3Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
17Six 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. 9As 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.”
Who do you say that I am?
Thank you, Noah for bringing us that reading from Matthew 16. What an interesting question Jesus asks his disciples: “You are out and about! What do you hear on the street? Who do you fellows say that I am?” And Simon says, “Well, Jesus, they mostly say that you are a prophet – like John the Baptist, or Elijah, or maybe even Moses!” And then Jesus asks another question: “Well, who do you say that I am?” He really puts them on the spot!
These men (and some women, too) have only known Jesus for two years, and a good bit of that time, they’ve been pretty confused about that very issue! They have witnessed miracles like turning water into wine, and healings, and raising people from the dead. They have seen Jesus talk to all manner of people and heard him do lots of preaching about how the Kingdom of God is coming, but, frankly, much of what Jesus says doesn’t make sense, and where is this kingdom he keeps talking about? So how do we answer that question: “Who do you think that I am?” A teacher? A prophet? A preacher? A madman? A divine healer? A reincarnation of Abraham or Moses? For these confused followers, it was a difficult question, and I bet there was some shuffling of feet, downward glances, and an uncomfortable silence.
But Simon Peter saves the day. He pops up with an answer: “You, Lord, are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And it’s the right answer, because Jesus says, “Blessed are you! God has allowed you to see who I really am. And I will make you into exactly what your name means: You will be the rock on which I build my church!”
Now, if Jesus walked into this church this morning, and stood where I am standing and said, “ John Eckman, who do you say that I am?” I think you might have a ready answer, because you like most of us have been pondering that question for 20, 30, 40 years. We have learned the words to describe our faith, and we have formulated our answer.
But here is something interesting. That question – “Who do you say that I am?” generally evokes two kinds of answers, dividing any group of believers into two camps. One camp would align with the historical Jesus – a flesh and blood man whom God appropriated to speak his Word and do his will. They would cite Jesus’ wrestling with temptation in the dessert, his exhaustion and need to slip away from the crowds. They point to Christ’s struggle in Gethsemane to accept his impending death – real temptation, real sweat, real tears. Nevertheless, they would concede, in this mortal man, in this rabbi from the house and lineage of David, God’s spirit chose to dwell. He possessed a spirituality so profound and preached a doctrine so radically different from the norms of his day that he irrevocably changed the course of human history. In fact, in his short three years, this Jesus was prophet, teacher, activist, missionary, preacher, and martyr –modeling for all time how to live with courage, compassion, and agape love. So to this group of believers, the answer to the question is: You, Lord, are fully human.
In the other camp are those who understand Jesus as God, temporarily clothed in human flesh. They would draw from John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and without him, not one thing came into being.” They would list example after example of how Christ fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and others. They would point to Christ’s virgin birth, his sinless life, his miracles of healing, and – above all else – to his resurrection. And so, to this group of believers, the answer to Jesus’ question is: You, Lord, are fully God.
Now, today’s second gospel reading stands at the crossroads of these two camps: Six days after posing this question to his disciples, Jesus takes three of them – Peter, James, and John—on a hike up the mountain. As readers, we immediately remember other mountains in the Bible – especially Moses’ hike up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. So, here, Christ leads the trek up a mountain. And when they reach the top, the disciples have what can only be described as a mystical, metaphysical experience. In Luke’s version of the story, the hikers are tired and grow drowsy, but they don’t actually fall asleep as they do sometime later in the Garden of Gethsemane. They manage to stay awake and — in this half-awake limbo — they see Christ transfigured – his face changes and he begins to shine like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white – whiter than any bleach can whiten them. Then Jesus is joined by two other figures they recognize as Moses and Elijah. A cloud overshadows them, and they are terrified by the voice of God. “This is my son,” God says, “My Beloved! Listen to him!”
Now, for the “fully God” people, this text is not a problem. It corroborates what they already believe. Why wouldn’t Jesus appear in a mystical form? Jesus, as God, has the power to transform himself into anything he wishes! And they think back to Christ’s baptism: God spoke then, too, saying almost exactly the same words: “This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased.” Of course, Christ appears in a glowing transfiguration, because he is – after all—the great God of the Universe!
