One of the oldest sight gags in the movies is the “Walk this way!” schtick.
In films as varied as “After the Thin Man” and “The Young Frankenstein,” a wobbly butler or a curvy woman or snooty maitre d’ says, “Walk this way!” The comic guest delivers the visual punchline by falling in behind the butler, the woman, or the maitre d’ and mimicking their teetering, swishing, or haughty gait.
The obvious key to the joke is that the comedian hears “Walk this way” to mean “Mimic how I walk” instead of “Follow me in this direction.”
I’m telling you about this old sight gag because it helps to illustrate how the disciples understood what it meant to follow Jesus. Getting our heads around their notion of discipleship will in turn be the key for interpreting the strange and mysterious events on Mount Tabor or what we sometimes call the Mount of the Transfiguration.
As we’ll see, the Transfiguration has much to teach us about discipleship today. Listening to its lessons tells us about the way of dying and rising that is the way of Christ. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back and look first at how the disciples understood their own discipleship.
In Jesus’ day, disciples applied to follow a certain rabbi. And I do mean follow. Literally. It was not only the practice of disciples to listen to lectures or to do homework or to take exams. Disciples followed their rabbis throughout the day in order to learn how they did even the most ordinary things in their lives.
They wanted to walk like him, talk like him, brush their teeth like him, and fold their t-shirts like him. Rabbis weren’t just walking encyclopedia. They had so ingested the Law and the Prophets that their lives embodied God’s teaching. Learning to walk with God involved mimicking the rabbi. Disciples sought to be like the rabbi because the rabbi was God-saturated.
In other words, when he said, “Walk this way!” they would literally teeter or swish or moonwalk like the rabbi as best they could. There are even stories of disciples caught hiding in a rabbi’s bedchamber to see how he slept (and perhaps didn’t sleep) in his most private moments.
Jesus climbed Mount Tabor. Peter, James, and John followed him. Maybe they asked him where they were going. Or why they were taking what may have seemed like a detour. Jesus probably said something snappy like, “Come and see.” “Walk this way.” “Do I what I do and you’ll figure out what it’s all about later.”
These three disciples may have wanted to know where they were going, but their primary focus was to learn from their rabbi in the way that everybody else was learning from their rabbi.
Walk this way.
Do what he does how he does it. This guy has the hang of life in God. He loves God. He loves what God loves. Copy the externals and the inner stuff will follow along eventually. The heart and the head will follow the hands and the feet.
And so Peter, James, and John trudged along to the top of the hill more or less content to get a step by step lesson in perseverance or patience or facing adversity or just keeping fit. At the top of the mountain, they got way more than they had bargained for.
Jesus changes. Into himself. So much himself that he doesn’t seem like himself. Moses and Elijah show up like it was normal for dead people to join you at the camp fire. And then, God speaks. Not in some metaphorical, warming-of-the-heart, an-odd-thought-occurred-to-me kind of way. I mean God spoke. He interrupted Peter’s nervous chatter and put in his two cents worth.
Among the many lessons of this odd event, one is especially crucial for us as we stand at the brink of Lent. Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of what all of this following Jesus is about. Even while they were just barely learning to walk the way of Jesus they caught sight of that way’s very essence.
Let’s go back in the narrative a few verses to get the context of the Transfiguration. Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection. He is the one who will die and rise again. That is his way. And to follow him is to follow him on the way of dying and rising. That’s why he concluded his prediction with these words:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
On Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John catch a glimpse of the risen Jesus. The Jesus who has passed through suffering and death to new life. This new life shines with such brightness that it dazzles the senses and confuses the mind.
But here is the key. It is risen life. It is what it is only by virtue of having passed through suffering and death. This new life includes dying to an old life.
That would all be unsettling enough if it applied only to Jesus. But it doesn’t. What is slowly dawning on Peter, James, and John is that this way of dying and rising applies to them. They have already started walking this way, and now they are starting to see what this way is made of.
If Jesus were offering a life without suffering and death, a life without fear and uncertainty, a life without disappointment, grief, and heartache, then it would be easy to sign on.
But Jesus offers–no Jesus is–a different way. The way of Christ is the way through the real ache of this world. The way of Christ passes through the cross. There are no detours.
It will take more time to unpack what it means to pass through the cross to new life than I have here. I will be spending much of Lent doing precisely that, so tune in this Ash Wednesday and beyond. But there is time to say one brief thing. And perhaps that’s the thing that brought these three disciples to their knees.
The cross is a Roman tool for execution. But it is not merely Roman. It is the anti-God forces at work in this world. Hatred and violence, bigotry and want, predatory loan practices and hunger, barriers to health care and unfair wages, addiction and human trafficking. It is every form of sorrow and degradation and indifference and misery that distorts and debases God’s creation.
Jesus does not promise to give us a pass, to shield us from all that hurts in this world. Instead, Jesus takes up that cross and then says this remarkable thing. Walk this way.
Wherever there is heartache or injustice or oppression, it’s killing somebody. Don’t heave a sigh of relief that it wasn’t you or someone you love or someone you know. Jesus teaches us to feel in our very marrow that when it happens to anyone, it happens to each of us.
That is how Jesus walks. And to each of us, Jesus says, “Walk this way!”