John Michael Guiterrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mathew
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The Gospel of the Lord
This is the seventh Sunday of Epiphany and in lectionary arithmetic it’s named Quinquagesima counting down 50 days until Easter. The vision scene described in this morning’s Gospel lesson, the transfiguration, found in three of the four gospels, has been a regular visitor to lectionaries since the Fourth Century. And through various prayer book revisions has found what seems to be its permanent position as the last Sunday of Epiphany. It’s brilliance has been positioned as a theological bookend to the brilliance of the resurrection. The transfiguration is something of a good Cliff’s Notes introduction presenting a clear discussion of Matthew’s Gospel thought and its significance about the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death that fill out the bookshelf in-between. We can get a library card in three days—Ash Wednesday.
Previously Jesus and his entourage departed from the familiar sights and sounds of the north shore of Lake Galilee walking NE to the agricultural/urban area around Caesarea Philippi. We don’t know much about his movements. Roughly, whichever owl you choose, he was now about 25 miles north of Capernaum and about 120 miles north of Jerusalem. Matthew tells us Jesus was wildly popular. Ordinary folk gathered around him as he passed through villages. The crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. Matthew also tells us he had come under the critical religious surveillance of the Temple authorities as well as the Pharisees. What Matthew also tells us, “now” is the turning point. Here is the “come to Jerusalem” moment for Jesus: 16.21 “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Here is also the “come to Jesus” moment for any would-be disciples:16.24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The road ahead for both will run through suffering and for some, death.
So heading across the EW road to the NS crossroad as they approach a village named Meron close to the slope of the 4000 ft Mt Meron, they slow down, then stop. Three fishermen, Peter, James and John don’t know it yet but they’re going to climb that mountain with Jesus.
If we pause to look briefly to the end of the scene, vs. 9, we read Jesus instructs them not to mention this event until after his Resurrection. And they were pretty tight lipped about what happened. But I suspect they couldn’t think of much else for days. Like when you stare at the sun for even a moment, and for a long time afterward, when you close your eyes, the imprint of that dazzling sun is still there. We don’t know how long it took for Matthew to pry the details out of them. I suppose it took careful conversations and after that careful wording to edit it into a Gospel narrative.
Now circle the scene with me. Leaving the crowds and the other disciples, they set off not really knowing what to expect. But I do think they hoped they might have a chance to talk Jesus out of all that strange, scary stuff he had been saying about suffering and dying, about saving or losing lives.
On the climb, somewhere, all of a sudden Jesus’ face started to shine brighter than the sun making the day feel dark. He was changed before them quite literally. The thin veil of this earthy setting was pulled away so that a presence could be seen in all its essential transcendance: Jesus—God with us—wrapped in light as in an overcoat. And the overcoat was not royal blues, like those Roman pretenders to the title “Lord”, nor multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy but simple white cloth.
Matthew winks knowingly at the readers.They had come up here to be alone, but once on the mountain, here comes company. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues how they know it’s Moses and Elijah appearing beside Jesus but notice in the scene the presence of Peter, James and John is ignored in this mystical proceeding. For their part, they might feel they have stumbled upon something they were not supposed to see. In this instant of transfigured clarity, however, they see the humanity of Jesus infused with divine presence. Quick on the uptake they may have the impression from Jesus talking with the two great figures of Jewish faith that the kingdom had arrived. For a moment they may have even contemplated that this glorious, shining, dazzling super-human Messiah will wipe away all opposition. What a spectacle they could make on the journey to Jerusalem. Think of the advertising possibilities—Jesus with Moses and Elijah. What a sight when they enter the city.
Peter finds his voice and speaks to Jesus “Lord, it is good for us to be here” but his words are little more than a plea to be useful: If you wish, I will put up three sanctuaries: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It seems reasonable to me his proposal refers to the modular sanctuary positioned in the midst of the 12 clans. A sanctuary that shielded Israel from the shekinah brilliance of YHWH’s presence during the Wilderness treks. Here’s what I think Peter wants to do. He wants to shield/cover this shekinah-like brilliance, to package it in order to take it down the mountain and on the road trip to Jerusalem.
But he only gets it partly right—shippable sanctuaries might be ok for Moses and Elijah but Matthew has positioned us as readers to know that this supernatural vision confirms once again Jesus is “God in the midst of us” and that already his body is the transporting sanctuary.
Now you may be thinking. And you’re right. Here’s where I’m supposed to say to you: Peter is a dufus. That’s a useful theological term you might want to hang onto. When I look back on the privilege, the deep mysterious gift of my British education, I realize it was partly my American mentor who positioned me to be in the midst of one of the most significant turn-arounds in Biblical Studies. There have been three significant, lasting developments: 1) the fundamental orientation of the Bible’s theological library is Jewish, 2) close reading of the Bible’s final form is foundational to developing its meaning and 3) the original author influences how the literatures are to be read by choosing a literary form or, in the case of the Gospels, creating one.
Privilege in christian terms comes as responsibility. To whom much is given much is required is the guiding text of privilege. If you and I are deeply privileged then we are called to real responsibility. May I say to you allowing Matthew to have a controlling, a teaching interest in this scene and in the disciples’ and Peter’s characterizations direct us to look more responsibly at his discipleship theme.
