A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
March 2, 2014
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (NRSV).
This is the last sermon in a series called, “Opening the Gift of Christmas: One Truth at a Time,” and in these last eight weeks we have learned (and you can probably say it with me) that it wasn’t only a beautiful baby boy we found under the tree, but the Savior of the World, the King of Kings, the Beloved Son, the Lamb of God, the Proclaimer of the Kingdom, the Prophet like Moses, the Fulfiller of the Law, the Creator of Community, the Teacher of Wisdom, and today we will learn that Jesus is—in Matthew’s understanding at least—the One and Only.
But we aren’t the only ones who have been learning.
I’ve been thinking about Peter, and how much he learned by following Jesus. The first time we encountered him in this series was in John’s Gospel, when he was still called Simon and may have been a disciple of John the Baptist. His brother Andrew came to fetch him, saying, “We have found the Messiah!” and when Jesus laid eyes on him he said, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which means Peter—“the Rock”). But in Matthew’s Gospel we meet Peter for the first time when Jesus is in Capernaum, proclaiming the good news of the coming Kingdom. Matthew says, “As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:18-20). Maybe Matthew wanted us to believe that there was something so winsome about Jesus that even if you had never met him before you would drop whatever you were doing to follow him. Peter did, but I think we can all agree that he didn’t know what he was getting into.
In the chapters that follow the story of his call Peter follows Jesus throughout Galilee, listening as he teaches in the synagogues and proclaims the good news of the Kingdom, watching as he cures every disease and heals every sickness among the people. Peter would have been in that crowd that heard the Sermon on the Mount—even the hard parts about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. He would have been one of those who learned to pray that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. He would have been in that boat when Jesus calmed the storm. He would have marveled when Jesus healed the demoniac. He would have watched him open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, raise the dead and cleanse the lepers. He would have heard Jesus tell the parables of the Kingdom. He would have watched him feed the five thousand. He would have seen him walking on the water and, for a few unsteady steps, walked out to meet him.
So, it shouldn’t surprise us too much that when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He had seen plenty of evidence. Even so, Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter—the Rock—and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” That was a good moment for Peter, wasn’t it? He must have been feeling rather proud of himself. But then Jesus began to tell his disciples what it meant to be the Messiah: that it meant he would have to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die. And Peter, still feeling very much like the teacher’s pet, said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” But Jesus turned and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (Matt. 16:21-23).
And Peter was stunned. He had gone from solid rock to stumbling block in a matter of minutes. He must have been surprised when—six days later—Jesus invited him, along with James and John, to go up on a high mountain with him. And he must have been even more surprised when he saw what happened there. Jesus’ face began to shine like the sun. His clothes became white as light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were standing there with him and Peter didn’t know what to do. He stammered out the words: “Lord, it’s good that we are here. If you want, I can make three shelters for you: one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But while he was still speaking a cloud rolled over the mountain, lit up from the inside with lightning, and a voice thundered from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” And the disciples dropped to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Get up, and don’t be afraid,” and when they looked up there was nobody but Jesus there alone.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could forget such a moment, but apparently Peter did, because a few chapters later a servant girl said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean, weren’t you?” And he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A little while later another servant girl said, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth!” But Peter denied it with an oath, saying, “I do not know the man.” After a little while some bystanders came up to him and said, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” But Peter began to curse, and swore an oath, and said, “I do not know the man!” (Matt. 26:69-74).
You don’t know this man, the one who gave you your name, the one who called you to come and follow? You don’t know the one you heard preach and teach, the one you saw help and heal? You don’t know the one who stilled the storm, or walked on the water, or fed the multitude? You don’t know the one you called the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? You don’t know the one who was transfigured on the mountain, whose face you saw shining like the sun? You don’t remember how the voice of God thundered from the cloud and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” You don’t remember how he touched you, and helped you to your feet, and told you not to be afraid? That’s funny. But fear is a funny thing. It can do this to you. It can drive all knowledge of Jesus straight out of your head.
I think about the young man standing in the baptistry when I ask him to profess his faith. I think about the way he says—in a voice loud enough to be heard in the back of the room—“Jesus is Lord!” I think about how confident he is on that day, how sure of himself, how certain that nothing will ever shake his conviction. But then he goes to school the next day, and someone says, “I heard you got baptized!” And he blushes and says, “Yeah.” And they say, “So, what? Are you going to get all religious on us? Are you going to stop having fun?” And he says, “No, no. Nothing like that. I just got baptized, that’s all. It’s something we do at my church.”
