Wicker Park Lutheran Church
Vicar Vicky Carathanassis
February 19, 2023
I feel like this is quite often a week where we take a look at the gospel reading and then start bashing Peter a bit. And maybe there’s some expectation in the room that I’m going to start in on him too. “Shame on Peter! He took this beautiful and wild and holy moment and tried to cover and compartmentalize it. He wants to take this moment where Jesus is dazzling with God’s glory alongside the prophets of old contain all of them within structures made by humans. Put distance between the divine and nature and attempt to contain it within a more orderly and corporate structure. Oh no, Peter bad! Let us all berate him now.” And I’ve certainly heard sermons like that before, but…not today.
Let’s put ourselves in James, John, and especially Peter’s shoes for a moment. Six days ago, Jesus, seemingly unprompted by anything, announced to his disciples that he would need to go to Jerusalem soon, and that when he was there he’d suffer greatly at the hands of the religious authorities. Be killed, and then rise again on the third day. –This is the story where Peter then takes him aside and goes “Jesus no, we can’t let this happen to you!” And Jesus looks at him and says “get behind me, Satan!…You’re setting your mind not on divine things but human things.” Jesus then addresses all the disciples and tells them if anyone wishes to come after him, they should deny themselves, take up their own crosses and follow Jesus. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
So like…it’s been a very heavy week. The disciples are all still trying to process this bombshell revelation and work out what this means, both for themselves and for Jesus. And let’s be fair here, if you were one of the disciples and Jesus told you all this, that he’d die, but don’t worry he’d rise again after three days…but none of these events had yet taken place…would you believe him? I admit, I’m not so sure I would. I feel like I’d probably need a lot of time to sit and process this information, certainly more than the six days Peter, James, and John have had.
But, as is the case for us too, life rarely slows down just because bombshell news has dropped. The group continues onward, traveling across the countryside curing people of various aliments—that’s where the rest of the disciples are right now by the way. These four will join back up with them immediately after this passage. There haven’t been a lot of still quiet moments to go over what Jesus said. So imagine now, you’re probably tired and stressed, maybe a little overwhelmed. You’ve got a bunch of work in front of you, a lot of people who need your help, and Jesus pulls you and two other people aside and asks you to climb up a mountain with him. And once you get up there, suddenly he’s dazzling with light and Moses and Elijah are standing next to him. For people in that age, these would be two semi-mythical legends of old, standing in front of them.
Just to help ground us in time a bit, for Peter to see Elijah before him would be roughly the equivalent of having Robin Hood stroll into this room. And Moses would be kind of like King Arthur showing up? Neither are perfect comparisons but turns out there aren’t a whole lot of people from the 500’s or 1100’s that are commonly talked about today.
Anyhow so you climb this entire mountain with your friends, and suddenly one of your friends is shining with as much light as the sun and you see these two legendary heroes standing in front of you. And somehow you’re able to recognize them for who they are. And these heroes just start chit chatting with your friend like this is all very normal. What would you do in that situation?
Peter seems to fall back on basic manners for his time. Offering hospitality to travelers and guests is extremely important in their society and you know…do dead people drink water, do they eat food? Is there a delicate way to inquire in this? Unclear. Shelter though, shelter seems like it would be a doable thing. He has have no concept of how long this meeting is going to last. Maybe it’s going to be like the passage we read today in Exodus and they’ll be on this mountaintop for 40 days and nights. Seems pretty reasonable that they might want a place to retire to for rest during that time. And…they probably weren’t carrying tents up the mountain with them. (And yes, I know some translations will say “shelters” but the Greek word here specifically means either a tent or a cloth hut.) So he’s proposing walking back down the whole mountain and then climbing all the way back up with a bunch of tents and pitching them while his mentor continues his meeting with these legendary heroes. That is his first thought.
I think it’s important to point out here, that neither Moses nor Elijah had humans around tend to their bodies at the end of their lives. Elijah was famously carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire, and Jewish tradition says that Moses’ body was taken and buried by God, and only the Divine knows the exact location of his grave. There were no people around to tend to their bodies after death. No anointing and cleaning, no burial shrouds. No laying in a tomb. They were mourned yes, but for both of them, their body was missing. So maybe it isn’t so outlandish that when Peter sees them, around 1,500 and 600 years after their deaths, his first thought is tending to what he perceives to be their bodily needs. Because they kind of didn’t get that kind of care post-death before, but maybe they can make up for it a bit today.
And this is the part where some biblical commentaries will come back and say “Yeah, but he’s still focused on the earthly things even in this moment of divine happenings. That’s why we’re scolding him!” But you know who is very noticeably not scolding him? Jesus. A man who clearly has no problem with telling Peter off when he’s out of line. It would appear that for the Son of Humanity, this is not one of those moments.
At this moment on the mountaintop, Jesus stands before them in a form the disciples have not seen before. They get a sneak peak of Jesus’ form post resurrection,, with essentially “The Face” of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) standing with him. Here is a moment of divine glory shining here on Earth and I think it’s safe to assume that this movement is probably overwhelming and stressful and confusing, but even so, Peter responds to this moment with care. May we all have such strength.
And yes, then the clouds start speaking and all the disciples collapse on the ground in fear. Even for the disciples who have seen miracle after miracle, there is a limit to how many extraordinary things they can process at once before being overcome. But do you notice how Jesus responds to them? He leaves the glory of heaven, and resumes his earthly form. Goes over to the disciples, meeting them where they are at and he touches them, before telling them to get up and not to fear. And I can’t help but notice in doing so, he’s providing them with reassurance and physical care. Not so very different from what his eager disciple was attempting to do when he beheld the glory of heaven.
In three days Lent begins, a time when we as Christians prepare to retrace Jesus’ steps towards Jerusalem, his triumphant entry to the city, where he will be betrayed by his followers, suffer and be crucified. And even two thousand years later, even knowing what happens next in the story, there’s still a lot of feelings and questions to process. Today Jesus reminds us that that’s ok. Even the people who physically journeyed alongside him, even those who got a sneak peak of heaven here on earth, even they were overwhelmed with the weight of it all.
Today Jesus meets us wherever we are and says hey, don’t be scared, it’s going to be alright. Even if you feel overwhelmed by the weight of it all or don’t fully get what’s going on. None of this is dependent on you. I’ve got this. Follow me. Jerusalem awaits but it’s not the end. Alleluia. Amen.