We are Witnesses – Feast of the Transfiguration – February 23, 2020

2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” 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!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

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.”

Sermon Text

Repentance is the substance of the season we enter into now. Lent comes upon us and asks us to turn around, to come close to God and to recommit ourselves to God’s ways. Lent asks us to give up our selfishness, all those things we want but do not need. We do not do this so that we can look proud, we do not do this to look solemn or impressive, but to free ourselves to do the good work of Christ. The purpose of our earthly life is, after all, to chase God’s will and to truly embrace it. We are to be doers of God’s word, we are to be proclaimers of it, and we all have a responsibility to be witnesses to the goodness and power of God.

It can mean many things to call someone a witness. A witness in a trial speaks to the accuracy of a given situation – either confirming or dismissing the story of the participants in the trial. It would be hard to imagine a trial that did not call witnesses. The second use of witness is more common in Christian circles – it is to “testify,” about one’s faith. To do this is not simply to speak our doctrine, not simply displays of faith in public, but living a life worthy of our calling. This sort of testimony, called ματυρִַια in Greek, is where we get the word Martyr, those who demonstrated their faith even if, and often when, it included their torture and murder.

The sort of witnessing described in 2 Peter is something else though. The word used in this text-only occurs once in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek Old Testament – in a scenario in Esther with no Hebrew parallel. The word which is used means not to testify, not to stand in court, not even to act out faithfully in our calling to Christ. It describes Peter as an “eyewitness” literally as, “The one who looks upon.” Peter is not described here as something grandiose, he picks a rare and simple word. In choosing what to hang his hat on as an apostle of God he says quite simply, “I am an eyewitness to the Majestic Glory of Jesus.” Nothing more and nothing less.

In Peter’s context, the reason for this distinction is important. While we have no idea the particular problem facing the community addressed in 2 Peter, we know that there is a dispute between true and false teachings. Some people connect this to the work of the Judaizers we read about in Galatians, others to the Gnostic heresies which emerged in early Christianity. Reading through the text we do not have to be so specific, we do not have to cleave to either theory. There is a simplicity to this text which is rare in the New Testament. If we let it, this text gives us one of our simplest understandings of the work of the Church, but only if we do not get lost in its esoterics.

Peter is telling his congregations, in the face of a multitude of Christian witnesses that were swirling around them, how to discern good and bad teachings. The letter goes at length in its later chapters about what kind of things false prophets do and what they bring, but in this chapter, he sets up criteria that we can follow not only in identifying what is good teaching but in making sure that we speak and preach the word of God properly. Put in a few words Peter hangs his own authority on two things: the plain facts of his life and the authority of the Old Testament.

To this first point, Peter looks to the moment that defined his ministry. We, as people who have all the Gospels, Epistles, and traditions of the Church, know most of Peter’s biographical information. His call by the sea of Galilee, his walking on water, his denial, his repentance, his ministry in Rome and eventual crucifixion. Of all these moments, 2 Peter puts forward an often-overlooked moment in Peter’s life as his most formative. The Mountain of Transfiguration.

At the Transfiguration, God was fully revealed in the person of Jesus. Christ appeared fully radiant, was declared beloved once again by God the Father, and spoke to the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Here Peter saw his worlds collide. The teacher he knew and befriended was confirmed as the God who created him. The prophets he studied and whose God he worshipped stood in obvious communion with Christ. The mountain, hereto unknown and nondescript, now transformed for him into a “Holy Mountain.” This moment was what secured the faith of Peter and made it clear to him he was right in following Christ.

Still, his vision was not complete. Like when we stare at a bright light and find ourselves blinded for a moment, Peter was not able to understand fully what all this would mean. He wanted to build Jesus and the prophets a dwelling place, but they already had one above. He wanted to stay on the mountain and dwell in the glory of God like Moses had before him, but he needed to return into the world. He saw Jesus as God, yet when the time came would still deny him to save himself. The burning flame of revelation, pure and undiluted, was something he was not ready to fully take in.

