MATTHEW 17: 1-9
It hardly seems possible but as we enter February, we are but days away from Lent and the contemplation of the way of the cross. Our next few weeks will be weeks in which the Passion of Christ is at the centre of our thinking. And indeed today’s Gospel reading is very much in the shadow of the Passion. Only a short while before the event which we shall today consider, there has been a high point and a low point in the understanding of those who travelled with Jesus. The high point has been the declaration of Simon to Jesus;
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
“He’s got it!” we are inclined to shout. And Jesus seems to have shared our pleasure for in response to this momentous declaration, he has told Simon that now he shall be known as Peter which means “Rock.” And amazingly, on this rock, will Jesus build his church.
The low point has been a total misunderstanding of the
Messiahship of Jesus. This has been revealed in Peter’s reaction to what that Messiahship entails. For when Jesus speaks of the imminence of his suffering and death, Peter cannot but rebel at the thought;
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
And for this desire to protect Jesus, Peter has thrown at him by Jesus, one of the great put downs of all time;
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Poor Peter! In practically no time, he has gone from “Hero to Zero.” He must have felt crushed. No doubts about his sincerity but surely a case of being sincerely wrong. And his journey to real understanding would have a lot further to go.
But, however humiliated Peter felt himself to be, Peter was by no means chucked out of Jesus' inner circle. Indeed but six days later, Matthew tells us, Peter along with James and John was taken up a high mountain by Jesus. But this would be no ordinary trip up a mountain. On the contrary, it would be an experience to remember for the rest of their lives! An experience that would take them into a wonder so much greater than could be conceived by the scope of their imaginations! An experience that would be teeming with meaning!
So what happened upon that mountain? Well, they certainly saw Jesus in a way that they had never seen him before. Matthew speaks of Jesus’ face shining like the Sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white. Echoes here are to be found of Moses' face shining after an encounter with God. Oh here, they see that Jesus is so much more than they had hitherto realised - the result being that here was an experience not just of Jesus being transfigured but equally of the three disciples being transformed.
Indeed, the experience is about more than an inexplicable change in Jesus’ appearance. It goes so much deeper than that. Firstly, the disciples see Jesus talking with two venerable figures from the past. How they are able to recognise Moses and Elijah we are not told but that he should be seen as in conversation with these men, is highly significant. After all, Moses was known as the great lawgiver of Israel and Elijah was known as the greatest of the ancient prophets. Matthew’s readers would certainly understand the message contained here, that Jesus represents the completion of the Law and the Prophetic tradition. They would get Matthew’s message that in Jesus the hopes of all the years were finding fulfilment. In Jesus, the story of ancient Israel was finding its true meaning and its ultimate goal.
But further revelation was to come. As James, John and Peter know not what to do, there come a voice from the heavens. In part it echoes the voice from the heavens that was heard at Jesus’ baptism, as it proclaims;
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
But then comes an addition;
“Listen to him!”
I would guess that these words were important to Jesus. Too often we underplay his full humanity in our desire to affirm his divinity. But that humanity is a core part of our Christian doctrine. And that humanity would mean that in tough times, Jesus would need to be able to look back and find assurance to enable him to face those times. As the barbarism of a cross would loom ever closer, he would need to be able find assurance that he was in God’s will - anything less and you turn Jesus into an automaton!
And for Peter, James and John, this message would also be important. Soon they would face despondency as Jesus was taken from them. Soon they would know what it was to take huge risks for the gospel. And in such times, the ability to look back on a moment of assurance, would be invaluable. And invaluable it most certainly was for as we find in the Second Letter of Peter;
“For we received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him (Jesus that is) by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
You see the wonder of this occasion did not leave them. It was a memory to savour as they sought to live out their calling as followers of Jesus. But let us not forget that important as wonder and awe are, so to is the call to listen to Jesus. After all if we do not do so, we end up with a distorted understanding of God who as David Jenkins has reminded us “is as he is in Christ.”
So what of our response? Poor old Peter was reduced, as I guess we would have been, to speaking gibberish. In a way his suggestion to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, represents our tendency to seek to institutionalise religious experiences rather that let them transform us. For always one of the great temptations is to hang on to what feels good to us rather than to engage with real discipleship in a world that is so very often uncomfortable and filled with pain. We need to be fed spiritually to be truly equipped for service but if all we do is to wallow in the good feelings that can be ours, then the call of Christ is rejected and his words are treated as unheard. Jesus and his friends will come down the mountain and immediately encounter a boy who is disturbed and in great need of help. The need of such suffering and marginalised people serve to remind us of the temptation to be so self centred as to be so seemingly heavenly minded as to be no earthly use. After all, in terms of our Christian discipleship, the purpose of the magnificence of the mountaintop is to equip us for service in the valleys.
Now we stand ready for the journey that eventually leads to Calvary. As that journey nears its end, we will see Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane. Once more the same three companions, Peter, James and John, will be taken with him. Once more they will fall short, three times falling asleep while Jesus was praying out of his deep anguish.
The presence of Peter, James and John at these two events of opposing extremes, mountain and valley, reminds us that suffering and glory are intrinsically linked. The follower of Jesus cannot ask for the glory without the self giving for to ask for such is to ask for that which is other than the way of Jesus. Ultimately it is the Crucified Lord who will also be the Glorified Lord.
As for us, well we can cherish what is revealed about Jesus through the accounts of his Transfiguration. We can cherish the varied experiences through which we are taken to the mountain top. But then, our calling is, strengthened by such experiences, to follow Jesus and to serve him even in the lowest valleys.
GAMMATON AND ALVERDISCOTT METHODIST CHURCHES - SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3RD 2008