Today is Transfiguration Sunday on the Christian calendar. Here is the gospel story of the Transfiguration, taken from 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. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then 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.’ 5While 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!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 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.’
That is a strange little story. Moses and Elijah, such vital figures in the history of the Jewish people, suddenly show up on the seen. Jesus is suddenly glowing. I can’t blame Peter for being overwhelmed, but the thing about Peter is, he will always say something. Does it matter that he doesn’t have anything meaningful to contribute? Not to Peter. Just read the gospels and you’ll see Peter sticking his foot in his mouth over and over again. I can relate: I’m the same way. I will open my mouth and say something every time, even when I haven’t a clue. Even when I am doing nothing but blowing hot air. Even when I’m just drawing attention to my own ignorance. Peter’s mouth got him a few verbal shellackings from the Lord, most notably this famous line: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. (Matthew 16:23)” Seriously, that must have stung.
But listen, in this instance – the Transfiguration – I think Peter’s behavior is especially understandable. He is experiencing a mindblowing “mountaintop” moment with Jesus. Of course he wants to stay there! And Peter being Peter, he doesn’t just want to watch; he wants to do something, say something, be in on the action. This amazing moment would be even better if he could do something to help! This time it is not Jesus who puts Peter in his place, but God the Father Himself. Judging by the reaction of Peter and the other disciples, this seems to have stung, too.
I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases verses 4 and 5 in The Message:
Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
It’s almost as if God is telling Peter to zip it.
How wonderfully human Peter is. God is doing something astounding in the midst of his followers, and Peter can’t just receive it. No, he has to try to improve on it. I wonder how many times in the last 2,000 years we, the followers of Jesus, have done the same thing. A beautiful work of the Spirit breaks into the world, and we want to build something. Organize. Institutionalize. Make it official. When we are the ones like Peter, James and John who are present, why can’t we just take it all in? Or perhaps say simply, “Thank God we get to see this!” Maybe we just want to remind God that we’re still here, and we’d be happy to help.
In fairness to James and John, maybe they were able to close their mouths and open their eyes. Too many of us, though, are like Peter. As I said, I’m like Peter.
Thank God – I mean, really, thank God – that Jesus has so much patience with those of us who are like Peter. After the voice from heaven, the disciples collapse in fear. The miraculous moment ends, and Jesus immediately reassures his stricken friends. It’s the same old Jesus they’ve seen every day who is standing over them now, saying, “Come on, get up. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The dazzling figure on the mountain is still their friend, their rabbi.
Then Jesus swears them to secrecy. You know, Jesus was always asking people to keep his miracles secret, and they almost never did what he asked. As far as we know, Peter, James and John kept the secret. That’s something at least. Here is one instance when Peter was able to hold his tongue.
I’m sure I’ve still got Transfiguration moments ahead of me; moments when God is obviously doing something wonderful and I’m standing off to the side waving my arms, trying to get His attention. “Oh, Lord, this is fantastic, but I’ve got the best idea! I know how to make it even better! Let me help!” And when my mouth has finally been closed and I’m lying on the ground feeling like a dope, I’m reassured to know that Jesus will still be there. He’ll be patiently shaking my shoulder, saying, “Come on, get up. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m still your rabbi, and your friend.”