The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday March 6, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

In our reading from Corinthians Paul references a story from Exodus.  When Moses returns from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments, his skin was shining and it was so bright that people were actually afraid to approach him. (34:29-30) He visits God several more times and every time he returns he face is glowing. Moses’ shiny skin terrified the people and so he began to wear a veil whenever he was with them (34-35).

If you’ve ever wondering why Moses is sometimes depicted in art with shiny horns on his head it’s because of a mistranslation of this story. In the medieval period the word for “veil” was mistranslated as “horns,” and while an image of Moses wearing a veil may strike you as odd, images of Moses with horns can also be very confusing… and very creepy. In the window at the back of the church, Moses isn’t depicted with literal horns, but he does have horns of light coming out of the top of his head.

In Corinthians, Paul uses this story in order to help the people realize that they, like Moses, have seen God and they, like Moses have shiny skin.

But their shiny skin doesn’t need to be covered with a veil, rather they can act with hope, freedom, and great boldness. (13-15) They can see the glory of God reflected in their own shiny skin, and in the glowing faces of others. (18)

Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (18).”

We also have shiny skin. We are all also being transformed, from one degree of glory to another.

The first line in our gospel reading begins, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” (28)

Right away I want to know, eight days after what?

Eight days earlier, Jesus spent some time praying and talking with his disciples. He asked them questions about his identity – who do the people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? There isn’t a clear consensus. Some think he is John, others Elijah, but Peter believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  Jesus doesn’t dispute this, but he orders them to keep it secret and then, Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer, be rejected by religious leaders, die and three days later be raised from the dead.

Which is a lot to take in, but wait, there’s more! Jesus continues by saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (9:18-23)

Our gospel reading begins eight days after Jesus has said all these things. Eight days is not a very long time and I would definitely still be processing Jesus’ words. I would definitely still have an awful lot of questions.

And I am pretty sure that most of my questions would revolve around trying to find a way to avoid all the things that Jesus is saying are going to happen. To avoid watching Jesus die, to avoid dying myself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a [person] to come and follow, [Christ] bids [them] come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death that is crucifixion.  Christ bids us come and die. In many ways, this week’s Ash Wednesday service is a reminder of Christ’s call.

It is not an easy thing to pick up your cross, daily, and follow Jesus. Jesus never promised us an easy life. But when you do decide to pick up a cross, make sure it’s yours.

There are verses that make me a bit jumpy because I have seen how the church has taken the life-giving transformational message of God and deformed it into something else, and this call to take up our cross is certainly one of those verses.

Jesus will die on a literal cross and he is calling each one of us to take up our own crosses if we want to follow him.  There is no interpretive dance I can do to get us out of that one, but time and time again, people in the church have misused this verse to justify or encourage another person’s suffering, and that’s just plain wrong.

The only person who gets to tell you which cross to pick up, is Jesus. Anyone else who tries to do so, is out of line.

If you are in an abusive relationship, you don’t have to stay. That’s not your cross. If you are being mistreated at work, you can say something about it.   And if you see a place where people are suffering because of their race, economic status, sexuality or any other thing, you can not simply turn a blind eye and say, “Well, Christ calls us to suffer.”

Because those are all profound misuses of this text.  Jesus can call us to pick up our cross – ours, not the one someone else wants us to pick up, ours – and wise and trusted mentors can help us figure out exactly what that might look like, but when we see a person who is suffering, our call is to help alleviate that suffering, not to the additional weight of our own judgments.

Jesus is getting ready to go to Jerusalem and take up a literal cross but before he does, he takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray.

The choice to take only three of his disciples – Peter, John, and James – is the second thing that jumps out at me from that opening verse.   Why is Jesus singling these three out? Are they his favourites? The ones most in need of some remedial work? Is there so much important work to be done  that Jesus can’t spare all twelve disciples, he can only take three?

At this point in the story, who do you most associate with? Jesus? The three on the mountain? The nine who have been left behind? Someone else entirely?

When Jesus and the three disciples arrive at the top of the mountain Jesus spends time in prayer, and “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (29) Moses and Elijah appear and they begin to talk about what will happen when Jesus goes to Jerusalem.

People whose Greek is way better than mine – because mine is non-existent – tell me that the best way to translate the word used in this gospel to describe what happens to Jesus isn’t “transfigured” or even “transformed,” but “othered.”   It’s not the transfiguration of Jesus but the “otherification” of Jesus. Jesus literally becomes “other” as in, utterly unlike us.

Jesus is othered, but he is not alone. He is transformed within the context of community, and within the context of tradition. These aren’t just random angels who have appeared to talk with Jesus – if there ever was a Jewish Leader’s Hall of Fame Moses and Elijah would certainly have had prominent places in it.

When community is unhealthy, it has the power to deform, but when community is healthy it can accomplish amazing transformations.

Seeing all of this, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. (33)

Peter can see that Jesus has been transformed, he can identify that this is a good thing, but beyond those initial impressions, he really doesn’t have any idea what is going on and rather than taking a moment to pause and consider his response, he reacts and just blurts out the first thing that comes to mind without any real awareness of what he’s saying. A typical Peter maneuver.

