–Icons of the Transfiguration from the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery
A sermon for pastors and preachers
We’ve heard and preached on this story many times, we know how it goes. Jesus hauls Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. As we watch the trio ascend, we think about an earlier climb when Moses went up Mount Sinai to talk to God. There was glory shining all around in that story, too – lightning, thunder, and clouds. When Moses came down, his face was aflame with God’s brilliance, and he was lugging those big stone tablets that eventually ended up in Judge Roy Moore’s courthouse down in Alabama. In this episode, Jesus lights up with that same brilliance. Just like back then, God speaks from the cloud. God issue a commandment in this story too—“Listen to him.”
It’s an amazing scene. The disciples are overcome with what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” Then Peter blurts out his desire to set up three tents there to capture the experience. He wants to stay. But the glory dissipates as fast as it gathered, and Jesus doesn’t linger. He gets the disciples off their face and onto their feet, and they all trudge back down the mountain, back to “real life.”
And we feel sorry for poor, impulsive, clueless Peter. His desire to stay up there, indulging in radiant stupefaction, is an escapist, self-seeking temptation. Jesus knows better. Mountaintop epiphanies, it seems, are not meant to last. They are at best rest stops, gas for empty tanks, carrots to keep us going through challenging lives. When the disciples have to suffer, as they one day surely will, maybe the memory of this glorious moment will warm them and make their agony less awful. But you misunderstand Jesus if you think the point of following him is to bask in his light.
The disciples have a hard enough time grasping the odd, counter-intuitive sort of Lord and King Jesus is; if they stay up there they might never learn that he came to serve. Down on the ground, suffering is everywhere. Jesus could not escape his own, but he tried hard to alleviate everybody else’s. And that’s what disciples must also learn to do. We should consider ourselves blessed if we get an occasional peek at glory, but we can’t rest in it any more than the disciples could. We have to go down the mountain and shoulder our ministry. Glory is fine, but only after you pay your dues. Peas first, then cake.
Now, that is a good way to interpret this text, and it can be a necessary corrective to “bliss ninnies” who think the best way to be religious is to gaze at your navel. The great 16th century mystical saint Teresa of Avila was always on the lookout for this kind of evasion in her convents. Whenever a goose-bumpy novice, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry. Visions and voices are all well and good, but only if they don’t render you indifferent to the needs of your neighbor.
The only problem with this way of reading the story is that in our zeal to warn people away from evasion, we tend to moralize the Christian life almost to death. We make it a series of shoulds and oughts, and suggest in more than sideways fashion that worship or prayer or simple divine enjoyment is all well and good, but none of that has any value in and of itself unless we are also getting our prayerfully clasped hands dirty in the trenches of active mission.
Our repeated messages about coming down the mountain–getting back to work, doing our duty, loving God not directly but by loving our neighbors, measuring the size and strength of that love by our holy productivity–seem to assume that if we didn’t constantly exhort our people to do things, they would slide into a fog of contemplative rapture, never to be seen or heard from again. The truth is that things are exactly the opposite in most justice-aware, liberal-leaning, activist congregations. It’s a lot easier to get people on the picket line than down on their knees. Most people don’t even know what we’re talking about when we moralize about the dangers of being awestruck with divine beauty.
What a shame if we fall into the trap of telling people they must live the one sacred life they have been given according to a faith that regards ecstasy as some sort of temptation. What a shame if we fall into the trap of asking people to live by a gospel that turns out to be, in the end, just another taskmaster, just another voice among the many voices that remind us all constantly that we have not done right enough or well enough or just plain enough enough to measure up to expectation and merit approval and reward. What a shame if we take texts like this one and turn them into so much finger-wagging.
Yes, it is plain from the text that Jesus didn’t want his friends to put up those three tents. Yes, Peter was befuddled by the strange experience and “did not know what he said” when he blurted out, “It is good for us to be here.” Yes, Jesus took them right back down and yes, they plunged into the hard work of healing and teaching. There’s no question that engagement with the world is an essential component of discipleship, and that the suffering it brings requires of disciples courage, determination, and perseverance – none of them glamorous things. But we should also want to know why Jesus would show his friends the unutterable glory of God radiating through him and not mean for them to enjoy it. And why should we label Peter obtuse and ridiculous because he wants to make such beauty and such glory – the very pleasure of God – last and last and last?
What the disciples received that day on the mountain was not a gallon of emergency gas or a quick breather for the work crew. It was a gift of mercy, pleasure and love. They were given a glimpse of the richest and most fundamental truth about our lives, and they were meant to react to it precisely in the way they did, with awe. Just because it wasn’t time for them to enjoy it permanently doesn’t mean that they were wrong to want it permanently, or that by wanting it so much they somehow missed the meaning of the event.
Peter saw that the glory of God’s mercy and deep pleasure rested uniquely upon Jesus. This story is an epiphany, after all—a story meant to reveal something of the character of God. Its main point is clarifying the identity of Jesus, and it does so in part through the awe-struck wonder this revelation causes in the disciples. But Peter must also haves sensed that this transfiguring light was in some measure also about him. About us all. And for us all. The merciful pleasure God takes in Jesus, the joy of God’s goodness that glows like a million suns, is Peter’s origin and destiny too. It is the origin and destiny of the whole creation. We were all made in ecstasy and intended for ecstasy. Glory, and its lovely twin, Joy, is the permanent subtext of our lives.
