Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany
Of the twelve disciples named in the gospels, Peter is one of the very few whose personality really comes through. You can get some sense of Thomas, but mostly on account of his doubts. There are a good number of comments made regarding the character of Judas Iscariot, but even those don’t give you much of a sense of who he really was. There are glimpses of James and John, but we know almost nothing of Philip and Bartholomew, much less James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, or Simon the Zealot. But Peter? The gospel writers all give us a fair bit on him, and for all that he will eventually fail Jesus on the night of his arrest, it is rather difficult not to like the guy.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
He’s an enthusiastic disciple to be sure; the one who will leap out of the boat and attempt to walk on the water, and who—at least in John’s telling—will pull out a sword and try to protect Jesus from the soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus will stop him and tell him to sheath that sword, at which point Peter does run away like a scared rabbit, but I suppose that tells something of his personality too. He’s a fisherman by trade, and I think you see this reflected in the sort of work-a-day practicality that surfaces from time to time in the narratives. Peter strikes me as a “don’t just stand there; do something” kind of character, perhaps nowhere more strongly than in this gospel account of the transfiguration.
The incident is placed by Mark more or less at the midpoint of his gospel account, and for all the time they spent with Jesus as their teacher and mentor, up to this point the disciples seem rather clueless as to who it is they are really following. As the musician Nick Cave writes in his introduction to Mark, “Even His disciples, who we would hope would absorb some of Christ’s brilliance, seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene with little or no comprehension of what is going on.” Not that tonight’s story marks their emergence from the fog—it is only in light of the resurrection and through the gift of the Holy Spirit that that will finally happen—and in fact it is after Peter, James and John have had this strange experience and after they’ve all heard Jesus speak of his impending death that he’ll catch them arguing over which one of them is the greatest disciple.
You’d imagine that the sort of experience shared by Peter, James and John would have at least knocked those kinds of trivial questions out of their heads, but apparently not. And it is quite an experience that is recounted here by Mark, isn’t it? He tells us that Jesus took just those three disciples, “and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” The word is metemorphothe, from which we get the word “metamorphosis” and which means transformed or changed. “[A]nd his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”
Now this is not exactly what you’d call an everyday occurrence. Not only does Jesus seem to be literally overflowing with light, he is standing in the company of two of the greatest figures in the story of God’s people. Moses, who’d lived 1200 years earlier and who had led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to Mount Sinai where on their behalf he had received the torah; the covenant by which this people was now to live life. Elijah, the great prophet who’d lived in the ninth century before Christ, and who was expected to again return to Israel to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God. And now these three disciples bear witness as their teacher stands in the presence of these figures who represent the law and the prophets; more than just standing with them, in fact, he’s in conversation with them.
No, so not an everyday occurrence, although as N.T. Wright suggests it is “an event in which the deepest significance of everyday reality suddenly and overwhelmingly confronted Peter, James and John.” You don’t see it everyday, Peter, but that light is always present in Jesus. You don’t see it everyday, James and John, but his life is one with Moses and Elijah—his life is in conversation with, and a fulfillment of, the great tradition of torah and prophet.
And here is where Peter’s personality comes through. “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” Don’t you love that? They are in the midst of a shared mystical experience, in which their normal way of seeing the world has been lifted and they can see something of what is really going on—they can finally see something of who it is they have been following all of this time—and the best thing Peter can come up with is a suggestion to build three shelters? He can’t just stand still and let the experience sweep over him… he’s got to get busy, use his hands, and do something.
Mark’s editorial comment here is that, “Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” which was no doubt true. I wonder, though, if he was also expressing something that is rather a common human impulse, namely to want to hold and preserve the moment. The three dwellings might help to extend this experience, but more significantly the three structures would mark the location, and mark it as holy, much as Jacob had marked the place of his visionary encounter with God by placing a stone and pouring oil over it. (Gen 28:18) Maybe at some level Peter wanted to set up that kind of a marker to commemorate and almost hold in place the experience.
That’s not a bad instinct you realize. We mark graves, partly so people can go back, read the name, and remember. This church building if filled with markers; dedication plaques, windows given in memory of someone, even the flags which were hung not to celebrate military victory but to remember all that was lost in those wars. The building itself is a kind of a marker too; built specifically for people to gather to pray and worship and share in the bread and wine of eucharist; built, in short, as an expression of the holy. And it is for those very reasons that most of us like this space, right?
Yet the transfiguration experience will not be held, commemorated or marked in that way. No sooner had Peter made his suggestion to start building those structures than “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” And then just as suddenly as it had all begun, it was over. “Suddenly,” Mark tells us, “when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”
What do you suppose it was that they had experienced there on that mountain? In the words of N.T. Wright, “as the similar experiences of mystics in various ages and cultures would suggest, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, in the way that music transforms words that are sung.” Those three disciples saw that; they experienced their teacher as being the utterly beloved Son of God. Extraordinary.
And what were they to do with that experience? For a time, nothing. “As they were coming down the mountain,” Mark tells us, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which suggests to me that Jesus knew that until they seen the full story right to its bitter and then beautiful end, they wouldn’t be able to talk about this experience without messing it up. They’d tell some version of it, and it would get twisted and distorted or become a source of jealousy among those other nine disciples or a source of false pride for these three. Don’t even talk about it. Not yet. For all that you’ve just seen and experience, you really don’t have a clue.
And what are we to do with it? Well, maybe we let ourselves be informed by the absurdity of the whole “I’ll build three dwellings for you” episode, both to recall us to a sense that sometimes just standing there is more important that doing something, and as a reminder that that even our grandest commemorative edifices and the sacred spaces built with human hands are only provisional. This space is wonderful, but were it to fall down tomorrow God would be no less able to hear our prayers or to meet us in the breaking of the bread. In fact sometimes the best thing that can happen to God’s people is for their treasured edifices to fall down; but that’s a whole other sermon.
I think finally the thing we most need to do with this story is to hear the words which Peter, James and John heard: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” And then day by day, week by week, be about doing that. Listen to him, in the words of the gospels, in the act of breaking bread together, and in the words and faces of those we encounter along the way who will speak his word to us… sometimes in the most surprising of ways.