If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.
I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong.
If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche).
But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right?
The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers.
If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ. Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.
Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only option allowed.
If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him?
Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’
Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter? It’s not an idle question.
In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him.
You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply.
Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.
There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism.
What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story.
Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us.
For ALL of us.
For ALL of us.
I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.
The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.
Once for ALL.
The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel.
Luke spells it out for you:
Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)
Next scene, today’s scene:
Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.
It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity.
He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.
Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.
And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?
They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.
You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin. In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes. And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory. And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.
Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective.
It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?”
In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.
And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple.
In the holy of holies.
Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us. A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God.
Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us.
The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us.
And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us.
Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived.
They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived.
Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them.
They were not struck dead.
That’s why they walk away dead silent.
They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners.
All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration.
What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:
You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.
(So who are we to draw lines?)
What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot.
You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.
You have to be rendered acceptable.
You have to be made acceptable.
You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.
To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus.
Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.
After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.
And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.
It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even.
We’re meant to see them as preparation.
We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.
That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death:
As the perfect sacrifice for sin.
One sacrifice. Offered once.
The temple veil is no longer needed.
The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.
One sacrifice. Offered once.
Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense.
It has been accomplished.
It is finished.
Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus.
Ephapax: “once for all.”
For all sin.
For past sin. For present sin. For future sin.
Once for all sin.
Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.
So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching?
We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.
According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.
If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!).
We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.
Don’t you see—
The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.
God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice.
Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain) We can sleep easy before the glory of God.
We can sleep easy before the glory of God.
Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”
Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.
Not by our behavior.
Not by by our belief.
But by our baptism.
By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.
That’s the Gospel.
Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel.
And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says.
For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says.
That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel.
Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ.
Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades.
The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace.
Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God).
Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive.
That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation.
If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.
Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace.
It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis.
Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.
And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture.
As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.
So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?
Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands.
Don’t you see?
That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.”
Peter is right.
It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.
Peter is right.
It is good for us to be here.
It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone.
Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.
That’s not just good news.
That’s the good news.
So Peter is right.
It is good for us to be here.
Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest.
Rest in his grace.
On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.
Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration.
If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.
Peter is right.
Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind.
So come down to the Table.
And roll up your sleeves.
Come down to the Table.
Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served.
Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace.
Taste and see the goodness of God that is yours.
Not as your wage, something you earn.
But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God.