Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 19, 2023
Matthew 17:1-9 “A Letter From Peter”
In the second letter attributed to Peter that we find in the New Testament, he talks about the Transfiguration. He says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him 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” (2 Peter 1:16-21). Scholars generally agree that Peter didn’t actually write the letters attributed to him, but they do believe the letters accurately convey what Peter was teaching the people about Jesus. These letters were his testimony. So, we know that Peter was still talking about his experience on that mountaintop all those years later.
Instead of a typical sermon on the Transfiguration, I have instead tried to put myself into Peter’s place as he looked back on that moment. What I have written, using the story of the Gospels to add a bit to my understanding of Peter, is my best imagination of what he looked back on and what he learned. Of the story he told. Written in today’s vernacular, this is how I imagine Peter told the story of the Transfiguration to those who were willing to listen:
I really didn’t know what I was seeing. Even now, all these years later, I am not sure I know what happened. But, I do know something…something extraordinary happened. And whatever it was has sustained me through the troubles and the joys of everything that happened next. So, I want to tell you about it.
Before it happened, we were ministering to everyone we encountered. Our Lord was healing and teaching and feeding and giving the people hope like they had never experienced before. It was an extraordinary time and I didn’t want it to end. While were were journeying, the Lord would often ask us questions, testing us to see if we understood what was happening. One day, he asked us if we understood who he was. I spoke before thinking, which usually got me in trouble, but this time it worked in my favor. I said to him, “You are the Messiah.” I was the first to say it, I was the first to believe, and the Lord was thrilled. He was so glad that someone understood it, that I understood who he was and why he was doing all that he was doing. The Lord blessed me and called me his rock for that answer I gave. He said he would build his church upon my rock.
I have to admit, I was walking around pretty high and mighty after that. I mean, of all the people who were following him, of all the disciples who had, like me, given up everything, I was the one he had chosen. I thought that was because I had it all figured out. I thought that was because I knew the answers. I thought I would be his right-hand man, and that when we entered the gates of Jerusalem and threw over the Roman Empire, I would be the one he told the secrets of God to, and I would offer my counsel as we built together the new world. It was going to be glorious. But, then the Lord started to break apart my vision.
He started to tell everyone that when we got to Jerusalem, he was going to be killed. He also said that he would be raised again in three days, but back then, back when I thought everything was only going to get better, I didn’t pay any attention to that. I just heard him tell people that he was going to be killed. And all I could hear was him killing all of my hopes and dreams. I started to get angry with him. I wanted him to stop saying those things, to stop ruining this beautiful future that I had planned out in my head. So, one day, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I pulled the Lord aside and told him to cut it out. I told him that God would not allow that to happen. I thought I knew. I mean, the Lord himself had told me I was blessed when I said I knew he was the Messiah. He called me his rock and said I would help build the future. If anyone was qualified to tell him that he needed to stop being so pessimistic, it was me. Boy, was I wrong.
No sooner than I had spoken did the Lord remind me that speaking before thinking usually got me in trouble. He called me Satan. He told me I was a stumbling block – not a rock to build the future upon, but a rock that tripped people up. It felt like in one moment I was demoted from his righthand man to the person who was causing all of the trouble that he had to deal with. Talk about a blow to the ego.
He went on to tell me, all of us, that in order to follow him we had to let go of our ideas of some perfect future in which he ruled the people and everyone just fell in line. He said we had to let go of our human ideas of what God’s Kingdom looked like. He told us we would suffer. And even though God would be on our side, it was still going to be hard.
You see, this isn’t what we thought the Messiah was going to do. We thought the Messiah would destroy all of our enemies and take his place on the throne of Jerusalem. We thought everyone who opposed us would be destroyed and the world would be a place that we controlled. We couldn’t understand back then what was to come and how long the journey would be. We couldn’t understand back then that the Lord did not come to rule with a sword, but instead to beat all of the swords into plows. Back then we still wanted to destroy all that got in our way, but he wanted to cultivate a future in which no one would want to destroy anyone or anything.
So, I was sad and I was angry. And, I have to admit, I still wondered if maybe he was just testing us. I wondered if maybe he was lowering expectations so when all that I planned on did happen it would be that much better. I told him I was listening to his teachings, and I even convinced myself that I was, but in reality, looking back all these years, I know I wasn’t. I let him tell me one thing while I continued to assume something else entirely. I was sure I was right. Wow, the arrogance.
