I remember once… I was sitting in a coffee shop and overheard a little bit of a theological conversation between two older women. We’ll call them Jane and Sally. The details of what they were talking about aren’t really important for us here today, but what caught my attention at the time was a question posed by Jane to Sally: “How big is your God?” There was a bit of a pause while Sally considered. Finally, she said, “Oh around ‘yea… by yea…,’ using her hands to sketch out a box in the air about eighteen inches square. Jane, responded quizzically, “So… your God is about the size of a bread box?” “Oh! You were asking about God!” said Sally. “Now I understand! I thought you were asking about my dog!”
Pretty funny, huh? But as I reread Luke’s story of the Transfiguration in today’s Gospel lesson, I wondered if sometimes we want our God to be about the size of a bread box… something we can contain and control… when his power and glory and majesty seem overwhelming… and threaten to rock our world… and change the way we live. I wonder if Peter, John and James felt that way. Jesus had picked them to be his special followers. You know that the Greek root for the word Apostle is Apostolos (ἀπόστολος) which means one who is to be sent forth, in this case to preach the Gospel of Christ. And I’m sure that they had answered the call in good faith. I mean, who wouldn’t want to in on the “ground floor” with the Messiah? And by this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry was really beginning to pick up speed: the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach were getting bigger and bigger… sometimes scary big. Jesus performed all manner of signs and miracles as he travelled around the Galilean countryside… curing the sick and the lame, casting out demons, and even bringing people back to life! SHAZAM!
The twelve Apostles, themselves, had only recently returned from a mission to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” and they had come back confident and empowered by the Spirit. Things were looking up for these three fishermen, whom Jesus had promised to make “fishers of people” (Matt. 4:19). Who could blame them for being excited? And on this day, Jesus had taken Peter, John and James with him on a special road trip… up the mountain to pray. Perhaps they were congratulating themselves, silently behind Jesus’ back, for being so chosen. Look at us… we’re so cool! And then… something happened.
At one point, their hike up the mountain changed from being a simple gadabout with the Master to something different… and far more profound. Jesus had brought the three Apostles with him to show them a glimpse of the present… the real present… and of the future. There on the mountaintop, Jesus was transfigured. Luke writes that “the appearance his face changed, and his clothes became dazzlingly white.” I doubt Jesus actually changed… he’s the eternal Word, after all… who was and is and is to be. But appearance is subjective. Sometimes we see what we expect to see. And, although Peter, John and James had been living… day in, day out… with Jesus for months now, their understanding of who Jesus was… and the impact that would have on them… was still evolving. Sure, they knew that Jesus was a pretty special guy… a miracle man, without a doubt… one who could do a lot of good and ease a lot of suffering in the local community. And they knew that the Jewish religious establishment was beginning to take notice of what Jesus was doing… and not in a good way. But I’m not sure they quite had their brains wrapped around the reality of Jesus as God’s Christ… the Messiah… the Savior of the World. Which is why Jesus offered them glimpse of the real present… and a sneak peek into the future.
As they basked in the glory of Jesus’ revelation, they might also have been disturbed by words of his imminent “departure.” Jesus had been talking a lot lately about suffering and rejection, and even death. Was this more of the same? It would be great if he would just cut out all of that nonsense! Peter, John, James and the rest of the Apostles had given up everything to follow Jesus! What would they do without him? And perhaps they remembered what Jesus had said to all of his disciples gathered at the bottom of the mountain the previous week: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross… and follow me” (Matt. 9:23). Certainly, the three Apostles knew what crosses were for… nothing good!… and I wonder if it sent a shiver up their spines: wanting so much to be faithful followers of Jesus and yet… wondering how they could face his implicit invitation to suffering, rejection and death. Who could blame them for being terrified?
And so Peter made Jesus a counter offer: “Glad to be with you, Jesus… um, I mean Messiah…. Hey, how about if we were to build you and Moses and Elijah a place where you can rest… lay your heads?” Surely the offer was made in good faith on one level… to provide the three transcendent beings a place of honor… and repose. But I can’t help think… on another level, Peter was hoping he could build a structure that might somehow contain Jesus a little bit… one that could mitigate the impact of what was to come.
What do you think? Am I reading too much into Luke’s storytelling? Maybe. But we all need to ask ourselves the question: “How often am I tempted to put God in ‘a box about yea… by yea?’” I know I am… sometimes. How do I reconcile “Love God… Love your neighbor… and don’t judge,” with my beliefs about capital punishment? How do Jesus’ teachings about sheep and goats… and looking after the least of these… inform my stance on universal healthcare insurance… and immigration? If Jesus came to earth to show us the Way… how we can be fully-human in accordance with God’s plans for us before the Fall… if he was willing to give up his life on the cross to show us that death was not the end… how can I justify the amount of money we spend in this country, daily on guns and bombs and war machines… when there are millions of children in the world who need food, and medicine, and a roof over their heads? It’s obscene. And I know it. And that makes me even more culpable. And so, I deceive myself by keeping God in a box, “about yea… by yea,” where I can pull him out when I need an advocate, a cheerleader… or maybe a hug. Keeping God in a box keeps the pressure at bay and allows me to put off thinking about the cross Jesus tells me I must bear… if I want to be his follower. And I do… I do. But it’s hard.
But the reason we’re all here today is that Peter, John and James ended up being braver than I think I can be sometimes. You’ll notice that Jesus didn’t have to tell Peter not to build a booth. He may have given him a look, but he didn’t need to say anything because God spoke: “This is my Son… listen to him!” And Peter, John and James listened. They overcame their fear of rejection, suffering and death… they resolved themselves to take up their crosses… and follow Jesus. They lost their lives (in a very literal sense) for Jesus’ sake, but ended up inexplicably saving themselves… just as Jesus said would happen. I don’t know about y’all, but it makes all of my anxieties and uncertainties about how to live my life as a follower of Jesus Messiah seem pretty… petty.
I’ve heard it said that the wiser one becomes, the fewer choices one has to make. Or, in theological terms: the more we understand about the animating force behind the universe… which is from God… the more we are drawn to work in concert with that force. There is always a right thing to do! And if you believe that Jesus Messiah is the Son… the Chosen… the Beloved of God, then I’m pretty sure that in any given situation, the wise thing, the right thing to do, is what Jesus would do. So, listen to him!
When you’re feeling all alone in the Universe… listen to him! When you’re grappling with fear of rejection, and suffering, and even death… listen to him! And when you’re wondering how you can be church to a world in great need of hope… listen to him! And if you do… if you heed the call to take up your cross and follow him… then, like Peter, John and James and all of the great company of Apostles, you will find yourself forever changed and transfigured by the light of Christ.