This week’s Matthew lectionary text is the Transfiguration *again,* (so much transfiguration!), and so this week for an early Monday Meditation, I’m publishing a sermon I preached two years ago on the Transfiguration at Candler School of Theology (also available to watch here).
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and 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. 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
So I don’t know the exact statistics on this one, but I’m betting a solid 50% of the students in this room right now were warned not to “lose your Jesus” when you came seminary. I don’t know if even chuckling about that warning has become a cliché, and if we tease about it so much that it’s lost some of its punch and is a tired joke recycled to first years every semester, but the reality is that, clichéd or not, a lot of us showed up at seminary warned that this place was a danger to our faith and to our Jesus. I wasn’t specifically told that I’d “lose my Jesus,” because I’m from New England and we just don’t talk about Jesus like that… – but my family, my pastor, my campus ministry leaders, all warned me that if I wasn’t careful – if I didn’t cling to Scripture – if I didn’t remember where I came from – then my solid, God-honoring faith would be shattered. Or at least it would be confused.
Honestly, sometimes I wonder if the people saying telling us to rely on Scripture so that we “won’t be confused” have read a whole lot of Scripture. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as confused by anything as I was wrestling with this passage, this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ as told by the author of Mark. These seven verses are some of the most cryptic verses in the Gospels. Jesus and few close disciplines climb up a mountain, and while they’re there, Jesus is “transfigured,” becomes dazzling, and then Elijah and Moses appear and begin talking with Jesus. Peter famously panics, because, like the text says, “he was terrified,” and suggests building dwellings, some translate “tents,” for everyone up on top of the mountain. Then because Peter wasn’t terrified enough, a voice booms from a cloud, saying that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And then – everyone is gone. The cloud, the voice, the ancient heroes, and just the four of them are left. And then they go back down the mountain. And that’s that.
This passage does not come with easy clarity. It comes with dozens of questions – theological questions about the nature of the Kingdom of God, Christ and the Trinity, and practical questions, like what exactly does “transfigured” look like (Mark only describes those very, very white clothes), and what are Elijah and Moses talking about with Jesus, and most unshakably for me, how did the disciples even know it was Elijah and Moses?
And of course there’s the question that I’ve heard preached on most often – Peter, what in the world were you thinking? Let’s build tents? Excuse me?
There are a lot of ways to understand what Peter is doing. The most common way is that Peter really wants to stay on top of the mountain, basking in the glory of Jesus, and doesn’t want to travel down into the “valley of suffering” that will be Jesus’ crucifixion, and so he suggests setting up a permanent residence on top of the mountain – a metaphor for his, and for our, inability to move from triumph to pain gracefully. “We must descend to the valley of suffering, we cannot stay on the mountain of glory!”
And that works. And it works because it is a true statement. Sometimes we want to stay in the glory and joy, and it’s true that eventually we do need to leave it.
But I don’t think that interpretation of this passage is fair to the text in Mark, and I definitely don’t think that it’s fair to Peter. Listen to this description again: “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.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Peter was terrified! Peter was scared out of his wits! And this absolutely confounds the classic reading of Peter’s statement. The last thing that anyone want to do when they’re scared out of their wits is to build a campsite and settle down there! Peter’s statement doesn’t come from delight and satisfaction, it comes from panic!
So if Peter is not hanging on to glory and fleeing from suffering, what can he possibly be talking about? Walk with me for a minute in a Hebrew Bible exegesis excursus. Because I think we often underestimate Peter. Peter may not have been a scholar, but his identity, both cultural and religious, was Jewish. He knew the Prophets and he abided by the Law. I think in this moment Peter is drawing on a rich, deep knowledge of the Torah, and I think Mark uses precise language to point us to exactly where Peter is looking.
Read with me Exodus 24:15-18: Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
I think that Mark uses language very intentionally – God speaking from a cloud, this journey up a mountain to experience glory, and his very specific reference to “six days later,” all draw on this ancient story of Moses and Yahweh. And I don’t think Mark is the only one who makes this connection. I think Peter saw it, too, because of the first thing he says when he encounters the glory of the Lord on a mountain is to say “let’s build tabernacles.”
