[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28-36. You can read the text here.
As many of you know, my wife and I recently became grandparents for the first time. I know I’ve talked about this a lot lately, but it’s what you do when you become grandparents! It’s been fun reminiscing about what it was like to become parents ourselves, and watching our son and daughter-in-law make many of the same discoveries we did. One of the most striking things about having kids is how dramatically your perspective on life shifts when you become a parent. Typically, it’s not something you just take in your stride: when you have a baby, your whole world – by which I mean not only the practical arrangement of your life, but the whole way you see the world – changes. Becoming a parent is a change of circumstance that causes a dramatic shift in perspective.
Becoming a parent is an example of what’s sometimes called a paradigm shift. In this context, a paradigm means a set of assumptions that determine how we see the world. We all have a paradigm – we might also call it a worldview – and it’s usually something we’re not consciously aware of until we have an experience that challenges our previously unquestioned assumptions.
One characteristic of a paradigm shift is that it’s not simply a case of acquiring new information or knowledge. You can read about having a baby; you can even attend ante-natal classes to learn about what to expect when the baby arrives; but until you actually have a baby, you’ll never experience the huge change in perspective and worldview that results from becoming a parent.
To reiterate, then, a paradigm shift is not simply about acquiring new information: it’s a change of perspective, a shift to a whole new level of awareness or consciousness.
As you might have guessed, the reason I’ve been talking about paradigm shifts is that I believe this is what today’s Gospel reading is fundamentally about. Peter, James and John needed to have their perspective changed; and, of course, through the words of scripture, we are also invited to allow our perspective to be changed.
Recapping the story
Let’s briefly recap what we heard in the Gospel reading.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. As Jesus is praying, his appearance changes (the King James Version says he’s “transfigured”), he becomes as bright as lightning, and Moses and Elijah appear alongside him and talk with him about his “departure”, which, the text tells us, he is “about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem”. Peter, James and John, in spite of being sleepy, witness this strange scene, and Peter wants to build three shrines for Jesus and his illustrious companions. Then a cloud descends on them, they’re frightened, and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him”. The cloud disappears, and with it Moses and Elijah: Jesus is once again alone on the mountain with his disciples.
A strange episode indeed. One of the challenges of preaching on a text like this is that there are so many angles to explore, so many different directions we could go in. For the sake of time, we’re just going to focus on the paradigm shift that Peter needed to undergo, and how what he experienced on the mountain encouraged just such a shift.
So, let’s think about Peter. We’re told that, as Moses and Elijah are beginning to leave Jesus, Peter pipes up and suggests building shelters for the three of them. Rather amusingly, the text tells us, “He didn’t know what he was saying”: as we see elsewhere in the Gospels, Peter’s approach often seems to be, “If in doubt, say the first thing that comes into your head!”
In any event, Peter is clearly overwhelmed enough by the whole experience that he wants to prolong it and commemorate it. But, besides the visual spectacle of seeing Jesus shine like lightning, what is it that impresses him so much?
Remember that Peter, like the other disciples, is on a journey of trying to figure out just who Jesus is. He’s decided Jesus is important enough to leave his home and his business and become one of his followers, but beyond that, who is Jesus? A teacher? A healer? A prophet? Something more?
At this point, we need to recognise the importance of Moses and Elijah. To a first-century Jew, these were two of the most pivotal figures in the history not only of the Jewish faith, but of Israel as a people. They were monumental, towering figures – heroes of the faith and of history – representing the twin pillars of Judaism: the Law and the Prophets. Moses, of course, was the great lawgiver, the one to whom God had given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. And Elijah was perhaps the greatest, certainly the most iconic, of Israel’s prophets. And here they are, chatting with Jesus. I wonder, is part of the reason Peter is so impressed by this appearance the fact that, in his eyes, it seems to confirm that Jesus, this itinerant rabbi on whom he’s taken a gamble, is turning out to be on an equal footing with Israel’s great heroes?
Notice again what happens after Peter tries to arrange to install Jesus, Moses and Elijah in permanent accommodation on the mountain. A cloud comes down; a voice – presumably God’s – says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him!”; and the cloud departs, leaving Jesus alone with the disciples. Here’s Peter, wanting to celebrate and commemorate Jesus’ elevation to the same rank as Moses and Elijah – in other words, to the same level of importance as the Law and the Prophets – and it’s as though God says, “No! This is the one you need to listen to!”
Peter’s paradigm shift
Peter needed to have his perspective changed to see that Jesus was not just another Prophet, or another interpreter of the Law. He was not to be put on an equal footing with Moses and Elijah. Peter needed to be awakened to the truth that Jesus perfectly reveals God in a way that the Law and the Prophets never could. At best, the Law and the Prophets could only ever cast a pale shadow of what God was like; Jesus, on the other hand, was the perfect embodiment of God’s nature in human form.
This realisation of the supremacy of Jesus as the one true revealer of God’s nature would have huge implications for Peter, as it should for all of us. No longer would Peter be able to appeal to the Law as the ultimate arbiter of God’s will: for example, where the Law said a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, Jesus would say the one who was without sin should cast the first stone, demonstrating God’s heart of compassion and mercy and his absolute opposition to violence, even where the Law seemed to require it.
Notice, as well, that Peter’s impulse is to keep Jesus on the mountain rather than allow him to continue on to the final part of his mission – a mission that will take him first to Jerusalem, and then to the cross. This reminds me of the incident we read about in Mark 8 – shortly before Mark’s account of the Transfiguration – where Jesus begins to speak openly to the disciples about his coming suffering and death, Peter tells him off, and Peter is in turn sharply rebuked by Jesus with the famous words, “Get behind me, satan!” Is Peter harbouring hopes that Jesus will turn out to be the conquering Messiah who leads Israel to victory against the occupying Romans? Is that why he’s so reluctant to let Jesus self-sabotage (as Peter sees it), and why he’s so bemused by all this talk of suffering and death?
This is another vital aspect of the paradigm shift Peter needed to undergo. He needed to understand that in God’s kingdom, the way up is down; the way to gain your life is to lose it; the way to salvation for Israel was not to seek out a heroic messiah who would rise up against the Romans, but to embrace the way of peace – the way of the cross.
Ready, steady, shift
Of course, Peter didn’t “get the message” straight away. Like many of us, he was a slow learner. And these weren’t the only paradigm shifts he would need to undergo: there would be more to come. For example, I think denying Jesus in his most desperate hour, and then later receiving Jesus’ forgiveness on the lakeshore in Galilee, would have been an experience that triggered a massive and profound shift in Peter’s perspective on both Jesus and himself.
The question is, are we willing to have our own assumptions challenged and our own perspective changed? So often, particularly when it comes to our beliefs about God and how he relates to us and the world, we can easily think we’ve got it all worked out and we know all the right answers. That can be especially true for those of who’ve been followers of Jesus for a very long time. But when we set up camp on our beliefs and convictions by insisting that they’re absolutely, unarguably correct and must never be allowed to change, aren’t we, just like Peter, trying to build a structure to box Jesus in and keep him safely contained where he can’t do too much damage to our preconceptions?
Like Peter, we need to allow our vision and our understanding of what God is like to be shaped first and foremost by Jesus and not by anything else, even if it is in the Bible. And, just as importantly, we need to be ready and willing to have our perspectives challenged and our paradigms shifted. That can be uncomfortable and disorientating, but it’s vital if we’re serious about growing and maturing as followers of Jesus rather than just being people who keep Jesus in a shrine and only pay him any attention on Sundays and other special days.
May God give us the courage to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice and be willing to set aside our certainties for the sake of the kingdom.
[Image by dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay]