This weekend we’ll once again celebrate our namesake feast, the Transfiguration of our Lord, and thanks to an amazing blog post I read this week, I have come to realize that I’ve been preaching the Transfiguration all wrong. The blogger, Jason Micheli, has helped me realize that preachers like me too often turn Peter into some sort of strawman whom we use to contrast with truly righteous and faithful life. But maybe Peter gets it far more right than I’ve given him credit for.
According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus “took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:28-29). Matthew is even more specific in his telling, saying that Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun (Matthew 17:2).” To which, Peter famously responds, “‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ -not knowing what he said.”
Again, preachers like me have considered Peter’s response and talked about how the Christian life is not some sort of perpetual “mountaintop experience,” and our calling is to go back down to the “real world” to do all sorts of good deeds in loving service of others. When Peter offers to build the dwellings (the Greek is actually the word for tabernacle, reminding us of God’s movable dwelling in Exodus), he is presumably speaking selfishly, as though he just wants to hang out there with Jesus in some sort of perfect parallel fantasyland. But our calling, as the typical sermon goes, is to leave the safety and transcendence of the mountain and bravely venture forth.
But this week I’m wondering if Peter is actually the one who’s right. What Peter sees and experiences on that mountain changes him. He fully realizes what it means for God to come to dwell among us, and that the one he’s been walking around with for months is none other than the Lord of heaven and earth. He realizes that Jesus is the bridge between what he knows in this world with what he can’t yet comprehend in the world to come. As Jason Micheli writes, “It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves. If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.”
I don’t know about you, but I could sure use a little more time in the presence of the transfigured Christ. As I’ve written about in previous weeks, our society is more harried and stressed and hopeless than any time in recent history. It’s like we’re all swimming in waters laced with anxiety, and not even Christians are immune from their contagion. And what we need is more time in the presence of the glory of Christ, more time in awe and wonder at who it is we worship and follow, more time simply being with him. All our hurrying and busyness and good intentions can lead us quickly down the mountain, but not sufficiently transformed by the experience of our transfigured Lord to be able to remain faithfully afloat in these anxious times.
We need to spend more time here in worship and prayer, more time here singing and more time here being quiet. We need to spend more time gazing upon the image of the Transfigured Christ, so that we spend more time basking in the presence of our Lord. We need it because Peter is right – it is good for us to be here. This is where we belong. Christ is among us, and he is truly our eternal dwelling.