Brother Jude and myself are glad to be back with you all again, celebrating this Eucharistic feast with you.
On this final Sunday before Ash Wednesday, as we prepare ourselves to enter the 40 Days and 40 Nights of Lent, we have a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon our lives and to go with Jesus, the Beloved of God, into the desert. For 40 days and 40 nights, we will have the opportunity to listen to the voice of our Heavenly Father who speaks to us and the to disciples today on the Mount.
And, as we practice our godly listening skills throughout this coming season, I want to invite you to walk with me as we play the role of a spiritual director. As part of my sermon for today, I wanted to delve into this Gospel story as if we were Simon Peter’s spiritual directors, hearing it for the very first time.
As directors, we provide space and appropriate questions for our clients to describe how God or the Divine has been working in them. As any spiritual director will tell you, we actually do more walking alongside a person in their faith journey, rather than directing them as if we were some kind of spiritual train conductor.
So, in our session today, our client, Simon Peter, brings this incredibly powerful and vivid experience he had one night with Jesus and his friends.
He tells us that firstly, he, James and John accompanied Jesus up a mountain. And being the good Jewish boys they are, Peter, James, and John must know the significance of their teacher ascending a mountain. It was Moses, the central human figure in the Jewish Exodus story, who ascended Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments and commune with God. And it was Jesus himself gave us the Beatitudes in his famous Sermon on the Mount. It’s unlikely the Gospel writer was capable of such a level of incompetence if he or she did not mean for this detail to go unnoticed (Exodus 19:20; Matthew 5-7).
Next, after arriving on the mountain, what happens? Simon Peter may say to us, “I saw Jesus transfigured before us, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (see Matthew 17:2-3).
Now, we might ask our client here, why does he suppose Moses and Elijah appeared next to Jesus? Or, more directly, who or what does Moses and Elijah signify to someone like Simon Peter?
Thankfully, we’ve read and heard Biblical commentaries which readily note the significance of Moses and Elijah’s appearance at the Transfiguration. Simon Peter might be in agreement with them and say something along the lines of “Moses represents the Torah, the Divine Law of God, while Elijah is representative of the Prophets and all they taught and hoped for.”
Taken together, these two central figures represent the law and the prophets. We’ve encountered that phrase before. Just two weeks ago we heard from the Gospel of St. Matthew, where, again, preaching on the Mount, Jesus summarizes his teachings saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
And so we have this vision of Peter’s: Moses, the great Lawgiver and Elijah, the great Prophet. Standing and conversing with them both is Christ. Christ here is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Meanwhile, as Peter is trying to make sense of all this, he blurts out, “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.” (Matthew 17:4).
We might ask our client, “Why did he ask this to Jesus? Why did he ask Jesus about building 3 dwellings?” (or, in other Bible translations, booths or tabernacles)
Peter may say to us: “Who would not want, after all, to have this miraculous event last forever?” And Peter is not thinking of just himself. He shows genuine leadership and concern for others. “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Peter knows how important this place is for not only himself, but for those around him. If a more permanent tabernacle were constructed, then perhaps an untold number of generations yet to come could also visit and see such a sight. It is as if Peter is asking of Jesus, “Let us dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalm 23:6).
But despite perhaps Peter’s good intentions, Jesus does not respond. But before Peter can even begin to process this, the climatic moment of this mountain experience arrives.
The Gospel tells us, “While [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed [the disciples], and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5).
Again, a good Jewish boy like Simon Peter would likely have heard in temple the stories of how the Lord spoke and gave the commandments to Moses in a cloud (Exodus 19:9, 34:5; Numbers 11:25). For Orthodox Christians today, these elements of Christ transfigured, the voice from Heaven, and the overshadowing cloud, are representative of the Trinity (Saint Gregory Palamas, Sermon on the Transfiguration). Whether we can know the Gospel authors intended such imagery to represent such a unique concept not found in Judaism is beyond the scope of this sermon. But, unlike Moses and Elijah who were merely instruments of God, Jesus is God. Jesus is the ultimate Word of God given to the world in order to, as St. Paul would say, “[reconcile] the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19). A late 17th Century minister commented, “Moses was a great intercessor, and [Elijah] a great reformer; but in Christ, God is reconciling the world; his intercession is more prevalent than that of Moses, and his reformation more effectual than that of [Elijah] (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible).