It also seems that Peter – still not fully comprehending Christ’s mission on earth – wants to keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem. “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here!” Peter is saying, “This is a good place to be – so let’s just stay here.”  Surely this is better than following you to Jerusalem where you will be killed! Surely it’s better than having to take up my own cross in order to follow you! He is still resisting what Jesus has said must happen next.

I can understand the urge to stay on the mountain.  The desire to keep Jesus safe by staying on the mountain also makes sense.  What I’m curious about is the fact that the text gives us no indication that Peter thinks it might also be a good idea to go get the other nine disciples before camping out on the mountain.  Is Peter really so selfish that he wants to maintain this mountain top as an exclusive experience for a chosen few? So exclusive in fact, that not even all 12 disciples will be included?

Maybe. After all, it’s not an uncommon impulse. The news is often filled with stories of people trying to construct walls, or barriers, to determine who is included and who is excluded – governments do it, businesses do it, and churches do it too.

Peter hasn’t thought about what he is doing, he is acting purely on instinct, but those instincts are telling.

Like so many of us, when Peter encounters the glory of God he tries to hold on to it, to enshrine it, to frame it in a way that makes sense to him. To make the experience smaller than it actually is.  Peter has just had an encounter with Jesus in all his glory, and he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay put and build a building.

But God does not reveal all that God is so that we will build shelters and live on mountaintops.  Jesus may have gone with the disciples to the top of a mountain but he has no intention of staying there, and if they want to follow him, neither can they.

And neither can we.

I mean, it is wonderful to be here this evening, but we are not supposed to stay here all week.

Don’t forget that the glory revealed on this mountain is inseparably connected to the glory revealed on another mountain – Golgotha, the Mount of Calvary.

In today’s gospel reading we see Jesus transformed by the power and glory of God and yet this is not the moment we choose as the greatest moment in human history. Rather we firmly, we recklessly, believe that Christ’s death and resurrection were the most glorious moments in the history of human kind.

Peter, having seen Jesus transformed, tries to control the situation and tell Jesus what he should do – let’s build three shelters! Let’s stay right here! But when he is doing this, God literally interrupts him, affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved and tells Peter to “listen to Jesus.” (35)

The grammatical structure of the phrase translated into English as “Listen to him,” indicates continued action as in, “keep on listening to him.”  As in slow down, stop being reactive, stop talking, and listen. And when you think you are done listening, listen some more. Keep on listening to him.

And what will Peter hear if he chooses to listen to Jesus? If he chooses to take up his cross and follow?

He will learn that while mountaintop experiences are valid, we are not called to try and contain them, we are called to climb back down the mountain.

Despite how wonderful it was to be on the mountaintop, Jesus doesn’t stay there, and neither do the disciples.

I have actually climbed a few literal mountains myself and one of the things I have learned from those experiences is that it is significantly harder to climb down a mountain than it is to climb up.  It’s baffling to me that people use the phrase “it’s all downhill from here” to suggest that something will be easy.

When Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountain they are greeted by a large crowd that includes a man who begs Jesus to heal his son, a child who has been plagued with a violent shrieking demon, and Jesus will do just that. (37-43)

All the gospel writers include the story of the boy who requires healing which, to paraphrase an insight from N.T. Wright, should serve as a reminder to us that life isn’t meant to be a smooth flat walk in the prairies – however beautiful that might seem.  There will be mountains to climb up, mountaintops to enjoy, difficult descents, shrieking demons, and deep healing. It’s all part of the package.

And know this, if the characters in this story that you most identify with are the disciples who were left behind in the valley or the child possessed by a demon. If you see people trying to contain God in shelters a great distance away and they are not making any room for you, then know that while the human impulse may always be to attempt to contain and control and exclude, that this story shows that God categorically rejects that kind of thinking.  When Peter suggests that they build shelters and camp out of the mountain God interrupts him and tells him to listen to Jesus.

And Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, that’s a great idea! Let’s build shelters and stay here forever.” Instead he goes down the mountain to where the people are waiting for him and one of the first things he does is heal a child.

Jesus will not allow himself to be contained in a shelter on a mountain. Jesus will go where the people are.

N.T Wright notes, “The disciples were overwhelmed by the transfiguration, and blurted out things they didn’t mean… They were unable to understand how it was that the glory they had glimpsed on the mountain, the glory of God’s chosen son, the servant who was carrying in himself the promise of redemption, would finally be unveiled on a very different hill, an ugly little hill outside Jerusalem.

We, too, often find it completely bewildering to know how to understand all that God is doing and saying, both in our times of great joy and our times of great sadness. But the word that comes to us, leading us on to follow Jesus even when we haven’t a clue what’s going on, is the word that came from the cloud on that strange day in Galilee, “This is my son, my chosen one.  Listen to him.” (N.T. Wright)


Thanks to friend Dave Henson and the conversations he initiated on Facebook about the gospel reading for sparking my imagination this week.