Do you see how easily it can happen? It’s not like we set out to deny Jesus, but almost every day, in lots of little ways, we do. I’ve been tracking the decline of the American church as you know, and almost every day another survey shows up with even more shocking statistics. The last graph I saw looked like a wave crashing on the shore. But my friend Bill Wilson says those statistics can be misleading. Bill works with churches across the country. He tries to keep them healthy and strong. Again and again he deals with churches that have gotten themselves into a state of panic because their attendance is down and lately he wrote an article in which he said things may not be as bad as they seem.[i] He said that many of those churches have just as many members as they always did and sometimes more, but those members aren’t coming to church as frequently as they once did. He says it happens like this:
A church grows from 400 to 600 active members over a decade. That’s 50% growth. Wow! Congratulations! During that same decade, the frequency of attendance by the active members declines from an average of three Sundays a month to two Sundays a month. The result? The average attendance remains the same (300) for the decade. While there are 50% more people active and attending, they come less frequently and the church appears to be plateaued or declining.
Why would people come to church less frequently than they used to? Bill offers ten suggestions:
- Youth sports leagues, competitions of all kinds that take place on weekends and often on Sundays.
- The proliferation of vacation homes and timeshares owned by active church members.
- Collegiate and professional athletic weekend events.
- 1 in 3 Americans now work on Sunday morning.
- The dramatic increase in the number of “holiday” weekends (Sundays impacted by either the civic or school holiday schedule. One church with multiple school districts counted 27!)
- Illness (as people live longer, they are more likely to be seriously ill and unable to attend).
- Aging parents that require their extended family’s increased involvement in their care.
- Ease of travel.
- Lifestyle fatigue that often means Sunday is the only day of a family’s week that is not over-programmed.
10. A seeming decline in commitment level to regular attendance in Bible study and worship.
There’s one reason that Bill doesn’t mention: fear. And it’s the same kind of fear that boy faced when he went back to school after being baptized: the fear that, in a culture like this one, you might look like some kind of religious nut because you go to church on Sunday, or read your Bible, or believe in Jesus.
I wonder what Peter would say about that?
It’s not in Matthew’s Gospel but in the Gospel of John the risen Jesus takes a walk with Peter by the seashore. He doesn’t say anything about Peter’s denial but it hangs in the air unspoken between them. And then Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me more than these?” You know the story. You know that Jesus asks him three times if he loves him and each time Peter swears his love. At the end of it all Jesus says, “Follow me,” and lets Peter begin all over again as a disciple. But this time it’s different. On the Day of Pentecost Peter stands up and preaches a sermon that could have gotten him killed, but he doesn’t seem to care. He is full of the Holy Spirit and he is fearless. He is a committed follower of Jesus Christ and not ashamed to say so. He goes on like that for the rest of the Book of Acts, doing things that cautious, uncommitted Christians would never do. He gets in trouble for it—big trouble—and in the end he is crucified, just like Jesus. Well, no, not just like Jesus. According to tradition he asked his executioners to crucify him upside down, saying that he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord.
I wonder what Peter would say to the American church?
Would he ask, “Church do you love Jesus? Do you really love him? Do you love him more than these youth sports leagues, more than these vacation homes and timeshares, more than watching your favorite team play? Would he borrow a bullhorn, hold up a picture of Jesus, and shout in the way God shouted from the cloud: “This is God’s son, the Beloved, the one in whom he is well please; listen to him!”? If we really did believe that Jesus was God’s beloved son, wouldn’t we want to listen to him? And if we really did love him, wouldn’t we want to spend time with him?
I know coming to church won’t save you. I know some people have very good reasons for missing a Sunday or two. And I know I’m preaching to the wrong crowd: you’re here after all, sitting in church on Sunday morning, honoring your commitment to Christ! But maybe there is still a word for you in this sermon, or for someone else you could share it with. Maybe you could think about how easy it is to deny Jesus in a culture like this one and make up your mind not to. Maybe your involvement in church—the way you come, and join, and give, and serve, and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—could be your way of saying with your life and not only with your lips:
“Jesus is Lord.”
[i] Bill Wilson, “The Case of the Declining Congregation,” February 12, 2014
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.