1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 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."
One of the bright spots on my life CV, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that I have lived in both Berkeley, California and Boulder, Colorado. Now, the reason I say this is not because of the natural beauty associated with those places, though both are resplendent in their settings, nor do I say this because of the shared history of radical politics associated with both places. Instead, my time in both places has allowed me to survey, in some detail, what passes for spirituality in early 21st century North American life. Yes, both of these places, for reasons that fall beyond the scope of our discussion, have reputations for being places where spirituality, if not conventional religion, thrive. If one is to take these reputations at their word, the following can be surmised in regards to spirituality: First of all, it is an entirely individual exercise. Whatever may “feed you” spiritually, and I cannot begin to tell you what that phrase actually means, is what is genuine, what is real, spiritually speaking. Because it is an individual exercise, spirituality is not the sort of thing that cannot be regulated by a community. Also, for something to be of spiritual value, it must do something to you internally. That is, you must get some sort of spiritual high from the experience. If you are not constantly being transformed by the beauty of a mountain or the sun dropping off into the Pacific Ocean, you should probably work a bit harder on cultivating the fallowness of your spiritual life. In this way, spirituality is work that you are doing on your own to grow more and more into your own spiritual self.
And while we might be tempted to regard these spiritual pursuits as hippie-nonsense in comparison to our own deeply grounded and traditional spiritual beliefs, we let ourselves off the hook far too easily. For while the ways that this striving after the spiritual take form may differ depending on the audience, we all have this sort of quest written deeply into our DNA. We want to have these sorts of transcendent experiences of the divine, and when we do, we want to hold onto them, to capture them and to develop a behavioral manual that will guarantee we can have them at any time and place. Yes, we want a spirituality that will take us away from the ordinary, the mundane. We see this in Christian circles where an emotionally charged experience seems to be the central goal of worship. The same can be said for sporting events, in which one moment of raw athletic talent becomes for us a way to escape our worlds. Think here of John Elway’s first Super Bowl victory. Yes, this is what we want our spirituality to be, from the bright lights of Coors Field to the stark beauty of the Flatirons.
Peter, you see, wanted this sort of spirituality, as well. In the most real of ways, he speaks our language of what we think spirituality means. Here he is, up on a mountain, and the two larger than life heroes of his faith suddenly appear with Jesus, who is transformed into something other-worldly right before his eyes. These fireworks are just too much for him; he wants to capture and document it so that he may return to this holiness whenever he so desires. He wants to hold and possess this moment, maybe in our day he would have reached for his camera so that his facebook friends could see what an incredible afternoon he had just had. Really, I cannot say that I would have done anything different in Peter’s shoes.
And this project of building a dwelling for the holy is going just fine until God interrupts Peter’s designs with the following: “this is my Son. My Beloved, in him I am well-pleased.” To this, Peter and the other disciples fall down in fear. To be sure, it seems a bit strange that a voice from heaven, and not the appearance of Moses and Elijah, long since dead, would terrify these men. So perhaps the issue is not so much that God spoke from heaven, but rather what God said. You see, just before this passage begins, Jesus has begun to instruct his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and to the cross. That the only way to enter in discipleship is through death and resurrection: death to the self and its ideas about who God is and where God is found. Death to the belief that God can be contained and manipulated by human whim and desire. This, then, is the substance of Peter’s terror. Not that the transcendent vision is not somehow real, but that it is not final. The story was supposed to end on the mountain, but this is not the case, for Christ has another mountain in mind, the one upon which he will be put to death. Yes, this is the terror that takes hold of Peter. That what he thought he knew about God is entirely mistaken.
“This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to Him.” Oh, these are the words that put Peter to death, for they mean that what Jesus has said about the cross is real, and that God’s glory will be found not apart from the ambiguity and sinfulness of life, but rather right in the midst of it. God’s glory will be found first on a cross before it is found it is found in other worldly joy and beauty. Yes, there is no way to get to Easter without first going through Good Friday. This is terrible, terrifying news, for it means that Peter is deeply and profoundly mistaken in his attempt to keep Jesus from going to the cross. And lest we mock Peter across the distance of space and time, his terror is ours, as well. For what is being asked of us is the same death that Peter must undergo. We, too, must die to our beliefs about who God is and our attempts to find a God apart from the crucified Christ. We must die to the belief that we can find God on our own and capture this God by our good behavior or correct opinions. Yes, we must return to the waters of baptism, in which our pride and despair were indeed put to death and the suffocating grips of evil and hell were themselves destroyed.
Oh, dearly beloved, please do not think this the final word, however. For listen again to what Jesus says the instant after God has again confirmed Him as the beloved son: “Rise and do not be afraid.” Yes, the first words of the Messiah who is heading to his death is, ironically enough, a word of abundant life. Get up, rise, be resurrected. Rise from your fear and your guilt, rise up from your failures and your pains, your broken pasts and current troubles. Rise into the new life that was given to you as Christ touched you in your baptisms, just as he first touches the disciples. For you were buried with Christ at your baptisms so that may be raised, by the glory of the Father, into new life, and this you have already undergone. For while Christ’s presence and his cross may mean death to our attempts at finding a God on our own, they also mean that death itself is about to be vanquished. Yes, rise for the terror of death is going to be conquered by the Christ who is going to enter the grave on your behalves and in so doing, gives you the faith to rise in the everlasting splendor of the Father. This is what the season of Lent, actually all of life, is about. Lent is forty days in which we again enter the waters of baptism and their continual movement of death and resurrection. Lent is the time to return from the distraction of chasing after the wind and our attempts to find God in how much we own, how good we are at our jobs, how well our sports teams are doing, or in how well we sequester ourselves from those who do not believe in the same way that we do. Yes, Lent is the time to come down off those mountains and to be found again by Christ and cross. The disciples looked up and saw Jesus himself and alone. For from here to eternity, he is all they, all you, need to see. In the name of Jesus, amen.