Grace Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2019, Transfiguration C
They Were Terrified
(Note: what follows is an after-the-fact attempt at summarizing and hopefully recapturing the main points of a sermon delivered without notes on Sunday, March 3, as GPC met for worship at Montgomery Presbyterian Center.)
There is a lot that has already happened in Luke’s account, just in this chapter. At the beginning the disciples are sent out for ministry of teaching and healing, and they return with great joy observing that, in layperson’s terms, “it worked!” Herod has also taken notice of this Jesus fellow, and (after a quick turn feeding five thousand) Jesus has gathered the disciples back together for a conversation about who people say he is. After answers about John, Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets, he asks “but who do you say that I am?” This is when Peter makes his one really good statement, correctly naming Jesus as the Messiah, to which Jesus says…shhh. Don’t tell anybody. Then, to throw things off even more, he starts talking about not glorious things, but things like suffering and rejection and being executed (although he does throw in being raised from the dead too), and then challenging anyone who would be a disciple denying themselves and taking up crosses and following, and how whoever would save one’s own life would lose it and vice versa. So a lot is going on, to be sure.
Luke’s gospel could never have been set in Florida; there aren’t any mountains here, and Jesus’s go-to retreat places always seem to be mountains in this gospel. For this retreat Peter, James, and John are with him, and are already getting groggy when Jesus is settling in to pray. What happens next definitely keeps them awake. Jesus’s appearance changes; his face is different and his robe is suddenly “dazzling white.”
Oh, and then Moses and Elijah, heroes of the faith, show up, talking to Jesus about what’s to come in Jerusalem, the suffering and execution and being raised again. So that’s a lot to take in.
Whether it’s the grogginess or the slightly overwhelmed sensation after all that’s already happened, Peter turns around and starts talking without his mouth being plugged into his brain. Luke even tries to soften the harshness of the inappropriate moment with the slightly pitying description “not knowing what he said.” Even so, this talk about building “dwellings” (more specifically tents or booths, like might be erected at Jewish festivals) seems to set off something more menacing, as a cloud advanced upon the scene and overshadowed the disciples. Clouds have a history as a marker of God’s presence (all the way back to the Exodus), and sure enough, a voice (quite God-like) came from the cloud with this insistent bit of instruction: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Suddenly the cloud is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone, and it’s just Jesus, standing there.
But don’t overlook what Luke tells us about the disciples when the cloud appears: “…they were terrified” as the cloud overtook them. Terrified.
Apparently they were terrified enough that they didn’t talk about it, at least not at the time. What happened on the mountain stayed on the mountain.
As understandable as it might be, terror, or fear, never really works as a response to God. The disciples clam up. When they have come down the mountain the next day, they are confronted by the man with the suffering child whom the disciples – who had just been out teaching and healing not long before – unable to heal him, and apparently Peter, James, and John didn’t help. Again, being afraid is quite understandable – not just that dramatic scene but all that Jesus had said before about suffering and dying – but it still doesn’t help.
It didn’t help the disciples then, and it doesn’t help the church now.
These days the church has a bad time with fear. In particular the world we live in and the highly disrupted and disordered society we now live in can set off fear to be sure, but the church also seems to have a bad time with the moving of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves among those whom the church had decided cannot belong – they’re wrong, they’re immoral, they’re rejected and they’re not part of us, and God goes out calling them and moving among them and setting them apart for ministry, even. The church reacts with fear, and the church damages its witness.
We can’t do that. We have so little witness as it is, we can’t throw it off because we’re afraid of what God is doing. We fail to serve God when fear overtakes us.
Elsewhere in scripture we are told that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). That’s a charge for us to follow. That “perfect love” is what God wants to show to the world through us. If we are pulling back in fear from those God is calling and claiming as God’s own children, we are rejecting that perfect love. And we are killing ourselves as a church, local or universal.
Perfect love casts out that fear, even when we’re terrified.. And for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #527, Eat This Bread; #227, Jesus, Remember Me; #741, Guide My Feet