In this vision, Simon Peter sees Jesus standing above and beyond all the previous prophets, sages, and psalmists. Jesus is greater than the most revered Rabbi. He is more exalted than any sadducee. He is more righteous than any Pharisee. He is the supreme good of the universe and the most perfect imprint of God’s will. As the St. Paul would later write, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16).
Whether or not Simon Peter knew of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River and the events that took place there, the same words that God spoke then are repeated here and now on the mountain. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Even if Simon Peter didn’t know of Jesus’ Baptism at the time, as Christians today, we ought to pay attention to this voice. When we encounter this repetition in the Scriptures, the authors are telling us, “Pay attention. Something is important here.”
In the Psalms, for instance, repetition is used quite frequently to drive home a certain point.
Psalm 29, does this quite frequently:
Verse 4: “The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor”
Verse 5: “The voice of the Lord breaks the ceder tree; the Lord breaks the ceders of Lebanon”
Psalm 130, verses 4 and 5:
“I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him” and,
“My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
In the Gospel according to St. John, this repetition is also used by Jesus in his preaching. In older translations of the New Testament, one might come across several instances of Jesus beginning a teaching with the phrase, “Verily, verily” or “Truly, truly” (John 1:51; 3:3; 3:5; 5:24). In the New Revised Standard Version, this doubling is not present, but is instead translated to mean the same exact point. Instead of saying, “Verily, verily,” in the New Revised Standard translation, Jesus says, “Very truly.”
The voice on the mountain not only encourages us to listen, it is expecting us to do so. God is saying to Simon Peter and those gathered on the Mount, “Very truly I am telling you. I told you once, I am telling you again because it is the truth: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" Heed his voice. Heed his actions.
Sometimes the most universal call can seem like God is speaking directly to us. I don’t suspect it's a mere coincidence that just before these events on the Mount, Jesus had to rebuke Peter. The Gospel according to St. Matthew records:
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”(Matthew 16:21-23).
Even though Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter begins preventing Jesus from fulfilling what he believes he must do. Although Peter’s intentions are good in that he wants to save Jesus’ life, instead Jesus rebukes him.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”(Matthew 16:21-23).
Jesus knows an Easter Sunday cannot come without a Good Friday. The upcoming season of Lent invites us to prepare ourselves for the Good Friday of our lives awaiting us. The practices of fasting and abstinence during Lent cannot simply be a time for us to do what we should be doing anyways--eating less chocolate, drinking less alcohol, watching less TV, praying more often. Lent is about preparing a home where the Risen Christ may reside. Lent is about reorienting ourselves away from this passing world and preparing our souls and bodies so that, in heaven, we too will be “wonderfully transfigured, in “raiment white and glistering” (BCP, p. 191). Jesus challenges us this Lent with the question we may ask ourselves, found in the Gospel, according to St. Matthew, Chapter 16, verses 25-26: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Lent invites us to ask ourselves “What is it we are searching for in our lives? Would we also rather gain the whole world, but forfeit our eternal souls?”
The Church offers us this season, as she does every year, the opportunity to reexamine the priorities in our life and reorient ourselves towards the Mountain of God, towards the Heavenly reality experienced by Simon Peter, James, and John that evening on Mount Tabor.
And so, as we prepare to receive Jesus Christ in his most holy Sacrament on the altar, let us pray that we, like Simon Peter heed the worlds of the Father by listening and being faithful witnesses and followers of Jesus Christ our Lord. And may we throughout his holy season of Lent, be strengthened to bear our crosses and to pray we are changed into His likeness, from glory to glory. Amen.
Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday)
February 23, 2020
First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
St. John's Episcopal Church
February 23, 2020
Brother James Nathaniel, SSF can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org