“Now about eight days after these sayings…” begins our Gospel account today from Luke, which begs the question: “What sayings?” Which begs the answer: Important sayings. Really important ones. Just before this scene that we now call the Transfiguration Jesus has just finished telling the disciples two very important things. 1) He is going to be betrayed, die, and rise again, and 2) To be his follower you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow him. The disciples hear but do not understand—a common trend for this lot. Peter, who typically represents the church (since he is the “rock” on which Jesus says his church will be built), doesn’t get it. This suggests, at least to my mind, that the church, too, is bound to not get it. This makes me sad and also gives me hope, because I often see the church not getting it.
When the church (Peter) goes up the mountain with Jesus and sees him transfigured white the church fails to follow through as Jesus wants. The scripture says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. It’s clear that Peter is the ringleader here—it’s “Peter and his companions;” not the “three disciples.” So this is not about the disciples—it’s about the church; about what the church does and what the church does not do. The answer is: the church builds dwellings. It marks sacred spaces. It remembers important events. It even, to some extent, tries to re-create them. Peter exemplifies all this with his initial response, telling Jesus they should be building houses of worship on that space.
But this is not what Jesus wants—not exactly. The church is not supposed to build first, it’s not even supposed to remember first; it’s supposed to do something harder: From God’s voice from the clouds in verse 35: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The church is supposed to listen to Jesus. If we listen we will hear the hard words; we’ll hear Jesus say “I’m going to be betrayed and I’m going to die.” We’ll hear the challenge of discipleship, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow.” And we’ll also hear the good news: “Three days later I will rise.” But first we have to listen. As Jesus says in the story immediately following this one: “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying…” (Luke 9:44f)
I can resonate with Peter on that mountain. I have memories of great places, great times, and great people in my life. I’ve felt God at work in me in very specific places that now mean something extra special to me. Whenever I have the occasion to make a pilgrimage to those places I take that opportunity to reconnect with a place that has made me who I am, but those places and those feelings are only any good if they urge me to listen not for voices from the past but for a God who speaks to me in the present, who is challenging and changing me right now. Jesus was obviously there with Peter on that mountain so it’s easy for us, who stand so far on the other side of history, to be critical of Peter. What’s harder is for us to see is that this God who stood with Peter is standing with us just the same today, speaking just as critically today, and commanding us again to listen: “Let these words sink into your ears!”
If there is anything good I say it is Christ speaking through me; if there is anything wrong I say it is me believing with my little head that I can say it better. This is the path to discipleship: Denying ourselves, giving up the credit to God, because, frankly, God created it all anyway; taking up our crosses, enduring actual hardship—not small inconveniences but actual suffering—and following. It’s hard to follow through on this and a shrine alone will only help a little. The church is the people, after all, and not the building, and the church must be willing to let God do what God will do; not what we expect or want God to do with us. That is denying ourselves. That is taking up our cross.