The second defining aspect of Peter’s life was his leaning of the scripture of God. One of the first things that the Church tried to do once it became largely Greek was to remove itself from its Jewish siblings. Judaism was often considered a threat to the authorities of the Roman Empire, but it was incredibly popular among its citizenry. Christians, therefore, found it necessary to distance themselves from Judaism to avoid attracting fair weather converts who might betray them. Alternatively, and just as often, Greek Christians found the Jews to be uncouth, not as civilized as they were. Plain racism was often a part in motivating the anti-Semitism that came to define the Early Church.

However, leaders in the Early Church tried to prevent this. Here Peter is calling upon his congregations to stay beside rather than abandon Judaism’s contributions to the faith. Why is this? Because they were people through whom God spoke. The words of the prophets throughout history were from God, unquestionably and without room for discussion. This does not mean that people would not react differently or interpret them differently, but that in terms of interpreting the source the Hebrew Scripture the plain truth was that it was not born, “of human will, but [of] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

While these two concepts seem at times remote to us they should not be. No one is alive today who saw the transfiguration, no one is alive who saw Christ in his earthly ministry. Likewise, we seldom have to argue over whether or not we will include the Old Testament in our canon of Scripture, although such things do happen from time to time. No, we cannot put ourselves directly in the place of Peter’s congregation, but we are allowed for a moment to see how we can testify to Christ here and now. We are not eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration, but we are eyewitnesses to Christ all the same.

We have stories in our lives of God acting on our behalf. Moments that do not make sense unless someone guided them to happen. We have transformation in our character, habits and hates that we abandoned because of God. God breaking in, chasing us down, working within our hearts. These moments do not have to be grandiose. Most of them aren’t. We all wish we could have moments like the Transfiguration when God in all of God’s glory stands before us. We all wish we could look Jesus in the eye, ask him questions, yell at him when he doesn’t make sense, eat with him, laugh with him. Despite this wish, God usually works more quietly within our hearts. The subtle push in one direction or another. The voice from nowhere that makes us second guess the word we are about to say or the thing we are about to do.

God is not often appearing in flame on a Holy Mountain. God is appearing in those who teach us to be better. In the person we cannot stand who we have learned to love. In the moments of pain and darkness where the candle of our hope just won’t go out. Peter’s message to us is not that we need to have seen “Majestic Glory,” to speak of our faith. Peter is instead saying that when we speak to others we do not need long elaborate stories to tell, because the only ones that will matter are the real ones that have happened to us. The eyewitness testimony of our day to day is what brings the Kingdom of God into the world.

It was common following Jesus’ ascension for fables to be written that told fantastical stories about Jesus. Jesus as a child repelling dragon, Jesus as a teenager helping his father build houses through miracles, a talking cross coming out and telling the disciples Jesus is now in heaven. These were all circulating at the time this letter is written. To all this Peter makes it clear, stories may help us see truth, but they are only stories. He says, “I come to you not with stories of dragons and talking crosses, but with the plain truth that I saw Jesus do wonders. Not only did I see the wonders of Jesus, but I threw them all out. I abandoned Jesus the first second I got, and you know what, he still took me back. I, Peter, the rock of Christ’s Church, am a screwup, I am a hardheaded idiot, but I am beloved of God and an Apostle of the Church.”

Not one person in this room has a story that is not worth telling. Not one act of God in your life is too small to not bring the full power of the Gospel to light. The irony of the transfiguration is that each and every one of us, through the work of Christ, are now vessels of the Holy Spirit. Within us is God, the full glory of God, the Morning Star which rises in our Hearts. The Spirit within, that Majestic Glory that Peter saw, it will make us shine in our due time. When we speak the truth about what God has done for us, with no exaggeration or downplaying, we speak not of human will, but as people moved to speak by God’s Spirit. So, we must follow the Spirit, we must be transformed, but above all, we must speak the story, our story, that the Spirit has given us. – Amen

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