Transfigura(shhhh, don’t tell anyone) – Chad Wright Pittman

Chad Wright PittmanThe Transfiguration of Christ in Mark 9 is a really tough passage for me for two reasons. The first reason is that, in one sense, it is so foreign. It contains mystical imagery… a voice from within a cloud, robes that are blindingly white, and the reappearance of Moses and Elijah, at least one of whom I’m pretty sure was supposed to have died earlier in the story…

And on the other hand it is so very familiar. In many churches, it is read at least yearly… right before Lent. And growing up in the Baptist church, it was a staple at the end of a mission trip or a retreat to remind us, not to long for pitching our tents and remaining on top of the mountain… right?… “And as we come back down from this mountain-top experience let us remember…” Then there’d be a time of commitment and an altar call that would end with about thirty verses of “Just as I am… without one plea” but maybe that’s just me…

And honestly, I think that’s a fine interpretation of this passage, but today I can’t help but focus on one particular part…

Let’s step away from the divine halftime show, (complete with the resurrection of performers whose prime has long passed… and a fog machine) and let’s look a little more deeply into a peculiar thing that Jesus says to the disciples, which may not be as weird as it sounds the first time you hear it.

.   .   .   .

Here it is in verse 9: “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves”

That’s weird, isn’t it? … Jesus has just revealed his divine identity to a few of his followers and had a disembodied voice proclaim him a beloved son, (for the second time nonetheless) and he says, now don’t tell anybody!

Don’t tell anybody?

Isn’t the beloved divinity of Christ good news?

Shouldn’t we tell everyone?

.   .   .   .   .

This is actually a theme throughout the book of Mark. After healings Jesus tells people not to say anything. He commands the demons to be silent because they know who he is. Jesus keeps his identity under wraps.

Just a few verses earlier in chapter 8, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

“You’re the messiah,” Peter answered…

And then Jesus (as the NRSV puts it) “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

It’s certainly not a rousing rendition of ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain”…

It’s referred to as the “messianic secret” and I’ve heard many explanations for it… But none of them have ever really sat well with me. I’ve heard everything from crowd control to reverse psychology offered as reasons for Christ’s secrecy in Mark, but frankly I can’t buy them… none of them helped me to read the Gospel…

Until one day when I heard a podcast on cyber security and the NSA…

.   .   .   .   .

One of the interviewees on this particular podcast was a hacker/activist, (or a “hacktivist” if you’re hip to the lingo) who also worked on encryption software to protect text messages and emails from being read by outside parties. His particular beef is with cell phone companies, the government and of course, the NSA. There was a lot of jargon thrown around which went over my head, but what caught my attention was when the interviewer began probing him on the importance of privacy and secrets. He waxed philosophical at first saying that all productive and egalitarian societies need privacy for creativity to flourish. He said,“It’s the reason we only dance around naked in our bedrooms. It’s the reason our best ideas happen in the shower… creativity and growth need privacy,”

The interviewer was still skeptical and pressed the hacktivist asking, “Doesn’t someone only need privacy from the government if they’re doing something wrong?” he said. “If they’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s the problem?”

I perked up, because I had the same question. I have said that same thing before to friends of mine . . .

There was a very telling pause. You could almost hear the hacker shaking his head in dismay…

“People don’t get it,” he said. “The only people who don’t need privacy are people who are maintaining the status quo. The people who the system is designed to serve, the people it works for… of course they don’t need secrets, they don’t need change.”

.   .   .   .

That statement has stayed with me, and really challenged me, and I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first a bit about literary genres.

.   .   .   .

There’s a particular genre of literature that this passage in Mark is invoking. It’s reminiscent of some of the later Hebrew Scriptures, and even some of the Greek New Testament. The talk of bright lights, white clothing, and clouds are reminiscent of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, all within the genre of Apocalypse. And the thing about apocalyptic literature is that, pretty much across the board, people who found themselves violently oppressed were the ones who wrote it.

It comes out of a particular context, and that context was from the perspective of people whose culture, way of life, and often very being were threatened by the powers of their day. These oppressive conditions didn’t allow for transparency, for vulnerability, for being openly who you are, because for oppressed people, the dominant culture views you as a threat — as dangerous, deviant, invasive, or less than human.

.   .   .   .

