former shrines to the Gentile gods, and in full view of various other temples and shrines past and present, I had proclaimed Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus commended me for my wisdom and proclaimed me, Peter, The Rock on which he would build his Church. He even went on to say that the very Gates of Hades would not prevail against me. But then, not more than a few minutes later, when I started questioning him about the details, he got very upset with me and said: “Get behind me Satan!” Can you imagine the shock I felt? Talk about emotional whiplash!

“Come on Peter. We have to get going!” John’s call shook me from my remembrances.

“I said I’m coming. What’s going on anyway? Where are we going? And why do we have to start so early?”

“I don’t know much more than you do. Just that he wants us ready now.”

“And of course you were more than willing, as always, to be the Rabbi’s messenger.” As John and I walked over to where Jesus was, I couldn’t help but notice that only one other person was standing with him—John’s brother James, the other half of the Sons of Thunder.

“I can’t help it if the Rabbi and I connect in ways that you don’t,” John continued. “Sometimes you just need to think before you speak. Like last night… what were you thinking rebuking the Master that way. I’m glad he set you straight.”

“Oh you just ate that up didn’t you, John! No doubt you took good notes to document my public humiliation. You know very well that I just vocalized what the rest of you were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say.”

At this point we made it over to the others. James looked up from where he was getting his gear together. “Are you two at it again?! I heard you a mile away. Can’t you all go five minutes without squabbling?”

“Top of the morning to you too James. I see you woke up in a lovely mood as always.”

“I’m impressed Peter. You’re upright and dressed before the Sun is up.”

“Look James, don’t you start too.”

“Gentlemen. Can we please not disturb the peacefulness of the morning with all this bickering?” At this point Jesus who had been kneeling tending the fire spoke up. “Are we all ready to go?” He stood up and offered me some bread and fish. “A little early for you I know Peter, but you’d better eat something as we have a long journey ahead of us today.”

“What about the others? Aren’t they coming?”

“Actually, no,” Jesus said glancing over where the other nine disciples were camped out. “They aren’t coming with us today. This journey is just for the four of us.”

As I stood there nibbling on a meager breakfast and still trying to wake up, I looked over my shoulder enviously at the nine that were still sleeping peacefully and halfway wished I was still with them. On the other hand, the Rabbi seemed to have formed a special bond with James, John, and myself, and I kind of liked that. This wasn’t the first time Jesus has taken just the three of us with him on a journey. “So, where are we going today?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

“Mountain climbing,” Jesus replied and motioning toward Mount Hermon looming in the distance, barely visible in the dim light of morning, whose summit was shrouded in fog.

“Come again?!” I said, almost choking on my water and fish. I sometimes glimpsed Hermon’s majestic peaks from afar on clear days while doing my work as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. I never dreamed I would get a chance to see them up close.

“You heard me right. I figured after the past week, we might enjoy a little time away for recreation and reflection.”

Well, that was an understatement; it had been quite a week for me—a physically demanding journey far away from our home to a totally foreign place that culminated in an emotional confrontation that called into question everything I thought I knew about my Master and our mission. So many questions raced through my mind as we set out for Mount Hermon that morning. Everything I thought I knew about who I was and who Jesus was seemed to be up for grabs. I hoped this trip up the mountain might help me gain some clarity.

***** ***** *****

Mountain climbing was certainly a new experience for all of us. Galilean fishermen aren’t noted for their mountaineering skills, though wouldn’t you know Jesus seemed a natural. I always enjoyed new challenges, though, especially physical ones. I had to admit it was a lot of fun. Even John, who was clearly not as much an outdoorsmen as I was, seemed to have a good time—though he still found time to journal at night. I shudder to think about what he might be recording about me.

The climb was pretty strenuous in places, however, and it seemed harder to breathe than it was at sea level where we had spent most of our lives. We put in long days and were exhausted come evening. All the rigorous physical activity was a good release and helped me to forget about all that had happened for a time; but after dark, when things got quiet around the campsite, my thoughts were inexorably drawn back to our exchange in Caesarea–Philippi and all the confusing questions that it had stirred up within me. I so much wanted a chance to talk to the Rabbi about what had happened, but it seemed like every time I tried, either I couldn't find the words or James or John would get talking to Jesus about some seemingly trivial matter.

It wasn’t until well into our expedition that I finally got my chance. We were camped out somewhere a good ways up the mountain. James and John were already sacked out for the evening and Jesus and I were sitting at the campfire as the embers began to fade. It was definitely chilly at this higher altitude. At certain times of year, the higher slopes of Hermon are covered with snow, but tonight’s weather was clear and crisp. The stars shown brightly above and the moon was full, basking the landscape in silvery luminescence.

“You’ve been wanting to say something to me, this whole trip, haven’t you Peter?”

