Rev. Teri Peterson
7 February 2016, Transfiguration, NL2-22, Epiphany 6 (A-Ha Moments)
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
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.
This winter I have been reading a series of novels in which the main character is a scientist who travels the world studying dragons and getting into all kinds of scrapes and adventures along the way. She learns languages and makes friends in many cultures, she gets herself into and out of trouble, and she watches dragons underwater, on volcanoes, from ships, in trees, and flying through the air. She is working intensely to try to learn as much as possible about them, for a variety of reasons. After one particularly thrilling day of research, she has an incredible idea that seems to put all the pieces in place. She talks it over with a colleague, who agrees it is a real breakthrough deserving of more study…and so she writes an article and mails it off to a journal, from halfway around the world.
Within a few days of mailing the article, she sees something else, and her whole theory falls apart…but the mail is long gone and her own ship is far from port. By the end of the book, she is writing a new column retracting the previous one, and dealing with all the scrutiny and mockery that comes with her public confusion, even as she puts forth new and better research.
I couldn’t help but think of our Epiphany theme as I was reading about Lady Trent this weekend. The ups and downs of a-ha moments can be confusing! One minute, we see so clearly, and then when we have to integrate that new insight into our lives, everything seems so mixed up and muddy.
And so it is with Peter.
He has been watching Jesus, soaking up as much teaching as he can, seeing him heal bodies and communities against all odds. And in the middle of all the many temples to the god Pan that fill Caesarea Philippi, he sees so clearly, for just a moment, and in that moment Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.
A few minutes later, he is plunged back into confusion as Jesus starts to talk about what this means. Peter understands all the words, but can’t make sense of them when they are put together. Surely Jesus can’t be serious.
So Peter, still giddy from his a-ha moment, knowing he got the right answer last time, decides to teach the teacher that this is no way to talk and really he should be careful not to mess up his Messiah-image.
He gets in front, and puts his idea of who Jesus is and what he should do ahead of what Jesus is actually saying. It’s like he published his essay when he only had half the information. He knew who Jesus was, but he hadn’t yet figured out what that meant.
Can you picture the scene? 11 disciples behind Jesus, following his steps and hanging on his every word. Peter in front of Jesus, telling him what to do.
And Jesus turns his body around and says “get behind me.”
Where disciples should be—right behind the rabbi, following his way.
Not in front, leading with their own agenda and ideas and preconceived notions. To be a follower of Jesus means following where he’s going, not leading him where we’re going. When Peter tried to be the leader rather than the follower, Jesus called him Satan—the adversary. Putting our own agenda, whether that is about what we want for ourselves or how we expect God to treat others or anything else, ahead of Christ’s agenda, means we are working against the kingdom, rather than for it. And Jesus reminds us of the difference between a disciple and an adversary: the disciple is behind Jesus, walking in his footsteps, not in front using our fear or our pride or our self-interest or our desire to block him from carrying out his mission. When we follow, we are never alone, and every place we go is a place Christ has been already.
So he calls the whole crowd—because Peter is all of us. To the whole crowd of people in this busy city—to all of us reading his words in the midst of our busy lives—Jesus explains what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.
They, and we, have seen what he does—his actions and his teaching, his priorities and consistency. The Messiah is the one who has been through every village in the country, touching unclean people, accepting foreigners, healing bodies that seemed irretrievably broken, putting communities back together in configurations no one knew they needed, teaching people a new way of living that isn’t defined by their status in the empire but by their status as people created in God’s image. The Messiah is the one who has fed every person and then some, who has inspired people to work together in ways they never imagined, and who has offered the same relationship and care to the poorest and the wealthiest, the Roman and the Jew, the religious leader and the bleeding woman.
This is the Messiah we follow. And in order to follow him, he says, we will have to lose our lives. If our priorities include strengthening our image, gaining wealth and power, saving our institution, or fretting about our security, we may hear those same words from Jesus: get behind me. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Our human minds dwell on protecting our interests, climbing the ladder, assuaging our fear, getting what we want. But the divine mind seems to dwell on the people who are weak, unwanted, poor, rejected, despised. The divine mind seems to dwell on creating a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cast out, no one is judged even subconsciously by the color of their skin or the balance of their bank account or the size of their muscle or their accent or their win-loss record. It is this mind we are called to—the mind of Christ, who is the head of this body—and we are called to undertake his mission even at the risk of losing our life. Because when we try to save the way of life we like, we will lose the life that matters. Abundant life is possible, even now, but we will live into it only if we stop trying to win the good life we so often want instead.
Peter resumes his place behind Jesus. A week later, he and James and John hike up a mountain with Jesus and catch a glimpse of glory. They have a moment together, seeing just for an instant who Jesus is. And then Peter…god bless Peter…he gets out in front again, offering to build a village for them to live in together on top of the mountain, where people can take pilgrimages to see the holy men. And once again I can just picture Jesus’ face as he looks up to heaven in exasperation: seriously? This time God’s voice comes from the clouds: This is my Son—listen to him.
Listen to him.
Set aside what you think you know, and listen to him.
Let go of how he should work, and listen to him.
Take off the mask of “fine” and listen to him.
Lay down the burden of safety and self-interest, and listen to him.
Put away your shame and your pride, and listen to him.
Jesus said, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus said, love God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus said, give to God what is God’s.
Jesus said, bring them to me—outcast, disposable, useless, dirty, homeless, unlovable, children, women, foreigners. Faith has restored you to wholeness.
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus said, love your enemies.
Jesus said, I will be with you, I will go before you, do not be afraid.
Jesus said, you give them something to eat.
Jesus said, get behind and come, and follow me.
May we hear and obey. Amen.