Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
February 14, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Watch here: (TLC Worship Service 2/14/2021)
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
It’s easy to pick on Peter: impulsive, headstrong, outspoken Peter. At times so bold in the faith, and yet at other times rebuked by Jesus for getting it wrong. Perhaps, on the other hand, you relate to Peter? So human in his attempts to follow Jesus.
In Mark, in the story right before the Transfiguration Story Peter rebuked Jesus! Peter said it was wrong for Jesus to be teaching that Jesus must undergo great suffering, be rejected and arrested and finally killed. In response, Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to Peter, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
It’s easy to read this Transfiguration Story as yet another example of a way Peter got it wrong. His suggestion, in response to experiencing the glory of God and the presence of Moses and Elijah, to build, as the NRSV puts it “three dwellings” for the holy men of faith, to make the moment last, was dismissed.
While it’s easy to pick on Peter, what if we imagined for a moment, that Peter wasn’t necessarily wrong in his reaction to the mountain? Admittedly, his advice was not accepted, in fact, it was ignored – no dwellings were built and they did not stay on the mountain. Nor, however, was it outright rejected – Peter did not face a rebuke from Jesus in a second story in a row.
What if we applied Martin Luther’s teaching on the 8th Commandment to Peter? In his explanation of the 8th Commandment, always good and important guidance for all of us, Luther taught we fulfill the 8th Commandment [to not bear false witness against our neighbor] when we “come to our neighbor’s defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
Might we interpret Peter’s response in the best possible light? In so doing, might we draw fresh meaning from our annual journey upon this transfiguration mountaintop?
Before we do that, I think two other details of this Transfiguration story should be highlighted.
One of those details is pointed out by Theologian Deborah Krause. She sees in the Transfiguration Story, and in particular the voice that speaks in the cloud, part a progression in the witness of Jesus Christ. She reflects on the relationship with the voice on the mountain with the voice at Jesus’s baptism, and a voice at Jesus’s crucifixion.
- In Jesus’s baptism a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The voice confers identify upon Jesus and intimacy with him.
- On the mountain of the transfiguration, a voice from the cloud speaks to Peter, James, and John: “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” The voice again confers authority, but this time it is a public voice spoken to the disciples.
- And at the cross, after Jesus died, the voice comes from the Roman Centurion, a Gentile, who after Jesus died on the cross said, “Truly this man was God’s son!” The voice from a Gentile outsider reveals that Jesus’s identity is known by the world in his death on the cross.
This insight helps us see the Transfiguration Story, for as bright and brilliant and dramatic as it was, was not the culmination of the ministry of Jesus, but a step along the way. It revealed an identify of Jesus as the Son of God, bathed in glory, superior to the giants of the faith: Moses & Elijah … but it was not the complete revelation, it did not tell the full story. The full revelation of who Jesus was would come about on the cross.
The other detail worth noticing, is the significance of the presence of Elijah and Moses on mountain. Some scholars suggest that in Moses we see the law, and in Elijah we see the prophets – and therefore Jesus we see the fulfillment of the law & prophets. Building on this, another commentator sees in our read of the law and prophets, in our read of the scriptures, the glory of Christ revealed. Of course, another scholar suggests the presence of Elijah and Moses could also just point to the fact that the revelation of God has been revealed on mountaintops. Their presence on the mountain signifying that was a dramatic teaching – the teaching in the voice from the cloud that indeed, this Jesus was the Son of God, to whom we should listen to.
With those points acknowledged, now back to Peter.
What Peter did in that moment, was respond in the best way he could, to what he was experiencing. Theologian Stephen Cook proposes the moment Peter might have had in mind was the story from the Book of Numbers, the 11th Chapter. In that story, Moses has had enough of leading the grumbling groups of Israelites in the wilderness. To share the burden of leadership, Moses invited 70 elders to join him at the tent of meeting. When they were all gathered there, a cloud came upon them – perhaps the same cloud Peter, James, and John experienced on the Transfiguration Mountain. In that cloud was also a voice, just as there was a voice in the cloud with Moses and the 70 elders. And what that voice did back in Moses’ day, was to take some of the spirit of leadership that had been placed upon Moses, and place it upon the 70 elders.
All of this happened in a tent of meeting. And so perhaps Peter had this in mind. On another mountain, in another cloud, in another voice from heaven, Peter probably thought history was repeating itself: the spirit of leadership was being shared by Jesus with Peter, James, and John, just like it had been shared in Moses day with the 70 elders. Cook writes: “Peter surely envisions himself as a new appointee of God. His verbiage points to his desire to be consecrated with power and might at a tent of meeting, just as Moses’ officials were.”
Maybe Peter was not rebuked by Jesus, because there was a kernel of truth in Peter’s response – indeed the spirit of the living Christ would be shared with the Peter, James, and John, and ultimately with the whole Church. The problem for Peter, however, was he had the right idea, at the wrong time. “Peter’s assumptions prove wrong,” writes Cook, “because he is leaving out the cross of Christ, the epitome of God’s plans to manifest the divine glory.”
Peter was not rebuked, but he and the other disciples were silenced. “As they were coming down the mountain,” we read in Mark 9:9, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
The spirit of Christ, the burden of leadership, would indeed be shared with Peter, but that sharing would not come from the glory of the mountaintop, it would be shared from the glory of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and his resurrection from the tomb.
So, what if instead of focusing on what Peter got wrong, what if we focus on the truth, that indeed, the spirit of Christ would be shared with Peter, and more importantly, is also shared with us! And what if we recognized, that while the glory of God is revealed in mountaintop experiences, the full revelation of Jesus Christ, and our call into discipleship, is only known in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the grave?
What this means for theologian Miriam Schmidt, is that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we recognize God’s work among us. “This is God’s work,” she writes,“to make each and all of us baptized children into a holy community … This is God’s work: to turn a random assortment of sinners into the church that welcomes the stranger, feeds the hungry, and speaks good news to those who are tearing their clothes in grief … This is God’s work: to transfigure us into a dwelling place for the crucified and risen Christ.” [End quote]
What this means for the musicians who composed today’s Hymn of the Day, a new hymn found in the new Lutheran hymnal “All Creation Sings” is that we receive the Spirit of Christ in our work for “justice, mercy, and compassion: these the booths he bids us build,” the composer writes, “that the earth he loves may flourish, as each life with grace is filled.”
What I believe this means for us today, is that a life of faith is not about chasing mountaintop experiences. Rather, a life of faith is about recognizing the glory of Christ revealed in sacrificial love and service all around us. We receive the life of Christ, and the responsibility of leadership, in love directed for the neighbor, in self-emptying love, the kind of love seen in parents caring for children, in workers putting in an honest day’s work, in advocates standing against racism, oppression and injustice.
The Good News today, is indeed, that Jesus and the disciples came down off the mountain. The Good News, is that God’s Son to whom the disciples were invited to listen to on the mountain, would ultimately speak God’s love for the world, by his death on a cross. The Good News is that journey down from the mountain and to the cross was for us, that journey was for our neighbors, that journey of Christ was for the world.
Along with Peter, may the Holy Spirit grant you the eyes of faith to see how the Spirit of Christ is being poured out upon us today.
Along with Peter, may the Holy Spirit invite us to follow Christ to the cross, and there, to see the full glory of God.
Along with Peter, may the Holy Spirit grant us the faith and courage to be a dwelling place for God, that others may see in us the glory of Christ in our sacrificial, self-emptying, and bold love for the world.
Indeed may it be so.