Good grief. I hate it when he does that! I’d been trying to find a way to start this conversation for days, and he beats me to the punch. I should be used to it by now I guess. The Rabbi just had this way about him of knowing exactly what you were thinking at any given moment.

“Come on,” said Jesus, “You usually don’t hesitate to speak and I like that about you. Just tell me what you’re thinking.”

Glancing over, I confirmed that John and James were indeed fast asleep. I wanted this conversation to be off the meticulous official record that John kept for us. Seeing the telltale rise-and-fall of John’s snoring I felt more at ease to speak. “It’s just that, for once, I’m… I’m not sure what to say. I mean… it’s all a bit confusing.”

“You’re talking about what happened down in Caesarea–Philippi aren’t you?”

“Of course I am! Master, that whole day has a surreal quality to me. It was kind of like a dream that turned into a nightmare. I felt like I was exalted one minute and then humiliated the next. It just felt like you used me to teach a lesson… I… I have so many questions.” I picked up a stick and fiddled around trying to stoke the flickering flames. I couldn’t really bring myself to look at him directly.

Jesus did not rush to try and defend himself. He simply did what he always did when one of his students talked to him—he listened to us as if we were the most important person in the world. I knew it was safe to continue to speak frankly with my teacher and friend. “I’m just confused, Rabbi! I mean… I’ve wracked my brain over this the past week. If I was right the other day and you really are the Messiah—the liberating king we’ve been expecting for centuries—then I can’t reconcile how your death can be part of the plan? How can you liberate us if you yourself are killed? It just doesn’t make sense to me! I know you got upset when I questioned you, and I’m sorry for being so disrespectful to you in public, but I just don’t get it.”

“Peter you get it more than you realize, and more than most of the others. That’s why I chose you to come on this journey. You weren’t wrong about who I am and I wasn’t confused or conflicted when I named you The Rock.”

I was confused and agitated. “Then why did you call me Satan the other day?! I mean I have to tell you, that hurt. How can I be The Rock and Satan at the same time?”

“I know what I said sounded harsh, and I don’t like hurting your feelings. But I also knew that you have inner strength of character to get past your surface feelings and hear what I’m really saying to you. You see Peter, just as rocks grow stronger with time, God is still molding you, and there are some imperfections that need to be removed before you can fulfill your destiny. Right now you are still soft and pliable like the stone in those caves down below through which the waters flow. But just as rocks grow stronger when they are exposed to heat, the forge of life will strengthen you. In time you will be as strong as the bedrock that holds up this very mountain. Then, my words will be proven true—not even the Gates of Hades will prevail against you.”

I was still having trouble taking all this in, and Jesus could tell. He stood up and grabbed me by the shoulders looking me directly in the eyes. “Peter, you have such potential within you; I’ve seen it since the day I called you from your fishing nets along the Sea of Galilee to follow me and become a fisher of men. But you struggle to believe in me and in what God can do through you. You are still young, rash, and impulsive and you’ve got a lot of pre-conceived notions of who the Messiah should be that need to be purged before you’ll be able to see me as I really am. For now, all I’m asking of you is to be open to seeing things in a new way. Let me lead you where you need to go even if it’s not where you want to go. Don’t be afraid if the territory is different from what you’re used to; remember, I’m always with you on the journey. You’ve only seen glimpses of the Kingdom so far; you still have much to learn before you’re ready. Don’t rush to claim your glory; don’t try to force things. Walk in step with me and with God. Don’t grow impatient and try and take control and assume you know the story should end. Trust me, you can't imagine how this story ends. It’s beyond your wildest dreams.”

As I looked into Jesus’ eyes, those eyes that seemed like they pierced your very soul, I felt a sense of peace. I was still confused, but on a deeper level, I was feeling better. “Master, I’m glad you have such faith in me and I hope I will not disappoint you. It’s just so hard to understand all of this… I just wish I could get some sort of clarity about how all of this was going to play out…”

“It’s late, Peter, we should get some sleep. Maybe things will seem clearer by morning.”

As was typical when you talked with the Rabbi, our conversation ended as abruptly as it started, and I was left to ponder what Jesus said to me as I drifted off to sleep bathed in the light of the full moon above.

***** ***** *****

“Peter! Peter! Wake up! You definitely want to see this.”

Roused from sleep yet again I exclaimed, “Oh!! Not again! John... Will you please let me sleep a little longer for once?!”

“Peter! He’s right. I think you do need to see this.” Wait, James was standing there looming above me too? Experience tells me that while one could ignore one of the Sons of Thunder, it was almost impossible, and usually unwise, to ignore them both. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I found myself shielding from what seemed like noonday brightness. Gosh, had I slept that long?