As I mentioned the conventional expectation is to get in with the twitter mob and pile on Peter for always blurting out ideas without thinking, always good at missing the point, always looking at things from a human perspective. All the while we act as though we’re more knowing, more enlightened, to stay with the imagery of our brightly lit scene. Usually at some point, feeling self conscious about being so hard on him, we try to find a way to bind up the bruises and wounds – his and ours.
I want to propose a more balanced way to understand the disciples’ and Peter’s characterization. Specifically Matthew’s intentions for discipleship are best viewed from a wider characterization. Please allow me to take us back to chapter 16 for two very important incidents that complement this transfiguration scene
In the first scene, 16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are very much engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the ‘word on the street’?”, that is, what’s the buzz about me? (vs. 13-14). Then he narrows the focus “who do you, disciples, say I am?” Matthew has Peter answer for them “You are the Messiah, YHWH’s son”(vs. 15-16). We might think. Right. No more phone calls. We have a winner. Then Jesus’ first qualification is heard: Peter is right but his prompt comes from Fatherly help “ for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (vs. 17). For your consideration I suggest Matthew is here prompting us, who would-be disciples, not to evaluate Peter or the other disciples’ lack of understanding or insight as a “negative” characterization. It simply reflects a disciple’s condition in general. We are always in need of divine, that is, fatherly revelation. Then Matthew emphasizes the positive value of the scene: Peter’s name is changed by Jesus. But as with all plays-on-words, there is slippery-ness. And you and I can talk at length about the Roman Catholic route where the pun between rock and stone is Peter himself as the founder of that church or the Patristic-Reformation route where the pun between rock and stone makes the Messianic identification the building block of the church. Whichever one you choose, I still expect you to pay for my lunch. Then Jesus’ second qualification is heard: Don’t spread this “Messiah” identification stuff around (vs. 20).
Bottom line for Matthew, unless there is revelation from the Father about, say, “why the Messiah must die and rise again”, even a perceptive disciple will probably not connect the dots. So in the second scene, 16.21-23 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21). The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah is now muddied by his talk of dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any supposed triumph with the actual difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to grasp the significance. Matthew positions Peter to express their confusion with a plea-like, “Mercy, no!” or “May YHWH in his mercy prevent this from happening to you.” Matthew implies that the disciples speaking through Peter could not perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by Jesus’ death. Then Matthew lines up Peter for another business card. Taking the more Jewish meaning of the word “satan”, Jesus says “Get back, who appointed you, my adversary”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father.
The disciples’ characterizations in ch. 16 along with those in the transfiguration scene matter enormously. Matthew’s Gospel holds in tension transcendance with the mediation of a living, dynamic, reciprocal relationship in which Jesus and the Father emerge from the mists of divine mystery. As “God with us”, Jesus makes it possible to stand in the Father’s presence, to know and be known, without being overwhelmed by the gap between us and a loving, yet holy person. Matthew intends to draw us into this relationship through Peter’s and the disciple’s characterizations. These scenes are intended to teach us that sometimes circumstances are quite overwhelming and yet we should try to find our footing in them. Sometimes in the ordinariness of life we make that discovery. Sometimes circumstances will remain mysterious, unanswered. In Matthew’s wider teaching intentions, disciples should be creating a community setting in which all can/should speak up. Sometimes you, perhaps I, will get it right. Sometimes I, perhaps you, will get it wrong. Sometimes you, perhaps I, will get it partly right. And sometimes I, perhaps you, won’t get it at all. The implication of Matthew’s intention for disciples: you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, even correction sometimes. These scenes show every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in human limitations and understandings, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.
The divine voiceover “this is my son, my beloved one. I am pleased with him. Listen to him” brings us back to the scene. May I suggest Matthew has verbally joined the two most profound stories in all the Bible. We know Matthew has linked this scene to Jesus’ turning toward Jerusalem and the cross (ch. 16.). And now the voiceover undergirds this turning by weaving in a father-son relationship. Matthew has subtly front-loaded another father-son relationship. In the genealogy that begins the Gospel he has referred to Jesus as Abraham’s son along with Isaac (1.1-2). The voiceover here “my son, my beloved one” echoes the resonance of Abraham and YHWH’S conversation: “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac,….and offer him up as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22.2-3). I suggest Matthew’s narrative genius has deliberately woven a dramatic burden into his Gospel. Specifically, like Abraham and Isaac, as Jesus, the favored son, the beloved son, the only son walks toward the sacrifice mountain, he will not be alone but be accompanied by the Father. It is appropriate for us to consider that YHWH walks with Jesus toward the calvary mountain and for us to consider Abraham’s theological realization is ours also “On YHWH’s mountain, he will be seen.”(Gen. 22.14). Beginning today, Matthew, and in three days our Anglican tradition, will ask each of us: Am I/Are you ready to walk the walk with the Father and the Son? Am I/Are you/Are we ready to walk the walk with each other? Remember Jesus exhorts us the discipleship road is costly. It will transform us, individually and corporately. May I suggest everything/everyone you will need for a Lenten journey is here now. So choose wisely.
Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen