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The story of the Transfiguration in Luke 9 is one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible.
Biblical commentators, in fact, tend to throw up their hands in defeat. One commentator remarked that there is “rather limited success in understanding the meaning of the transfiguration.” It is not altogether clear what is the point of the story. The details of the narrative wander off in a number of directions. Nothing is explained. Jesus does not unpack the experience with his disciples on the way down the mountain. They – and we – are left baffled.
Except, there is one thing that is clear – what is really clear is that this story speaks consistently and compellingly about the glory of Jesus Christ. It is a glory story.
Of the many clues in this puzzling, meandering narrative that point to the glory of Jesus, perhaps Peter’s words and actions are the most revealing. Let’s allow ourselves two attempts to understand the behavior of Peter.
Many commentators complain a bit about Peter, accusing him of rudeness, even stupidity. But maybe Peter wasn’t being inconsiderate but awestruck. Maybe Peter wasn’t blurting out a rude demand but expressing a deep longing to celebrate and enjoy the glory of Jesus. It’s true – the text does admit that Peter did not know what he what saying. But I suggest that, even though Peter did not know what he was saying, he was yet reaching for that glory, sensing it. After all, this is the same Peter that made a stunning declaration in the previous chapter in Luke. When Jesus asked him, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered boldly, “The Messiah of God.” It’s not hard to imagine then that here, on this holy mountain, Peter continues to lift up the glory of Jesus.
That’s the first attempt to understand Peter. It is the optimistic understanding – giving Peter the benefit of the doubt and imagining that he is witnessing to the glory of Jesus.
There is, of course, another possibility. Stanley Hauerwas suggests that Peter wanted to “secure in place, if not tie down and domesticate, the wild spirit of God’s kingdom.” That, certainly, is the pessimistic understanding – that Peter was trying to take all that glory and tame it. If that is the case, then Peter truly did not know what he was saying. The glory of Jesus cannot be domesticated. It fills the whole earth.
Interesting, though, isn’t it – that both the optimistic and the pessimistic understanding of Peter’s bold suggestion, “Master, let us make three dwellings” – both still point to the glory of Jesus. In the first, Peter begins to see the cosmic expanse of the glory of Jesus and he is compelled to witness to it. In the second, Peter sees that glory and wants to capture it, contain it, and even control it.
We need not choose between the optimistic and pessimistic understandings of Peter’s impetuous request – instead, we see both operating in Peter and we see both in ourselves. By God’s generous mercy to us, we sometimes see the vista of the grace of Jesus Christ and speak out our praise. In our own foolish pride, we also sometimes presume on the glory of Jesus and want to seize it and tame it.
The season of Lent now invites us to enter once again the glory story of Jesus, to set wide the window of our imagination and to expand the scope of our hope.