The Transfiguration is about Peter–and imperfection.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, based on Luke’s Account, found here.

“It is good for us to be here! Let us build three dwellings! One for you and one for Moses, and one for Elijah…

 He babbled, dumbstruck. His eyes were heavy, his body heavier—he was tired, our Peter—and he was blinded. Here stood his teacher, dazzling white in this inexplicable light, white like lightning, speaking with the two most important men in the history of Israel. He saw them turn, and perhaps Moses lifted a hand to Jesus, reached to touch him in with some sort of comforting hold—and Peter knew that they were turning to leave. He blurted it out, leaning forward, nearing peeling after them:

“Let us build three dwellings!”

He was acting stupidly. But that was in his nature, our Peter. He spoke before he thought.

The Transfiguration has long been a story about perfection:

A story about Jesus enthroned by light itself, as he speaks in hushed convocation with the great Law Giver and the Great Prophet.

For the ancient Christians, it was a way to truly situate Jesus in their story as a people. For Medieval Christians, it was a way to demonstrate the power and awe of God—the might of this Word, made Flesh.

But it is as much a story about the imperfect as it is about the perfect.

Because, as much as it is a story about Jesus, it is even more a story about Peter.

What do we know about the Apostle Peter?

It’s hard to pin him down, perhaps because the four different gospels have four different accounts of most everything he does.

But, despite the varying accounts and messy factoids about Peter’s life, his character is cohesive.

He’s eager and he’s hungry: hungry for something bigger, hungry for something else, some other meaning to his life. And he speaks before he thinks: he is far from perfect.

I imagine him with bright eyes, always just a little bit too wide, and he’s always a little too quick to jump on something, his voice always just a little bit too loud. He’s hungry for something more, and it translates as a sort of anxiety behind those eager eyes, that too-loud voice, and so people step cautiously around our Peter, because they’re not quite sure what it is he wants from this life—or them, and they see that yearning as dangerous to their own fragile contentment.

We don’t know his age, but he’s probably younger than we typically imagine him. Scholars place him not much older than twenty.

We know he’s married, and so we can assume that he has children, too. He’s just some average fisherman, day in and day out, going out on his boat, enormous hands hauling in rough, rope nets. Fishermen are known to be gruff and troublesome, cussing all the time, fishing all night, and maybe drinking all day. The catch always average, unless it is less than average. And the fish go into the market, and then he goes out and does it again and again, and again.

The powerless rhythm of his good-for-nothing life is deafening, paralyzing to this man with such exuberance and such an eager heart.

Then comes Jesus, and he says: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

And our Peter, suddenly awake to what he’s been so desperate for, gets up and goes—just takes off after this Jesus.

And this is where I realize I have a love-hate relationship with this Peter figure.

I’m particularly angry with him, for just abandoning that wife and those supposed children. Sure, his life is drudgery and misery, and being a fisherman certainly has nothing to do with his greater purpose in life, but what about those people who rely on him? Why does he get to just get up and go? Who does he think he is, just abandoning them—and then going on some audacious quest to tell everyone that he knows some truth that they don’t know?! Half the time he’s just sticking his foot in his mouth anyway!

How is he worthy of that?

But that’s the agonizing, infuriating beauty of it: Peter is so obviously imperfect, so obviously human, so obviously unprepared for God’s glory, just as we are—just as the whole church is.

It is his yearning that makes him worthy, his belligerent belief in something more than makes him an apostle—not his perfection, not his impeccable moral character—his ridiculous, catastrophic faith–that same faith that makes him blurt ridiculous things in inopportune moments.

Right before this scene on the mountain, some people are spreading rumors that Jesus might be John the Baptist’s ghost, or more exciting, Elijah, returned. And he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter falls all over himself, “You’re the Messiah! The one we’ve been waiting for! You’re the one God has sent here to save us, to restore the Kingdom of Israel!”

And then here they are, on the mountain.

And here is Peter, awe struck at his teacher enshrined in light—God, he’s sure that this is it, this is perfection, this is the moment they’ve all been waiting for. God’s glory is shining through and breaking in and, then, he sees the two men turn, Moses and Elijah, turn away from Jesus, begin to put their backs to them all—and he cries,

“Wait! It is good for us to be here! Let us build three dwellings—let us stay—let us be here, in this moment in this glory,

please—don’t leave me.”

How often have we done the same?

Standing before some impossible glory, some perfect moment of happiness, some moment when God’s light and power shown all around—how often have we stood before that moment and desired only to keep it? To cling to it?

To build a dwelling and tame it, keep it there on our own mountain?

There’s a reason Jesus chose our Peter to build his church upon—we aren’t much different from him, broken and desperate, aching for glory, and yet so frightened when we realize that glory can never be tamed.

And in this moment, when our world has been blown apart, and God breaks in and explodes our vision, and shines through—God makes us a promise: This is my son. This is my son. He is with you. Listen to him.

Because,

what we don’t know—what Peter doesn’t know—is what will happen next.

He doesn’t know about the next healing, or the next mission, or the next miracle. He doesn’t know all the other ways he will yet see God’s glory break through: not about the moment Lazarus would get up, not about the moment sitting at the table with his teacher, as he breaks bread and blesses wine, not about the cross, and not about that empty tomb.

He doesn’t know about the moment when the Holy Spirit will choose his imperfect self to lead a movement–nor about us, sitting here, pondering his every act, living into that movement even two thousand years later.

Peter knows nothing about any of it. All he knows is that Moses and Elijah are here now, and Jesus’ clothes are shining white, and all he knows is that they are going to leave.

It must have been so heartbreaking to find Jesus alone again, dull, once more on that mountain.

But, then, none of them knew what would happen next, and neither do we.

5 thoughts on “The Transfiguration is about Peter–and imperfection.”

  1. Loved this post. One thing stuck out to me though – “It’s hard to pin him down, perhaps because the four different gospels have four different accounts of most everything he does.”
    I was curious about that and asked the Googles about it. I didn’t come up with anything big. Care to elaborate?
    It seems like you don’t trust the scriptures well enough to draw many conclusions from them.

    1. Sure, I can elaborate on that comment. The four gospels have slightly different accounts of almost every scene in the bible. For instance, in this scene, God’s response is different–in the “You’re the Messiah!” announcement, there’s additional exchanges between Jesus and Peter that aren’t found in the Gospel of Luke, but are found in the Gospel of Matthew. Each gospel has a slightly different way of telling the story, which makes it hard for us to know what “really” happened. But, what I like about this is that it gives us a clear picture of Peter’s character. He has basically the same attitude throughout the New Testament.

  2. I totally identify with Peter, I am the one who speaks before my brain gets in gear. you would think that by the time the new testament rolled around they would stop acting like idiots like the israelites, Short sighted and forgetting that the next miracle might be right around the corner… yikes! sounds like me. thank you for your insight!!

    1. I think it’s definitely a human trait–one of those things that will never go away. 🙂 That’s why we have stories like this, and why they persevere as sacred scripture.

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