“No Reason for Fear”
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

February 26, 2017

The disciples, on the mountain top, in the fog, get a glimpse of a remarkable scene. The glory of God comes down, not to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but onto and into Jesus himself, shining in splendor, talking with Moses and Elijah, drawing the law and the prophets together into the time of fulfillment. The disciples ‘see’ this extra-ordinary thing for a short time, and then, as quick as it came it is over.

What do they have? Let’s call it a ‘religious’ experience. That’s what it is. A religious experience is an experience of the Holy (as Rudolph Otto might say, the numinous). By definition, the disciples are experiencing something that is not explainable by modern perceptions. A religious experience, to me can be everything from a ‘still small voice’, which nags you from time to time…to a powerful vision from a sickbed or an answer to prayer. In each case it is an experience of holiness. It is an experience of God. And in this situation it is a glimpse of something that is not a myth, but to be trusted. It is an affirmation of a present reality that might be missed otherwise, might be misunderstood.

As we all know too well these days, fear mongering can be quite effective. It is a common tool of despots and tyrants. Some would say that it is a weapon that God wields from time to time.

Yet the purpose of such an encounter is not to scare the disciples (or us) into submission to the almighty, although it may do that. It is not to generate a certain ‘fear of the Lord’ that would make us better christians. The purpose of this revelation of who Jesus actually is, isn’t to cause disciples fear. The revelation comes to grant us courage. When the cloud terrifies them, Jesus speaks words of reassurance and re-direction. Again and again he does this to those who seek to respond to who he is, in all his Holiness, he touches them and says: “Rise, and have no fear.”

Not everyone has such experiences. Which is to say that most people do have ‘religious’ experiences. It is simply that for most of us our experiences carry with them much less drama than Peter and James and John experienced.

Matthew does not include Mark’s explanation that Peter spoke as he did because “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” But it is clear for Matthew that Peter’s offer to build three tents is a trivial, ludicrous outburst. Matthew’s Peter seeks to engage this revelation of God in a concrete way, a rational way…let us build something. His response is like lots of other seemingly rational talk, ill timed and diversionary. We end up discussing matters to death, arguing the fine points of the budget or the implications of some sliver of biblical testimony, swooning in the ecstasy of our perceived understanding of God. In mid-sentence, we are interrupted by a voice that speaks what is really essential, really assuring: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

In second Peter, the author is addressing some believers who have been swayed by the idea that the return of Jesus Christ was a “cleverly devised myth” (1:16) which it would be good to discard. These detractors are suggesting that we are getting our hopes set upon that which cannot deliver what we hope for. The author of 2 Peter combats this misleading idea. Like Matthew’s disciples, 2 Peter urges paying attention to Jesus. It suggests that Jesus can be trusted and that trust effects our life. In 2 Peter this kind of listening means that the parousia hopes of Christians have profound ethical consequences. In other words, the expectation of Christ’s return makes (or ought to make) a difference in the day to day lives of those of us who expect it. That difference is in how we live. Our lives ought to be characterized by things such as faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love (1:5-7).

The author of 2 Peter says to his readers: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For those who were not present on the mountain, those without the experience, still it would be good to be attentive to these things. Some may still not get it and ask, attentive to what?

Why anticipating the presence of Christ, redeeming all of creation, that’s what. Parousia simply means ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’. It sometimes get’s translated as ‘second coming’ but it does not mean ‘second coming to end the world’, although it gets treated that way by many people. It is the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe the first-century arrival of Jesus’ presence into his Kingdom, or gathered body and hearts of believers. I think that is what Diana Butler Bass is getting at in her book “Grounded.” She writes:
The heavens live in us, with us, as the reality under all things, as part of creation. In Christian theology, Jesus brings together sky and earth, the God who dwells with us.

Consider another transfiguration story from another time and place. Nicholas Motovilov (1809-1832) visited Seraphim of Sarov, a well known saintly hermit, and asked him how one could know that the Spirit of God was really present. It was a cloudy day, and they were sitting on tree stumps in the woods. He describes what followed:
Then Father Seraphim gripped me firmly by the shoulders and said: “My friend, both of us, at this moment are in the Holy Spirit, you and I. Why won’t you look at me?”
“I can’t look at you, Father, because the light flashing from your eyes and face is brighter than the sun and I’m dazzled…”
“What do your feel?” asked Father Seraphim.
“An amazing well-being” said Nicholas.
“…this is as it should be, for divine grace comes to live in our hearts, within us.”

When all else fades — and indeed, we know some dark days — Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. Jesus is the place where God’s time and our time meet, where God’s new creation intersects with ours. This reality is to be participated in here and now, not waited for. Scary? Maybe. Impossible? No.

At the very close of Matthew’s account, Jesus will gather with these and all of his disciples on another mountain, and promise that he will be with them even to the close of the age. This, too, is an affirmation of a reality that can be denied when difficult and frightening things are going on all around us. What is this? It is another way of saying, there is no reason for fear.