This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we regularly heard voices from the clouds telling us whom to listen to? A big question, of course, is would we listen? Another question is what, exactly, does God want Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, and the rest of us, to listen to?
Obviously, we’re supposed to listen to every word that comes from Jesus’ lips, but it’s worth exploring what prompts the Holy One to make his voice heard in this particular moment. Peter has just said “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings.” The mountaintop experience provides a wonderful context for Peter to do what he does best: be fully human. Peter’s longing to freeze-frame a spectacular moment in time is something most of us can probably relate to.
We can understand Peter even better if we have the whole gospel of Matthew in front of us. Listen to what comes just before this morning’s reading:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised…. [And] Jesus told his disciples, “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.
No wonder Peter wants to build three booths!
Perhaps God is saying “don’t listen to Peter, listen to him.” Listen to what Jesus has been saying about the cross and about being followers. No wonder the disciples are cowering with fear. Conveniently enough, the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are Get up and do not be afraid.
This message, which we hear over and over again throughout scripture out of the mouths of prophets, angels, and saints, is one we love to hear and need to hear. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to get down off the mountain.
The Transfiguration story is one of my favorite scenes in scripture. It’s short, and at the same time packed with special effects and high drama. You could probably tell the whole story in a 2-3-minute YouTube video, which seems to be the magic length that people will actually watch and share with their social networks.
The Transfiguration gives the disciples a visual for the dramatic transformation that Jesus calls for in each one of us. The transformation Jesus calls for in us is what we’ve been hearing about all through Epiphany, Sunday after Sunday. It’s about becoming transfigured into people who love our enemies, who pray for those who persecute us, who give to those who steal from us, who are generous beyond any expectation.
The irony of the Transfiguration story is that while the transfiguration happens in such a mystical, dramatic way with lots of special effects, we can’t experience our own transfiguration into followers of Jesus until we get down off the mountain. Get up, and do not be afraid.
Coming down off the mountain means being willing to follow Jesus to the cross. It means being willing to follow Jesus to places of pain, loss, betrayal, and self-emptying. Coming down off the mountain means being willing to follow Jesus to places of desolation. It means following Jesus into the unknown. Again, no wonder Peter wants to build three dwellings and keep Jesus up there!
What does it mean for the Church, as a body, to come down from the mountaintop? Is Peter perhaps a stand-in for the whole institutional church, and for all the people longing to preserve the Church exactly as it has always been? What if saving our inheritance is not the most important thing about being a gathered community of Christians? What if, instead, we are called, as a community, to leave all that we hold dear, and instead venture into the unknown? What would that look like?
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IToday is what some call “Alleluia Sunday.” This Sunday is the last time we say “Alleluia” until the great alleluia, when we proclaim the resurrection at the Easter Vigil (8 pm, Saturday night, April 23). Before we get to that place, we go on the journey with Jesus to the cross, that frightening, self-emptying, mysterious journey called Lent, which in her wisdom the Church provides for us every year. But first, let us take our alleluias with us as we join the first disciples in going down the mountain, letting go of structure and predictability and safety, turning instead to the new thing to which God is always calling us. Get up, and do not be afraid.