But, then it happened. The Lord took me, James and John, to a mountaintop. Just us. He didn’t tell us why we were going, or why it was just us. I have to admit, my arrogance got a little stronger. Maybe I was still the rock. I mean, why would Jesus take a stumbling block with him. But once we got to the top of the mountain, something happened. Something I can’t explain. Something that overwhelmed me with awe. With fear. And, I now know, overwhelmed me with hope. Jesus, my friend, my guide, my teacher – the person who I walked with, who I slept next to alongside the road, who I ate with and laughed with – his appearance changed. He glowed so brightly it was like I was looking directly into the sun, yet I wasn’t blinded. Because, not only could I still see him, I could see two other people with him. And somehow I knew who they were. I knew they were Moses and Elijah. I knew they were the great leader and prophet of our faith. I knew who they were without knowing how I knew. It was incredible. It was, I thought, a moment that could not be topped. I thought I was experiencing God in all of the God’s glory. Again, I was wrong. I thought I knew, but it turns out I didn’t. Because, when I did experience God in all of God’s glory, it was more than anything I could contend with.
But, before that happened, I need to tell you what I did next. And please bear with me, because it still makes me cringe with embarrassment. I, like I always do, spoke without thinking. And what I said was, I have to admit, pretty stupid. Here I was looking at the Lord and at Moses and at Elijah, and what did I say? I said I could build them tents. I said we could all live there. Looking back on it, I get why I said it, though I am still incredibly embarrassed. I wanted to stay there in the presence of the Lord and Moses and Elijah forever. I didn’t want to leave and head back down the mountain to deal with the real world. All Jesus was saying had been about how he was going to die. Why would I want to return to that, right? So, in an instant, I decided we should just all stay up there. What I was expecting, I have no idea. But what happened next, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams.
The sky grew cloudy, but not like it does when a storm is approaching. It was like I was in the clouds. And there was a voice, a voice that I can’t describe because there is no other voice like it, spoke. And, just like I knew it was Moses and Elijah standing there with the Lord without knowing how I knew, I knew that it was the voice of God. It was around me and in me at the same time. It was a boom and a whisper. It was everything and nothing. And, for the first time in my life I think, it made me stop thinking and talking and thinking about what I was going to say next. The voice told me to listen to the Lord. To listen. To listen to him because he was God’s son, God’s beloved.
It all happened in an instant and without realizing it, I fell to my knees in awe and fear. I went from wanting to stay up on the mountaintop forever and an instant later being so overwhelmed by the presence of God that I could not stand. I don’t know how long I stayed on the ground. It felt like an eternity because I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else. It was all too much and I was sure I would be lost in it forever. But, then I felt a hand on my shoulder. A human hand, warm and heavy and familiar. It was Jesus – the Lord. He looked like he always did. A face that I knew well. And that overwhelming feeling of God’s presence, while not gone, was no longer more than I could bear. The Lord grounded me in myself again.
A short time later we went back down the mountain. We continued our ministry. We continued to heal people, to listen to the Lord’s teaching. We finally arrived in Jerusalem and everything the Lord had said was going to happen did. It was horrible and frightening and almost too much. And after he died and it felt like the world had died with him, I wondered what it was all for. But then our sister Mary found his tomb empty, just like he said it would be.
Years have passed and a lot has happened. I have told Jesus’ story more times than I can remember. I have tried my best to pass on the teachings he left us. I have rejoiced as more and more people came to believe and found hope in the lessons he gave us. I chuckle at myself now when I think back to that time before the mountain. I was so sure I had all the answers. I was so sure that to be called the rock upon which Jesus was going to build his church meant that I was the one who would be in glory. I was so sure of everything. But, up on that mountain, I stopped being so sure and started to learn how to just be in awe.
We don’t have all the answers. We cannot possibly understand all of God and God’s glory. For an instant I experienced it and it made me fall to my knees with such awe I was sure I could never get back up. It wasn’t until I felt a simple human touch, reaching out to comfort me, that I could stand again. I learned then that is how I can understand God. I can understand God in a simple gesture from a trusted friend. I can understand God in a reassuring voice speaking words of comfort. I can understand God through the acts of kindness and love that I can do myself. And as I have worked to be the rock upon which this church is built, that is my guide. I have stopped trying to know all the answers and I have, thank goodness, stopped trying to tent in Jesus and the law and the prophets. Instead, I have carried that moment of awe and glory with me and passed it on in the only way I can, through simple gestures of love and kindness and grace. To reach out a hand to those in need.
I still don’t really know what happened on that mountain and I have stopped trying to figure it out. Instead, I let the memory of whatever it was fill me with awe, which gives me what I need to reach out a hand to the person next to me to share a bit of that glory with them. Amen.
Glorious God, you speak to us in ways that are unexpected. Sometimes your voice is so overwhelming it changes us forever. And sometimes, oftentimes, your voice is so quiet it is not even a whisper, and yet it still gets our attention. For your still-speaking voice in our lives, we give you great thanks, and it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, your full glory is more than we can handle. But, we know that we can and do experience you in the simple touch of a love and care shared by someone we trust. Help us to be your hands in that way, to share the glory of your love with all we encounter through simple acts of kindness.
One of the ways that we share you love with people is by opening our spirits to you in prayer. We do this now, lifting to you the cares of our hearts, trusting that you hear and respond…
Good and Great God, you are the beginning and end of everything we know. And you have helped us to understand all of it better through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, our guide and our comfort. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…