But for the folks who see Christ as “fully human,” this scene on the mountain top is a challenge. Nowhere else in the gospels does Christ change his appearance. And it is made even more challenging by Renaissance paintings. In Rafael’s famous depiction of the Transfiguration, Christ, Moses and Elijah appear to hover over the mountain, floating in the clouds, while the disciples cower on the ground below. Only in Mark’s and Luke’s account of the ascension, does Christ appear to rise into the clouds. For the “fully human” group, the story lacks credibility! // Yet, it appears –with very little variation– in three of the four gospels.
So what happened up there? As they come down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no one about their “vision” until after he is raised from t he dead. // //
Now, there is a third camp of believers – I am in it, and so are most reformed theologians. We straddle the two camps of thought. We choose to live with the contradiction: Jesus of Nazareth was BOTH fully human and fully God. One of our statements of faith asserts: “We believe that Jesus Christ is fully human AND fully God.”
Granted, this is the hardest position to hold. It has been said, that the ability to simultaneously entertain two contradictory ideas is the mark of genius. I can’t claim genius; but I can claim Jesus’ own words. What Jesus actually asked his followers was “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Christ calls himself the “son of man”? And yet, the answer he seeks is Peter’s: “You, Lord, are the Son of the living God.”
The message is simple: Christ, born human, is the son of God. Humans, who believe in the Father, are sons and daughters of God. You and I are the sons and daughters of God. And what occurred on that mountaintop was not a transformation. Christ did not “turn into” something else – a glowing divine being. He was already a glowing divine being. It was simply that Peter, James, and John were able to glimpse the light, the glory, of God in Christ.
Do you remember Clark Kent? The mild-mannered, bespectacled newspaper man? Do you remember where he changed his clothes? Yes, in a phone booth. When he needed to use his superhero powers, he ducked into a phone booth and came out as Superman. It wasn’t a transformation. He was Superman inside all along. He merely took off his button-down shirt and loafers to reveal the Superman cape that was always tucked inside.
Jesus wasn’t transformed either. He was glowing with the spirit of God all along, but his disciples could not see it, they were blinded by his mortal disguise. But, at this moment in his ministry, Jesus needed them to see it. He was facing arrest, persecution, and death, and he needed them to be absolutely convinced that he was both human and immortal. The Son of Man was the Son of the living God.
I once listened to a sermon series on the depravity of man. For four Sundays in a row, the preacher built argument after argument in support of Calvin’s doctrine of mankind’s utter worthlessness. By Week #4, I was so depressed, I could barely function! But then I got to thinking about how we were created – male and female — in God’s image. I got to thinking about how, again and again, the God of the Universe kept rescuing our wayward ancestors and bringing them back to covenant relationship. I thought about our forefathers and foremothers who were obedient to God, risking their lives to obey God’s bidding. I thought about Jesus’ words: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” I think about John 3: 16: “For God so loved the world – you and me—that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believs in him should not perish.” No, NO, we are not depraved or worthless. God loves us, and risks everything to save us, use us, put his Spirit in us. We are sons (and daughters) of man, yet children of God. God can glow in us!
Way too often, the light of God in us is hidden beneath our button-down shirts and loafers. It is hidden beneath the masks we wear, the stuff we surround ourselves with, and the company we keep. To blend in, we try to look like, sound like, and act like everyone else. We avoid being vulnerable or exposed. We are afraid to glow with the light God puts in us. We snuff out our own light!!
Christ allowed Peter, James, and John to see his divine light! It was a blinding gazillion mega-watts! In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke when we say our prayers to God? Churches are like children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, unknowingly stirring together the ingredients for TNT! It is madness,” says Dillard, “ to wear ladies’ straw hats . . . to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews!” We do not know what power we are playing with! Tapping into God’s brilliance, God’s power grid, is far more than we ever bargain for!
And the light in us? Yes, it is less brilliant that Christ’s, but it is light, God’s light, nonetheless. It has warmth, power, beauty, and magnetism, too. It is a candle in the darkness. We are the power of the church wherever we go. And this little light of mine? I’m gonna let it shine because it just may light the path of someone who sits in darkness! God can transfigure us for his purpose. And I pray that we will boldly step into that phone booth! AMEN.