The Transfiguration of Peter, James, & John

Matthew 17:1-9

In any group there is a ranking system.

Football teams have regular players and captains.

Bands have background singers and lead singers.

Military units have infantry and officers.

And even within Jesus’ 12 apostles, there seems to be a regular group and the insiders.

On three occasions Jesus goes three places with only three of the apostles.

Peter, James, and John get to see Jairus’s daughter resuscitated.

They get drug into a room where a 12-year old girl has just died.

I’ve been in those rooms. There are no words. Only shock and tears.

And when Jesus speaks, he words sound like a slap across wet faces: She’s only sleeping. Wake up, little girl.

And when she does wake up, now the shock and tears and wordlessness are of joy.

And only Peter, James, and John are there to witness it.

Peter, James, and John get to see the transfiguration.

They go high up on the mountain,

and Jesus’ face shines like the sun, and his clothes become white as light.

He talks with Moses and Elijah.

Moses – the law-giver. And Elijah – the prophet.

In Luke we get to hear the topic of their conversation:

the decrease Jesus will accomplish.

When you think of accomplishments, you don’t think about decrease, but increase:

Accomplishments lead to increased money, increased trophies, increased popularity.

But Moses – who shared God’s law with complaining, stiff-necked, sinners,

And Elijah – who spoke God’s truth to a nation that had no interest in hearing it,

they can talk to Jesus about accomplishment through decrease.

Peter says, It’s good to be hear. Let’s put up tents for each of you.

God speaks out of a cloud — There are more important things that what you think good – listen to Jesus!

And then God hides Moses and hides Elijah and hides so the cloud so all they can see is Jesus.

Jesus is not just another lawgiver.

Jesus is not just another prophet.

Jesus is God’s only Son.

Parents tell their children not to stare at the outside shiny sun so they don’t hurt their eyes,

but God tells His children to stare at His Son — even when it hurts.

And only Peter, James, and John are there to witness it.

Peter, James, and John get to pray with Jesus in the garden before he’s arrested.

When someone knows the cops are coming for them, they run.

When Jesus knows the cops are coming for him, he prays.

He invites Peter, James, and John to go pray with him.

Jesus’ prayers are so earnest, so desperate, so filled with anguish, that he sweats blood.

Peter, James, and John’s prayers are so casual, so obligatory, so heartless, that they fall asleep.

As swords are put on belts, as whips are unfurled, as timbers for a cross are selected,

Jesus does not run, but prays.

And only Peter, James, and John are there to witness it.

We are tempted to assume they were chosen because they were special.

They must have been the best apostles, so they get to be part of the in-group.

That’s what I used to think. I don’t anymore.

I don’t think it’s because they were special, I think it’s because they needed to see Jesus in those three special moments for their journey ahead.

Peter was the most eager to follow Jesus. Always foot-in-mouth. Always jumping out of the boat first. And after Jesus is executed, when the rest of the apostles are terrified that they could end up on a cross too, when the doors of the house are locked for fear of the Jews, who’s the first one bursting out into the street to preach? On Pentecost the 11 remaining apostles are all there, but only one of them has the guts to walk into a group of enemies that could kill him, and belts out the church’s first sermon, knowing it could cost his life, but leading to three thousand baptisms.

And James. James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ side in his glory. Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45). And only a few years later, the cup and baptism of the suffering servant would come James’s way. In Acts 12, King Herod lays violent hands on those in the church, and threatens James with the sword. He’s tied to the chair. The sword is unsheathed. “Deny Jesus and live.” Moments later his head falls to the ground like an offering plate set on the altar. James becomes the first apostle to die for Jesus.

And John. John was the one Jesus loved the most, we read. Not sure why. But after John had been to those three special places, we can see why. When the cross is lifted, 11 apostles run for their lives. Only John remains. He doesn’t care if he gets lumped in with a death-row inmate. He doesn’t care about his reputation. He doesn’t care what could happen to him. He has seen Jesus defeat death, he has seen Jesus in his glory, he has seen Jesus pray into suffering, and so John will be the last person at Jesus’ side even if hell-on-earth descends upon him. So Jesus naturally gives John the most important job a dying son can assign. John, look after my mom. Mom, John’s your new son.

After seeing Jesus in his glory,

Peter would be the first apostle to preach under threat of persecution.

After seeing Jesus in his glory,

James would remain strong when the sword was placed at the base of his neck, and his last opportunity for worldly freedom was willingly laid down.

After seeing Jesus in his glory,

John would remain by Jesus’ side at the cross, come what may.

Peter, James, and John do not see Jesus in his glory because they are superior,

but because of the superior challenges ahead of them.

Now it’s a crazy world we live in.

All sorts of people saying and believing all sorts of things.

Many people casually, flippantly bring the eternal wrath of God on their heads.

For those of us who follow Jesus the temptation is think our selves superior, special, part of the in-group.

While others in our community are currently still laying in bed,

here we are trying to understand a 2,000 year old story.

The temptation is to think ourselves superior.

But God calls his followers ‘holy’ because they are set apart not simply to think themselves special,

but they are set apart to be faithful — even in whatever challenges may be ahead.

Please rise and join me in prayer.

Father, thank-you for revealing the glory of Jesus to us.

In response, help us turn it up a notch.

Give us boldness and courage,

to be the first to share our faith with those who do not share it,

to be the first to suffer for our faith,

to be the last person at your side, come what may.

Fill us with your Holy Spirit,

that we may fight the good fight,

finish the race,

keep the faith.

In Jesus’ name we pray,

Amen.