And that’s when I saw what they both were talking about. There, not more than a hundred feet away was Jesus standing and conversing with two other people. I wasn’t sure who I was looking at, but John knew and he whispered to me. “The one with the long beard is Moses… and if I’m not mistaken the other wiry looking fellow is Elijah the Prophet.”

I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing clearly. I even pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming but I was seeing all this with my waking eyes. As the three of us stood there dumbfounded, we all saw Jesus in a way we had never seen him before; it was as if he changed before our eyes. It became clear that the source of the bright light was not the Sun but Jesus himself. Bright light was pouring from his face and illuminating the entire area around us. The very clothes he wore became pure white.

I started to say something, but John cuffed my mouth. “Peter! Just be quiet for once and listen. I want to hear what they are saying.” He was sitting there, scroll and stylus in hand. Good grief! Did he sleep with that thing?! But even I had to admit it might be good to document this event, and John was nothing if not thorough.

We couldn’t hear everything that was said but heard enough to know that they were conversing about some major event that was going to take place in Jerusalem and Jesus was going to be involved. We heard them use the word exodus to describe it—which means departure. So Jesus was getting ready to depart some time soon? Where was he going…? Then, in an instant my mind flashed back to our conversations down at Caesarea–Philippi and then last night. I began to connect the dots and I was overwhelmed with emotion.

I couldn’t contain myself any longer; James and John tried to restrain me but there was no doing that at this point. I ran over to where the three men were. "Master, this is a great moment! I think I see what you meant now… well… kind of. What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?"

Just then a cloud of light enveloped all of us and it was as if the very essence of who God is that traveled was with our people all throughout history rested upon us in that moment. And if that wasn’t enough, we heard a voice speak from within the cloud saying, "This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him."

You can imagine in that moment we are all terrified. (It’s funny how when God shows up, we mortals are often scared to death.) I hadn’t realized it, but the voice had startled me so much that I buried my face in the ground. But Jesus took me by the hand, helped me to my feet, and said, “Don’t be afraid Peter.” When I looked up, the other two men were gone and only Jesus was standing before me. His face still glowed with an otherworldly quality.

He hugged me close, and as he did he whispered in my ear, “Now, my friend, you have a glimpse of how the Story ends. But trust me, there’s much more that you need to see before you know the whole story.” He didn’t say anything more. He walked over to where James and John were huddled on the ground and said something to each of them no doubt assuaging their fears as well.

***** ***** *****

As we walked down off Mount Hermon together, we were all fairly quiet and introspective. Jesus told us, “There will come a time for you to proclaim to the whole world what you saw here today, but for now let’s keep it between us. You’ll know when the time is right.” We each pondered in our hearts what that night had meant to us and tried to make sense of what Jesus was telling us. I don’t think any of us fully understood the significance of what had happened until much later, after Jesus was raised from the dead—in a sense the end of the Story Jesus spoke of, but in another, just the beginning.

I for one still don't know quite what happened near the summit of Hermon that night. I would guess that the three of us would each describe the details of that night differently but I think we all agree that we were eyewitnesses to something extraordinary. In that moment heaven touched earth. I truly believe I saw Moses and Elijah with my own eyes, and I definitely saw Jesus in a new way up on that mountain. For the first time I knew beyond knowing that Jesus was in fact the Messiah—the Son of God. I had answered Jesus correctly down in the city, but before I answered with my head, and now I could answer with both my head and my heart. At the time, I don’t think I fully grasped how important that night was for our future. Looking back, however, it was a real turning point for us. From that day forward, we began to see Jesus for who he really was, rather than who we wanted him to be.

In time I came to realize that Jesus was indeed our liberating king, but he wouldn’t set us free by leading a military uprising against the Romans. Instead he would set us free by becoming a suffering servant for all of us—Jews and Gentiles alike. We began to realize that, like Jesus, we would have to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of our faith. It became clear to us in retrospect that Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him was meant to be more than just another political slogan; it needed to become a daily reality for those of us who followed Him. We realized that we cannot truly stand upon the mountain of God until we pass through the valley with Jesus.

After our journey to the mountain we would return to the other nine disciples and head back home to Galilee to continue our ministry. Soon enough we were immersed in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the oppressed and poor, and so forth. The demands of our daily life were as hard as ever and I certainly had moments where I was reminded that I was still a work in progress—where I felt more like Satan than I did The Rock. We returned home to even more religious and political upheaval over our ministry that would eventually lead to our Master’s arrest and crucifixion by the Romans. But through it all, we had a renewed sense of purpose that sustained us and kept us going forward. We knew we were walking in the footsteps of our teacher and friend—Jesus—and that we each had an important role to play right now. I was committed to stick with Jesus to the end and to do all I could to embrace the essence of who God had made me to be. Though God was still shaping me every day, I was indeed The Rock just as Jesus had said, and along with the other disciples, I would help to spread the Gospel to Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.

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