The NRSV uses the word “dwellings,” but nearly every other time this Greek word, skaynay, is used in the New Testament, it’s translated as tabernacle. The tabernacle of God’s glory, the movable tent in the wilderness – in Hebrew, the mishkan. And the first time “mishkan” is used is in Scripture is in that passage in Exodus we just read. God’s first recorded command after appearing in a cloud to Moses, the very next thing that happens in that story in Exodus, is that God tells Moses to make a tabernacle, a mishkan, so that God’s glory can dwell among the people.
I think that a terrified Peter is thinking “Oh my goodness, this is the glory of the Lord revealed on a mountaintop, and the last time this happened we made tabernacles.” For once, Peter is not showing his ignorance. Peter is showing the depth and breadth of his knowledge of Scripture. Peter is clinging to Scripture, and Peter is remembering where he and his people came from. Peter was terrified because he was encountering a new thing, and I think that new things terrify us all, and so Peter did what we all do, which is reach backwards to the last thing that we knew, and try and fit this new, scary thing into an old, old familiar pattern so that nothing has to change – our beliefs don’t have to change, our actions don’t have to change, our Jesus doesn’t have to change.
Because Peter probably retreated to a settled theology partially because he was scared, but also partially because Peter really liked the Jesus that he had walked up the mountain with, the Jesus that hadn’t ever turned dazzling white and summoned ghostly figures from the past! The old familiar pattern is good. Here on the mountain, Peter calls him Rabbi – teacher. It’s intimate. It’s human. And Jesus is intimate, and Jesus is human. Standing next to Elijah and Moses may have the effect of mythologizing Jesus, but it also makes him solid and touchable. The heroes of the Hebrew Bible are always, first and foremost, terribly human – Elijah may have stood up to the kings and rulers and spoken truth to power, but he also panicked and ran and hid in a mountain from God and the world. And Moses may have led an enslaved people out of oppression and then walked down a mountain carrying the Law of God in his arms and in his heart, but we all know about Moses’ terrible anger that led him to murder and to violence. The Hebrew Bible does not put its heroes on a pedestal, because the ultimate hero of the Hebrew Bible is Yahweh, the one who has made a covenant with messy people, and will not abandon that covenant no matter how messy we get.
And this heroic, but ultimately human Jesus, is Peter’s Jesus. Peter wants to make tabernacles for all three of these glorious, heroic, human figures – he wants Jesus’ glory and Moses’ glory and Elijah’s glory to all be the same kind of glory. Because that is the kind of glory that makes sense to him. Peter’s Jesus taught the Law and reflected the Prophets. He was a miracle worker who spoke raw truth to powerful people and who carried the Law, not abolished it, to his disciples and the people with gentleness and humility and intensity and humanity. Peter’s Jesus climbed up a mountain with them, out of breath and sweaty and dirty, clothes covered in dust and grime and bits of fish trapped in the folds of his shirt and crumbs of bread stuck in his beard, salt water in his hair and mud and spit under his fingernails.
And then, then, Jesus is shining like the sun, and the voice of God doesn’t just transfer knowledge or transfer glory, but speaks of authority and Sonship and hints at the nature of this Jesus that Peter was not prepared for. This Jesus is more than a man. And Peter fled back to what he knew – the last time this happened, this is what we did about it.
Somewhere, in the messy confusion of God to Man and Man to God and Dirty to Glorified and Prophet to Savior and finally, Living to Dead and Dead to Resurrected, Peter lost his Jesus.
I don’t think, in this room, I am the only person who has lost my Jesus like this.
I don’t think I’m the only person who has come face to face with a Jesus that does not look like my Jesus, and suddenly been confounded, or scared, or confused by what I’ve seen. And we’re theologians in this room – some of us more professional than others – so I know how many of us react to this fear, this confusion. We react the same way that, bless his heart, Peter does. We retreat to theology. We go to the library. We systematize. We categorize. And all of that is good, and important, and God knows there is nothing wrong with knowing our systematic theology, and nothing wrong with knowing Scripture as well as Peter did, and nothing wrong with grappling long and hard with a difficult text and reaching for every possible resource and language and commentary to understand it better.
But sometimes we grapple as a way to avoid losing our Jesus.
We grapple, not because we are clinging to Jesus, but because we are clinging to ourselves. We grapple not so that we can face Jesus, but so that we can turn away from him. We are so afraid to lose our Jesus that we shield our eyes from him when he appears in a form that we do not recognize.
We all have a Jesus we’re uncomfortable with. Some of us are like Peter – and that wise, touchable, prophetic Rabbi makes our souls sing, but the glorified, mystical Jesus is baffling and alien. Some of us aren’t quite sure about the gritty, political, liberator Jesus, but oh how we love the resurrected, enchanted Jesus. Some of us want to turn the other cheek, and some of us want to turn over another table. And we are all downplaying the aspects of Jesus that we are uncomfortable with, and we are all clinging tightly to our Jesus – sometimes without realizing that we are clinging to ourselves and not to Jesus at all. And in our fear, like Peter, we go back, and turn to an old thing to explain Jesus, to put on TOP of Jesus, and too often we mask ourselves from the glory of Jesus by throwing him inside a makeshift tent of our own safe, common, known interpretation of him.
If you are sometimes confused by Jesus, sometimes terrified of Jesus, if you sometimes look at Jesus and exclaim in horror – “that’s not my Jesus” – then you are probably closer to seeing Jesus as he is than you were before. Jesus, the preacher and liberator who touches the untouchable and listens to the voiceless and names the nameless. Jesus, who existed before the world began, the Word who became flesh, the Alpha and the Omega, who sits at the right hand of God the Father and intercedes for us. Jesus who was violently killed by an occupying political force, who bled out on the ground and died, and whose death and resurrection secures for us salvation and redemption. We all shrink from some aspect of Jesus. We all turn away.
But what we can see! What we can see when we pull our hands away from our faces, when we open our clenched fingers and release our own graven images and turn to face Christ with open hands and opened eyes, with curiosity and with wonder!
What Peter could have seen on that mountain that day!
Jesus standing like a figure in a myth, electrical and terrifying, symbolic and fulfilling, speaking and walking like a man from an ancient story – the “kabod” of God revealed on a mountain once more, but now this glory is heavy on a human being, and now this hero is not just a broken, messy human that exists to remind us of the covenant of Yahweh, but now this hero is the covenant of Yahweh, and he is Yahweh, God Godself in the flesh, glorified and sweaty, with gleaming face and aching muscles. And the all too human, all so glorified Christ, soon, so soon, will begin the long walk towards humiliation, and degradation, and death.
Today we marvel at a glorified Jesus. Tomorrow in Lent, we begin to mourn with a suffering Jesus. And we have nothing to fear from any Jesus that we may encounter on the road. Whether you are just starting seminary education, whether you can see the door marked “Commencement”, or whether you’ve made this your career – allow your soul to rest from the anxious creating and re-creating of your Jesus. Go ahead. Lose your Jesus. And be lost in Jesus Christ Himself, even the parts of him that scare you the most. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of. Not with Jesus.
Because the unity in all these gritty, glorious, terrifying, confusing parts of our Savior is the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free. It was the Love that formed the world at the beginning of time – the Love that cloaked divinity in humanity – Love that healed the sick – Love that preached to the powerful. It was Love that, on top of a mountain, revealed divinity again. It was love that brought Jesus to the Cross, and love that brought him down again.
This is a love that it is safe to trust yourself to.
“Don’t lose your Jesus”? Oh, I hope you will. I hope you’ll lose your Jesus. And in losing all things, be found in Him who is greater than we could ever create, with a love deeper than we could imagine.