March 3, 2019 (Transfiguration)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Luke 9:28-36
As Luke describes this mystifying, awe inspiring day on the mountain, he adds a small detail both Mathew and Mark fail to mention. Like the others, Luke tells how Jesus’ appearance changes, and how Moses and Elijah join him. Unlike the others Luke tells us the three discussed Jesus’ departure and his upcoming journey to Jerusalem. Peter, John and James don’t just get to see Jesus transformed into heavenly glory. They witness a literal prophetic council, a planning session to prepare Jesus for the final stage of his ministry. At the end of the meeting, God drops in, claiming Jesus as his own, praising his ministry and calling all those – prophets and disciples alike – to accept his authority.
At times I wonder if the disciples walked around in a constant state of shock. A week before accompanying Jesus onto the mountain, Peter, John and James had witnessed Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only a handful of food. A few days before, Peter had found himself confessing Jesus to be the Messiah – not just a teacher, not just a prophet, but the one – the chosen one who would come from God to redeem his people Israel, who would rescue God’s chosen people from the oppressive hands of their occupiers and reestablish Israel’s rightful place as a leader among the nations. Peter’s confession was so far out there, so beyond what good Jews said in public or even thought, Peter himself might have been surprised when the words left his mouth.
And now Peter finds himself on a mountain. As usual, James and John are with him. Among all the disciples they may have been the closest to Jesus. I’ve always imagined – and this is completely me, its not anywhere in the Bible – I’ve always imagined Peter knew Jesus in Capernum – before the miracles, before the sermons, before the fame and the suffering and the death and the resurrection. Peter, the young fisherman, and Jesus, the carpenter who found a job repairing or building boats. James and John were Jesus’ cousins. Their mother, Salome (also a disciple) was Jesus’ mother’s sister. They’d grown up together, hung out on the beach together, dreamed dreams together, talked late into the night trying to solve the problems of the world. They knew each other – Jesus was a frequent guest at Peter’s house – but this was different. Jesus with Moses and Elijah? Jesus transformed into a heavenly being? God claiming Jesus as his own? Could Jesus be more than a teacher? More than a miracle worker? More than the messiah? Could Jesus actually be God? Or if not God, then a god?
What do you do when you encounter a thought, an idea, a fact, a new reality so out there, so different, so transformative, you’d never even considered it before and if you had considered it you would immediately dismiss it as absurd, or impossible, or just flat wrong?
Jesus tells Peter, John and James to keep what they saw secret. People weren’t ready for it. They couldn’t handle it. Already many who met Jesus dismissed him at best and considered him a threat at worst. His teaching had the potential to undermine the convenient relationship between the Roman occupiers and Jewish authorities. His actions at the potential to undermine the emphasis put upon Torah, the strict keeping of Jewish law.
Often when we are faced with new, radical information our first instinct is to dismiss it or deny it. Its not right, we say. Its against what the Bible teaches. It threatens to undermine our culture or our heritage. Or maybe we decide what we experienced was an anomaly, or maybe it didn’t even happen.
The apostle Paul, upon hearing about Jesus, has this very reaction. These Jews who were following Jesus threatened to corrupt all of Judaism with their talk of Jesus as the Messiah, of resurrection, of the fulfillment of prophetic promises. Paul believed firmly in those promises. And he believed that everyone had to be on the same page, faithfully following scripture, faithfully preserving tradition, or else God would permanently abandon his people. Paul heard the radicalness of Jesus message and knew it – and those following it – must be stopped – even if stopping them meant killing them.
Then Paul has his own transfiguring experience. He meets the light drenched, heavenly Christ and hears the voice of God. At that moment Paul realizes he was wrong. The prophecies and promises had been fulfilled. In fact the very person he was persecuting, the very person who he’d called unbiblical, threatening to his heritage, was the very one promised by scripture, sent to rescue God’s people.
What would you have done? Paul chooses to believe, but struggles with what this means, with how it fits into his life. It’s a full ten years between when Paul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus and when he begins his ministry.
Peter leaves the mountain and immediately gets thrown back into the craziness that was following Jesus. He’s heard Jesus, Moses and Elijah discuss Jesus’ last days, but still he struggles when Jesus announces his suffering. He knew the crucifixion was coming, but is so scared he denies Jesus three times. He has witnessed Jesus glory but is so lost after the resurrection he returns – along with James and John – to the work of fishing. And, as an apostle, he would struggle to understand the radical expansiveness of Jesus’ promise.
At every point of doubt, at every point when Peter just doesn’t get it, Jesus shows utmost patience. He shows the same with Paul. And he shows the same with us. Part of following Jesus is experiencing again and again the radical revelation of Jesus Christ. Often we’re called to hear different voices, understand scripture in a new way, understand God in a new way, minister in new directions, to different people.
Following Jesus means being pushed or pulled out of our comfort zone. Its easy to react by shutting down, by saying “no,” by fighting those who are following Christ in new directions. Or we can remain open, knowing God will be patient with us and give us the time to work things out.