The Transfiguration of Peter

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you remember when you first felt called by God? That moment when you had an irresistible tug toward ministry? Over the years I’ve heard many preachers talk about it. For some a sense of call came early, for others it emerged over years of discernment. Some preachers responded eagerly, while others resisted until it felt like there was nothing else they could do. However it comes, a sense of call is a powerful thing. The sense that you are called to something worthwhile, even something of God, buoys you through times of doubt, difficulty, and indecision.

I wonder, though, how many of the people listening to our sermons feel called? How many of them believe they have heard and responded to God’s voice. Talk of “the call” is so common among clergy that I think we forget that many other Christians rarely feel called to the occupations, relationships, and volunteer activities they regularly engage in.

I raise this question of calling because I think that’s part of the story of the Transfiguration that gets overlooked. We understandably focus on Jesus’ transformation — and well we should, what with the blazing face, and dazzling white clothes and all. But I think Peter gets transfigured as well, or at least the beginning of Peter’s transformation may start right here, on the mountain with Jesus.

The scene moves so quickly from moments of hilarity to poignancy that it’s easy to miss. I mean, there is Peter, falling all over himself looking for something to do, when the voice from heaven literally interrupts him, saying (almost!), “Would you shut up already, and just listen to him!” But of course it’s not funny for long. In fact, it’s kind of terrifying, and so Peter falls to the ground, probably covering his ears and shutting his eyes hard. And then it’s over — the voice, the light, the heroes of the past — nothing is left except Jesus, Jesus who is reaching out to him and telling him to “be raised.”

We tend to think Peter’s “moment” happened six days earlier, when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah and he was called “the rock.” But I wonder…. I wonder if Peter’s real sense of call didn’t happened here, when the voice interrupts all his plots and plans and announces that this Jesus is none other than God’s beloved Son and so the most important thing Peter can do is simply listen to him. In that moment everything for Peter, I suspect, was still … and clear … and made sense.

But of course it didn’t last. Peter needs to be pulled up off the ground, perhaps wondering if anything had actually happened or whether he had imagined it all. And then on the way down the mountain Jesus will again intimate of his impending death and destiny. Peter will struggle to listen, to follow, to be faithful. Actually, he will more than struggle, he will fail. And Jesus will reach out, raise him up again, and send him forth. I have a hunch that each time Peter fell down and got up again, he would look back on this day and recall those words, “Just listen to him!”

That’s what I mean by saying that this is the moment when Peter’s transfiguration begins — when we fails, falls, and is lifted up again and realizes that above and beyond everything else, he is called to listen to Jesus. This pattern, I think, shapes the life of every Christian. We, too, of course, try our best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes coming up short. We, too, have moments of insight and moments of denial. We, too, fall down in fear and are raised up again to go forth in confidence. We, too, that is, are called to listen, called to discern God’s way in the world, called to partner with God and in this way be transformed.

But do we know it? Oh, I don’t mean us, Working Preacher. Whatever our doubts and insecurities, we at least have this task — preaching — that all recognized as a call from God. No, just now I mean the moms and dads, the employees and employers, the students and retirees, the gainfully employed and those looking for work, the folks who are doctors and janitors, military personnel, taxi drivers, and little league coaches. They, too, are called, but I wonder if they know it. Can they see themselves in this story? Can they identify with Peter? Can they believe that they, also, have been called both to “listen to him” and to “be raised”? Can they, in short, imagine that this story about Peter and Jesus is also about them?

You can tell them that, Working Preacher. You can tell them that they are called, that this story is their story, that they have a part to play in God’s ongoing drama to save, bless, and care for all the world. But you can also listen. And this may be just as important. Because if this calling thing is going to take, they have to hear God’s voice for themselves. And my sense is that as a culture and even as the church, we tend to suppress the inclination that God has spoken to us, even if it’s through the voice of another. So maybe this week we can not only tell people they are called — though certainly we should do that — but also listen, making space for them to tell about when they have felt called, when they have heard God’s voice, and how they have responded. Most of their experiences may not be as dramatic as Peter’s on the mountain, but it’s helpful to remember that God often calls to us in and through the ordinary moments and people of our lives.

I don’t know quite how to do this. Perhaps for some it will be easier to have pads of paper in the pew with which folks can journal. Or maybe you’d be willing to risk having them turn to each other and talk about where they have felt called, maybe where they feel God is calling them even now. You’ll know best how to make room for this with your own people. (And you’re certainly welcome to share your ideas in the comments.) But however you do it, I think it’s an important first step in helping people recognize that God still speaks, that we still are called to listen (and indeed have listened!), and that when we fall in fear or failure Jesus is there to reach out and pick us up again.

Transfiguration. I think that’s what we’ve been working at these last few weeks, Working Preacher. Whether through pronouncing each other blessed or starting salt and light logs, whether by confessing what holds us from embracing our God-given identities to bringing pictures of abundance and grace (and in the process literally transfiguring our sanctuaries!), we have been helping our folks be open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And through these “homiletical exercises,” God is transfiguring us and our congregations right before our own eyes into the people of God, disciples of Jesus, those called and sent to be salt to the earth and light to the world.

Thank you for partnership in this amazing work, and God bless both your speaking and listening this week and always.

Yours in Christ,

P.S.: Will Willimon joined Karoline and Matt and me for a podcast on this text, recorded at the 2011 Mid-Winter Convocation; if you’re interested in listening, click here.