St. Peter is the twelve disciples reduced to one person.
St. Peter is the “stand in” for the Twelve and for us all.
In Matthew chapter sixteen, just before today’s Gospel lesson, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ.
He says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And with him, we confess the same.
But then, the Christ Himself confesses that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
When we think of success and faithfulness, we don’t think of suffering and being killed, so Peter, standing in for us all, rebukes Jesus, saying: “Far be it from you, Lord!”
But to rebuke Jesus for going to the cross, to attempt to hinder Jesus from His mission, is satanic.
“Get thee behind me satan,” Jesus says.
And Peter, again, standing in for the Twelve and for us all, can’t understand Jesus’ death as the sacrifice and victory that it is.
We want our powerful God to look powerful.
We don’t want Him to die.
We want our powerful God to save our friends and family from death, not to seemingly abandon them and us along the way.
We want to be faithful in the midst of ease.
We forget that faith is a thing to be tested by God.
Like Peter, we don’t understand Jesus’ suffering and death as the sacrifice and victory that it is.
Even Peter’s pretty words can’t cover up his error. He says, later on, “Though [the other disciples] fall away because of you, I will never fall away…Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:33, 35).
But Denying Peter does just that. He does deny Jesus—and three times!
Peter, standing in for the Twelve and for us all, doesn’t listen.
In today’s gospel lesson, he rejoices to see the Christ in glory.
Whatever his motivation, whatever his intent, he desires to prolong his mountaintop experience saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4).
The center of Peter’s world is what he can see.
And, with him, we are easily fooled.
Peter sees Jesus in glory, and wants to partake. So do James and John, the disciples who are with him. And so would we!
But the center of the gospel is not what we see but what we hear. Our eyes can be fooled, because experience changes from day to day. But our ears aren’t fooled, because the word of the Lord endures forever.
That’s a fancy way of saying that faith comes by hearing (not seeing) and hearing by the word of Christ.
And this is what we hear: the heavenly voice. The voice of God our Heavenly Father saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
He says this while Peter is still speaking.
God the Father interrupts Peter—gently—but clearly so as to identify all that is needed for this life and the life to come.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Of course we need to listen to all of what Jesus says.
“Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
Of course we should listen to that!
And Jesus’ first sermon: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17).
Of course we should listen to that!
But perhaps, most especially, we should listen to what, in Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus says in the immediate context of His Father’s imperative.
It’s as if God the Father says, “Listen especially to what He just said. Listen to what He’s about to say.”
Because just before and just after today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus predicts His passion, death, and resurrection.
Before the Transfiguration, Jesus says “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
The response to this was Peter’s rebuke.
And after the Transfiguration, Jesus says “‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matthew 17:22-23).
…Because they don’t listen to Jesus.
The key, the center of our comfort today, is in verse nine. “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Matthew 17:9).
It may seem strange, for Jesus to command His disciples not to tell about something He did.
But He wants them to wait…and then to tell.
Because Peter’s life—the life of a disciple of Jesus the Christ—your life as a Christian—none of it makes sense apart from Jesus’ resurrection—the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Apart from that, we can’t understand suffering, let alone endure it with patience and faith.
Apart from that, we can’t understand death, let alone die well and teach our loved ones to do the same, with patience and faith.
Apart from the resurrection of the body, we can’t even understand glory, because every trophy on this side of things will fade away. And on the other side of things, there’s only immortality and the imperishable that God bestows.
Only with the resurrection in mind can we—do we—endure suffering and death with patience and faith that looks at all the body can suffer and still says, “It is good, Lord, to be here.” Wherever here is.
Only with the resurrection in mind can we confess with St. Paul: “‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
And not only do we endure these things, we desire for ourselves whatsoever God desires for us:
Today, always and especially, He desires us to hear Jesus.
Out of either the perceived need or just the want of the experience, every one of us desires the miraculous mountaintop—something akin to the Transfiguration.
But—after Jesus’ resurrection—now, when he’s supposed to talk about it—this is how Peter speaks of such things: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. When he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the [Father], ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’we ourselves heard this very voice…for we were with him on the holy mountain.[But] we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:16-19).
That is, the prophetic word, the Word of God, what we have, is better than any mountaintop or miracle.
We have Jesus.
Listen to Him.
Though discipleship may, will, and does include suffering and death…
…The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us how the story ends.
It shows us how the Christian’s story—your story—will end: with the same words Jesus spoke to Peter and the disciples when they were on the holy mountain and afraid.
Jesus says, “Rise, and have no fear” (Matthew 16:7).
And, on the Last Day, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will get up and say: “Yes, Lord.”
So “Listen to him.” And live as one who does.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
The Transfiguration of Our Lord, 2021
Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt