Last Sunday after Epiphany 2023
When on the mountain top Christ is glorified with Moses and Elijah, we catch a breathtaking glimpse of his reality, and even perhaps of our own glory with him. A sort of culmination of all the “epiphanic” themes of the time after Christmas, here all becomes clear, if just for an instant. Or does it?
The interpretive challenge this week isn’t (just) outside this story, but is foregrounded in the story. Glory is easily misinterpreted. Jesus is revealed but Peter, the representative onlooker of the glory, misinterprets - and yet we might still find the hearer (or interpreter) of the Gospel doing just the same. The preacher’s task here will often be expounding the true character of glory.
The three synoptic versions are so similar that it is tempting to preach not about the Gospel as set, but about “the Transfiguration” as a sort of inferred story that doesn’t actually reflect any of the versions, but mashes them up. I can’t and won’t rule out all intertextual approaches for preachers or anyone else, but let me suggest that the first thing to do, if you can, is to grasp the particular version you’re reading, and ideally to preach it. The diversity of the stories - subtle as it is here - is not given so you can just harmonize them to suit, but to ask what each evangelist has to say in particular.
In all three the astounding vision (and voice - see below) reveal Jesus’ identity relative to Moses and Elijah, but all qualify or channel this revelation, first by the close connection with the preceding sayings predicting the passion (16:21) and about the cost of discipleship (Matt 16:24 and parallels), and then by the following command to silence. This command implies the impossibility of understanding the glory without the suffering of the Son - which Matthew (following Mark) emphasizes by continuing from here into the talk of Elijah’s reappearance in John the Baptist and of his own suffering.
Peter functions, across all three versions, as a foil to represent misunderstanding of the event. The significance of the booths or tents seems to be that of grasping and trying to hold on to the glory. Surprisingly or not, this is a mistake. Just a few verses before we have had Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16) but then the subsequent exposure of the inadequacy of that statement (v.23). The lectionary doesn’t help much by isolating this pericope from the context, except the following command to silence; the preacher bears responsibility, whether by contextualizing in the Gospel narrative or perhaps by noting how this observance points also to the themes of Lent, for ensuring we don’t simply repeat Peter’s banality.
Yet unlike Mark and Luke, who add to Peter’s inadequate response the comment that he “didn’t know what he said” (deepening the criticism, by doubling down on his incomprehension), Matthew implies that the booth-making idea was fairly reasonable, and more clearly than the others invites us to identify with Peter by wanting to stay and enjoy the show.
The other distinctive element of the Matthean story is how the fear of the disciples is quite differently shaped. It follows not the brilliant appearance itself (as in Mark and Luke), but only the divine voice, that comes distinctly later. This adds to the sense that Peter’s earlier response to three great and glorious ones had been reasonable, if no more adequate for that, because he wasn’t terrified - yet. When the vision came and when he makes the tent-building offer, his proposal is one of joy and wonder, not fear or stupidity.
It is the following moment, the divine voice announcing Jesus’ identity, not the vision itself, that gives rise to the fear of the disciples in Matthew. Matthew’s contribution here is thus to name the fear as related to Jesus’ real identity being revealed as more than a show, to the dawning understanding that Jesus’ glory and his vocation are bound up in his being “the beloved son” who is also that Son of Man who will undergo suffering. The meaning of that sonship must be provided from context, including his preeminence even relative to the two great patriarchal figures, but also the fate Jesus had outlined before they went up the mountain. While Jesus does then encourage them not to be afraid (v. 7), the point has been made. This is no easy glory to gawp at; turning Jesus into our celebrity (“he gets you”?) may not be the solution.
Augustine, preaching on this same text (in Sermon 78), captures nicely both the stupefying appeal of misunderstood glory, and the necessary response:
Come down, Peter! You wanted to rest on the mount. Come down and “preach the word, be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (2 Tm 4:2).” Persevere, work hard, bear your measure of torture — so that you might possess what is meant by the white garment of the Lord, through the brightness and the beauty of an upright labor in charity …This Peter did not yet understand when he desired to live on the mount with Christ. He was reserving this for you, Peter, after death. But for now He says, “Come down, to labor on the earth; on the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified on the earth.”