Transfiguration: We Don’t Always Get It Right

Matthew 16:13-17:9




Since today is Transfiguration Sunday, the story we will read is the story of the Transfiguration. But we’re also going to read what happens before it. The story of the Transfiguration shows up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (but not in John). What’s a little unusual is that the stories right before the Transfiguration also show up in those three gospels and in the same order. Something like 90% of the gospel of Mark shows up verbatim in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It’s more common for there to be some reshuffling in the order of the stories. But this is a large section that is very consistent in the order. I want you to hear all of these stories together and as we read, I invite you to pay attention to what is happening with Peter. Let’s begin in Matthew chapter 16 verse 13 and we’re going to read all the way through to chapter 17 verse 9.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any wish to come after me, 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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Did you catch what was happening with Peter? I love Peter. I love Peter because he is so enthusiastic. Like, whatever Jesus is saying or doing, Peter is fully engaged in it. And the reason I really love that is because of how often he is fully engaged and also wrong. We have a sacred text that is honest about how often one of our most revered ancestors got things wrong. Which is amazing. Apparently Peter himself, with as influential as he seems to be later, does not insist that history be rewritten to make him look better. This is an honest history, and I love that because I think it gives us the freedom to be honest about ourselves too. 

Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the anointed one, the one they have been waiting for. And Jesus affirms him, saying that his understanding comes straight from God, blessing Peter, giving him a new name and a calling and a legacy. This is everything we want as Christians. I mean, it’s everything I want: to hear from God and to be bold and effective and called to do something that’s going to really matter. This is a moment when Jesus is speaking very victoriously and Peter is right in the middle of it.

And then. In the very next story when Jesus starts talking about death and sacrifice, Peter is just as assertive and the text says he *rebukes* Jesus, and he is wrong. Jesus tells him to fall in line, and calls him Satan, which means “Tempter” because he’s trying to pull Jesus away from what Jesus knows his path must be. Peter is so enthusiastic and so wrong. 

And then. Peter’s wrongness, I mean he’s called Satan for goodness sake, does not mean that he’s out of favor with Jesus. Peter gets is that wrong and he is still part of Jesus’ most trusted inner circle. He and James and John are invited to go with Jesus up the mountain and see this incredible vision. Peter gets to be there! On the mountain! Having this amazing experience! And once again he is enthusiastic and assertive and wants to honor what’s happening so he starts making plans about building altars to commemorate the experience and this time the voice of God cuts Peter off mid-sentence. Once again, Peter is out of line. 

Does this feel familiar to anyone else besides me? Peter gets it! He doesn’t get it. He gets it! He doesn’t get it. He hears from God! He goes the wrong way. He has a powerful spiritual experience! He misses the point. This feels so familiar. 

Beloved ones, God does not expect us to always get it right. We do not fall outside of God’s love or God’s favor or God’s plan when we mess up. Perfection was never the goal. In all of these encounters, I’m going to give Peter the benefit of the doubt and say he was making an honest attempt at being faithful. And God honors that. God blesses Peter’s attempts at living a life of trust. Even his enthusiastic assertive total face-plants don’t ruin things for him. He doesn’t get punished. He gets a little discipline, a little correction. But he’s still in it. Beloved ones, your life of faith does not have to be perfect. Your spiritual walk does not have to be always consistent. You do not always have to get it right. Your level of trust in God does not always have to be high. If you are honestly trying to stay in it, if you are doing your best, knowing that your “best” is different from day to day, God is with you. 

Sometimes like Peter, we get it wrong, because we can’t see the full picture. The last verse we read has Jesus telling the disciples not to talk about their experience until after “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The other gospels make it clear that it was not possible for people to fully understand what Jesus was doing until after the resurrection. 

Some things do not make sense while you are in the middle of them. Some of you are in the middle of something right now. You are going through an experience that is confusing or scary and you have no idea how it is going to turn out. You cannot see the end of it. And some of the things that are happening to you right now are not going to make sense until you can look back on them. Then you’ll be able to see what God was doing. Right now you can’t see it. And that’s OK. 

Right now, just do your best. Maybe right now because of your mental health or physical health, your honest best feels like not enough to you. This morning I invite you to have faith, to trust, that your honest best is enough to God. Just stay in it. Try to be faithful to God. Because God absolutely will be faithful to you. Amen.

Reflection:

This morning for our reflection, I want to pray a prayer for us. I’m going to pray it slowly, line by line, and I invite you to pray each line aloud after me.

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this 
you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always 
though I may seem to be lost 
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

(Prayer by Thomas Merton)

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