Why does preaching so often seem to say that the only permanent thing we were made for is duty, when the truth is that we were made for delight? Why do we imply that people were made only for purpose and production, when the truth is that we were made for pleasure? Why do we help people think that the church was called and gathered only for relentless hard labor in the vineyard of Christ, when the truth is that we were called and gathered for praise, thanksgiving, and freedom – for visions, for dreams, and for the ‘royal waste of time’ we call ‘worship’?
In moments when God’s glory breaks through our flat world of fact and rationality; in times when God’s mercy transports us to the real real world, the one Jesus called the kingdom, full of justice and reconciliation, forbearance and peace; in moments, as another preacher put it, when the dazzle of God’s love squeezes through the fissures in our denial and defenses and explodes into our lives – in those moments we are drawn inexorably to God like people who have been living sun-starved for years in caves, and we too want to pitch tents on the mountain. We too want to stay and stay and stay.
We know those moments. The flood of confusion the first time someone loves you – yes, you. The time you were forgiven when you should never have been forgiven. The day you got through the whole of it without a drink. The night your first child was born. The moment you really heard the poet’s question, “What will I do with my one precious life?” The time you turned on the news and found out that that the wall was down and the tyrants were dead and people were crossing borders, singing. Or the morning early when you went for a hike, and the cloud that had threatened rain lifted suddenly, and from the top of the mountain you saw clear to Canada, and it took your breath away; and in the strange slanting light you felt somehow held, beloved, alive, and it was like The First Morning, and you believed it was possible to be new. Even in the midst of the hardest grief, it comes to us, this glory, in some stillness, in a face, a touch, a place, a smell. We know those moments. And we have all wanted to pitch a tent on those heights and stay and stay and stay.
It turns out that we cannot stay – the traditional interpretation of our story is correct about that. But the reason we cannot stay is not because it isn’t good for us to be on the summit and desire such glory. It is in fact the supreme good. To want that glory is to desire God. It is also true that while we await the final, full breakthrough of divine pleasure upon the world, we have much work to do. But this work is not the busyness and effort, the demand and expectation, the dread and drudgery, or the purpose and plan that we have been taught is pleasing to God. The work of people of faith is more wonder than competence, more surrender than skill, more beauty and imagination than plans and programs, more gratitude and praise than effort and exhaustion, more tryst than task.
The call to discipleship is not to save the world: that’s God’s job. It is rather to witness in word, deed, and in awed silence to the fact that God is in fact saving and re-creating everything, even now. Our calling is to become increasingly alert to the places where transformation has already secretly begun, and to point them out and tell the truth about what we see (often at the risk of our lives) to those who cannot see them or do not believe what they see, and who therefore languish in cynicism, sorrow and despair. The mission of the church is to testify by overt gesture and by secret resistance, in private and in public (“in all places, everywhere and without ceasing”) that grace is even now sparking in the stubble, glory is already lighting up the mountain, and all people, strangers, kin and enemies, are even now being plucked from death, included in the sweep of mercy, and brought home to sit at the table of peace.
Our calling is therefore also to develop a capacity to see beyond common sense and ordinary sight. To see the world’s suffering unflinchingly, exactly as it is, and to see God already working right there a someday resurrection. To spot the tracers of love in the bloodstained firmament and to announce them like watchers on the wall at daybreak, and by our fearless announcement bring hope to everyone who swears all hope is lost. And this means we must learn to pray and to pray contemplatively, to re-calibrate the eyes of the heart by gazing on God. It means we must open ourselves to fire.
The calling of the church, our calling, is the hardest work there is – stubbornly to trust the un-evident more than the evidence at hand. To resist the caution of the earnest, the sensible, and the balanced. To be glad that God is full of the kind of generosity that mocks our guilt-ridden, self-important social action strategies, unhinges our anxious time management techniques, and beats the heck out of our prudent long-range goals. The mission of the church is to be delighted by this odd God who pays latecomers the same wage as those who grunt all day in the sun. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about the strange pleasure of largesse, and it is our calling not to be ashamed of this gospel.
God’s will is to love the sinner, love the sinned against, empty the haughty, fill the poor, mend the brokenhearted, abide the unacceptable, bless the weak and inadequate church. And in the face of all this divine nonsense, our calling is to lose our senses too, to be like this God. It is a very hard calling, make no mistake, because it feels so much like doing nothing, and we have a terrible time shaking the notion that if we aren’t doing something, than neither is God. And yet our ministry is in the end to be the fools who understand that the very best thing we can do for the world is simply to strike a fascinated pose before the alien beauty of grace.
In the late 4th century in the Syrian desert, a young monk named Lot went out from his cave to consult and older, wiser monk whose name was Joseph. Lot said to Joseph, “Abba, the best I can, I say my prayers, I fast, I meditate, and I serve my neighbor. What else is there to do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said, “To do? Nothing more. But you could become all flame.”
It would be good, it would be very good, for us to be there.