I don’t know that I’ve ever been threatened by the powers of my day… honestly. I got a speeding ticket once…

The other day I got a piece of glass from my cracked iPhone screen in my thumb… it’s super annoying… and it’s probably the biggest threat to my being I’ve faced in a while…

I’m half-joking, of course, but what I mean to say is that as a white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian male, this society was built for me…

it’s no wonder that I don’t understand the messianic secret…

it’s no wonder I have such a tough time understanding Jesus…

it’s no wonder I have such a tough time reading Revelation or Paul…

I am the status quo. It is not very difficult for me to be my true self because my true self is fully recognized by our society, and this has always been true for me. But for far, far too many people in this world, that is not the case. Who they are at their very core has not been recognized and upheld by the structures of our world.

I had always thought that everyone should just be vulnerable all the time, and no one should have any secrets… no secrets, ever! But I’m challenged by this biggest of secrets, this messianic secret…

Which brings me back to Jesus….

Why would Jesus keep his divinity secret? Why would he only reveal himself to Peter, James, and John? Why not the rest of the disciples? Why not to the whole world?

The answer, I think, is that Jesus’s identity… who he is at the very core of his being… challenges the structures of society. The people who upheld the status quo would’ve seen Christ as a threat. Christ, to them, is dangerous and deviant. Revealing his true self to everyone, except on his own time, may have proved his ultimate downfall.

So Jesus chooses to give a glimpse of his divinity to his few closest disciples…

In the book of Esther we see an example of a biblical heroine who, for fear of death, has to keep her identity hidden until “such a time as this.” Who are the people in our society who have to keep their identities hidden? And how can we make the world a safer place for them?

“The only people who don’t need privacy,” said the hacker “are people who are maintaining the status quo. The people who the system is designed to serve, the people it works for… of course they don’t need secrets, they don’t need change.”

The challenge for us, I think, is this: to understand that there are people in this world who are not able to be fully themselves, and therefore there remains a hiddenness, a secret to their very being. I think this might be true for all of us on some level…Yet we, through the revelation of Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, continually work toward the ultimate revelation, where all will be free. We hope for the day when we can be fully ourselves, while allowing and equipping others to be completely themselves.

  • Grace and Peace

 

Chad Wright Pittman is: a serial optimist. A husband. A musician. An artist. A seminarian at Columbia Theological Seminary. A candidate with the Presbytery of South Louisiana. I’m here on earth to build community and bring glory to God. I fail frequently.

2 comments to Transfigura(shhhh, don’t tell anyone) – Chad Wright Pittman

  • Fran Mitchell

    I appreciate and agree with your concepts. I do think that even those of us that the system is designed to serve need a sense of privacy to feel free. Even when we don’t encounter conflict there are times that my thoughts/feelings need to be free to wander. Often I wish for more private moments to reflect and learn more about me and the God I serve. I am not young (as you know) but this ongoing seeking and serving can get exhausting. Therefore I am thankful for those moments when no one knows and my mind can be free.

  • Rev. Dennis Allen Colwell

    Chad (Mr. Status Quo):

    I am totally blown out of the water by your article. I have read it several times since your Mom posted the link on FaceBook. Your grandfather would have been so frickin’ proud of you . . . he probably wouldn’t have understood the article, but he would have tears rolling down his face with pride, anyway! Your Mom’s parents were a very, very special part of my life for the fifteen years I spent at FBC, G-burg. I had contact with both of them every single day during that period of time.

    Back to the article . . . “The Messianic secret”. Sounds like a good title for Dan Brown’s next novel. I appreciate the tenets you offer, and will enjoy pondering them. Being a somewhat “marginalized” Christian for my entire life, I think I am relating to “those who have to keep their identities hidden”.

    “The people who the system is designed to serve, the people it works for… of course they don’t need secrets, they don’t need change.”

    Sounds like the Southern Baptist manifesto. I’ve been in Church work in one way or another for many years. When I look back, I am ashamed at my part of perpetuating the “Good Old Boys’ Club” of structured Church work. If given a second chance, I hope I would blow the doors off the closet and the organized Church at the earliest opportunity, and get my butt busy doing the real work of Christ in the world that so sorely needs that very Christ.

    Be well, Chad. I’ve followed you and Erin (in a good way!) since the day you were born.

    Blessings!

    Dennis
    (I was staff minister and organist at FBC G’burg for many years.)