Text: Matthew 17:1-8
The theology of the cross is one of the main things I love about Lutheranism. The theology of the cross says that the depth of God’s for us is not found primarily in the high points of life, such as wealth or comfort – things that are temporary. Instead, it is found in the humility, shame, and suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us this in John 14 when Philip asked Him to show them the Father. He responded that he who has Jesus has seen the Father. Jesus was teaching His disciples about His suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins. He who has seen the Son of Man dying on the cross for the sins of the world has seen the love that God has for us. Martin Luther once wrote, “True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.”
The phrase, “theology of the cross,” comes from one of Luther’s writings. Luther found himself in hot water after posting the 95 Theses. He was branded a heretic; and, though not excommunicated yet, Pope Leo X moved to silence him early on. He sent word down the line until it reached Luther’s superior, Johann von Staupitz. But, instead of silencing of Luther, Staupitz invited him to speak, in order to convince others to align themselves with Luther’s cause. In the midst of this Luther wrote one his most famous passages: “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
What Luther means is this: the love, grace, and mercy of God are shown to us – above all other things – in the suffering and cross of Christ. That is what the Transfiguration of Jesus is all about. In His Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus‘ heavenly glory, a foretaste of what awaits us in the life to come. But this glory, which Christ will share with us, only comes through the suffering of the cross. At the Transfiguration, Jesus gives us a glimpse of His resurrected glory, which He shares with His Church, but it comes only as the fruit of His cross.
The text from St. Matthew’s Gospel begins, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, 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 white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” St. Matthew writes that the Transfiguration happens six days after something. The context of this passage is that Jesus and the Disciples are traveling south from Caesarea Philippi, up toward Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was a Gentile area, but there St. Peter gave the great confession of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” From that moment on, Jesus began to show the Disciples what being the Messiah meant. Just before our text, Jesus explained for the first time that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise from dead. He is the gloriously majestic Son of God, but His glory is wrapped in the suffering and shame of the cross.
And just as Jesus’ life was full of suffering, so are the lives of His followers. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The life of a Christian is thus a hard one. After we are washed by the blood of Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit to deny ourselves, to deny the sinful wants and desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. We carry the cross of Christ, which is foolishness to the world, upon our shoulders, around our necks, and in our hearts. We do this because, now that we have been crucified with Christ, we no longer live; Christ lives within us.
After teaching the Disciples this, Jesus took three up the mountain with Him and was transfigured before them. His face shined like the sun and His clothes were as bright as light itself. We see a picture of the glory that awaits the Church. We see the glory that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before all time, which He will share with us – but only after His crucifixion. The Transfiguration confirms that what Jesus has been saying all along about His suffering and death, and about the Christian life of self-denial, is true. Moses and Elijah also bear witness to this. Moses represents both the Law and the Prophets, which speak about Jesus. Elijah’s presence likewise confirms the promises which God has made of old. Notice that neither Moses nor Elijah are dead. In fact, they’re very much alive. So shall we be in the resurrection, for God is not god of the dead, but the living.
But then, St. Peter interrupts. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Perhaps as a representative of the group, Peter interrupts the scene – just like he did before when Jesus explained that He was going to be rejected, suffer, and die. It didn’t suit Peter’s sensibilities for Jesus to suffer, be rejected, die, and rise again – even if it were the forgiveness of sins – because that means he would have to suffer as well. Peter’s desire to remain on the mount of the Transfiguration is quite understandable, and in some ways is good, right, and salutary. Though, if they remained on the mountain as Peter desired, that would be a problem. Then Jesus wouldn’t be going to the cross as payment for our sins.
Peter proves St. Paul to be right when he says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” The idea that the suffering of Christ is where we see the love of God flies against every fiber of the Old Adam within us. The idea that, because we are united with Christ in Baptism, we will also suffer in this life and be hated by the world, all the while striving to deny our own sinful passions, is absurd to natural reason.
Like Peter we sometimes get glimpses of Jesus’ glory: the baptisms of our children and grandchildren, their confirmations, in the sacrament of the altar, in those times where we see prayers answered before our very eyes. But life, unfortunately, isn’t all glory; there are also the crosses we bear. We trudge through our daily lives. We struggle to teach our children the faith, knowing that the world will do everything it can to rip it from them and us. We are hated by the world for actually believing Christ and His Word. But, the suffering of Christ means that He is with us. Last week we talked about how Christ became united with us in Baptism. He is united with us and we with Him, as closely as a vine with its branches, even (and especially) in the suffering of this life. As St. Paul wrote, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
“While [Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” The words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism are echoed here at the Transfiguration. But, now they have something added to them. Jesus is God’s Son; we’re supposed to listen to Him. That’s an added emphasis for Peter, the Disciples, and us. We are to listen to Jesus – not the devil, not the world, and not our own sinful flesh. All of those want us to strive after the good life, the comfortable life. They want us to do anything other than look at the cross and remember our Baptism. Looking at the cross means remembering that in Baptism we are united with Jesus in His suffering and death. And quite frankly, that’s not always so fun. It means we are going to struggle in this life. We’re never going to be perfect. We’ll never be rid of our sin. We will never reach a point where we are not wrestling with our many temptations.
But, being united with Christ doesn’t just mean we are united with Him; He is united with us. It means that, in those times where you just can’t take another day, where life is killing you, where your heart just says, “No more,” Jesus is there. He is with you. He bore your sins on the cross; He suffered for you, to win for you the forgiveness of sins. Through the Word and Sacraments, He continually makes good on His promise to be with you always. Then, when this life is finally over, glory begins. Jesus was Transfigured to assure us of the truth and as a preview of the glory to come. This glory, though, only comes through suffering. That’s how it was for Jesus – He stepped down from His eternal throne, to suffer, die and rise for you – and that’s how it will be for us.
St. Peter wrote in our Epistle text, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” In the Transfiguration we receive a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory, glory that He will share with us in the resurrection, but it comes only after the cross. Peter teaches us to pay attention to it as to a light shining in a dark place. We are theologians of the cross. We know that without the cross, there can be no glory. Without the cross, there can be no forgiveness. But, in the cross of Christ we do glory and to us it a shining beacon in this dark world. It shows us that nothing in heaven or earth, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This love will be with us always, all suffering life long, until we are raised anew to live in the glory of Christ at His coming.