Lutherans can quite accurately be described as “evangelical catholics.” The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “Gospel.” It says that in the Lutheran church the Gospel runs the show. It is short hand for the “sola’s” of the Lutheran Reformation – grace alone; faith alone and Christ alone. It says that we receive salvation – we are justified – only as God’s gift received by faith in Jesus Christ. And along with this it also calls to mind Scripture alone – the fact that teaching in the Lutheran church is only based on God’s Word and not on the tradition of the Church.
The word catholic – don’t forget, that’s a lower case C – means “universal.” It describes the fact that while the Lutheran church never bases her teaching on the tradition of the Church, that doesn’t mean she rejects the historic practices of the Church. On the contrary, we think that whenever these traditions are true to Scripture and teach the faith they are very good things.
The Lutherans were seeking a reformation, not a revolution. That wanted to remove what was bad and keep all that was good. And they were of the opinion that there was a great deal present in the practice and life of the Church that was very good. So, you will find in the Lutheran church things like the liturgy, the lectionary and the church year.
But while the Lutherans retained a great deal from the practice of the Church that was true to God’s Word, that doesn’t mean they never tweaked things. And we have an example of this today, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Historically, the day for the Transfiguration had been August 6. Now to be honest, I have no idea why it was this particular date. I looked around in the usual resources and couldn’t find an explanation. I did learn that it wasn’t declared by a pope to be a universal feast of the western Church until 1457.
While the Lutheran church kept Transfiguration … she moved it to today – the end of the season of Epiphany. Rather than hanging out by itself in the middle of the summer, it now closes the season of Epiphany. Epiphany, which is about the appearing of God’s saving glory in Christ now ends with Jesus shining in divine glory at the Transfiguration! And we will see that biblically this is the perfect time to consider the Transfiguration as we prepare to enter into Lent.
Our Gospel lesson begins by saying, “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” Now Matthew almost never tells us something about the timing of the events he narrates. So this should catch our attention. Don’t forget about this – we will return to it later.
Then we learn that Jesus was transfigured. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Jesus Christ is true God begotten of his Father from eternity and true man, born of the virgin Mary. On that mountain he revealed to the three disciples a glimpse of his divine nature. And it was awesome.
But the show wasn’t over. We hear, “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” There appeared with Jesus two of the greatest figures in the Old Testament. God had worked through Moses to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt and to bring them into the covenant. He had worked through Elijah to speak his word and carry out great miracles. Both men had encountered God in unique, up close and personal ways at Mt. Sinai. And both men were associated with expectations about the end time salvation God was going to bring.
And then Peter had to be Peter. He had to open his mouth and confirm that he just didn’t get it yet. He said, “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.” The problem with Peter’s statement was that it lost sight of Jesus and his uniqueness. It placed Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah – it grouped the Lord together with them.
While Peter was still speaking God the Father acted to put the focus back on Jesus. We learn: “He 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.’” Much like the cloud that had stood over the tabernacle in the Old Testament, God’s presence was announced by a bright cloud. And then God the Father said the exact same words that he had spoken at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.
We considered Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of Advent. We learned that it was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Just as in our text, God the Father spoke words that drew upon Isaiah 42:1. As Jesus was baptized, God identified him as the Servant of the Lord – the One who is the suffering Servant. When Jesus was baptized he took our place. He identified himself with sinners so that he could receive God’s judgment against our sin.
And that takes us back to the beginning of our text. Remember, I said we would return to that unusual “after six days” reference. What had happened six days earlier? Matthew tells us that after Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” What had happened six days earlier is that Jesus had told the disciples he would be killed. Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, and then Jesus immediately tells the disciples that he will suffer and die.
Not only that, Jesus then went on to talk about the life of those who follow him. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Suffering and the cross. That doesn’t sound like victory. We know for sure that no one in first century Judaism expected this of the Christ – the Messiah. In fact, quite the opposite it was considered to be sure fire proof that an individual was not the Messiah.
And for that matter, suffering and the cross doesn’t sound so great to us either. We want Jesus to make us feel better, not cause us trouble. And so we know the times when we are silent. We know when we avoid issues because talking about them would force us to say something from God’s word that the world doesn’t want to hear. We know that there are time when we are a Christian within these walls and those of our home, but not in ways that would identify us out in the world.
Suffering and the cross. Victory and glory. They don’t go together. At least we don’t think they do. But six days after Jesus predicts his suffering and death, the transfiguration takes place in order to show that for God they do go together. In fact, for the One who is the suffering Servant the way to victory and glory passes through suffering and the cross. It passes through suffering and the cross to carry out the Father’s saving will. It passes through suffering and the cross in order redeem us from sin and give us forgiveness.
It does so because on the other side of the cross and death is the resurrection from the dead. Jesus is headed to Holy Week and the cross. But for a brief moment in the transfiguration he shines in glory. It is an event that points forward to the glory of the resurrection. Now, we live on this side of Easter. Jesus the crucified One has risen from the dead! He has shown us without any doubt what Good Friday was all about. We know that in suffering and the cross Jesus Christ was winning the victory for us. He was freeing us from our sins. It looked like failure, but it was in fact God’s most powerful action to defeat sin. And now in the resurrection, Jesus has defeated death.
This means three things for us. First, it gives us the comfort and confidence of knowing that we are the forgiven children of God. We are saints – we are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus. In baptism God has washed away all our sins and we continue to return in faith to this gift for forgiveness. In the Sacrament of the Altar Jesus brings the cross to us. We eat and drink his true body and blood given and shed for us. Jesus gives us the very price he paid to forgive our sins and we leave the communion rail each time knowing that we are exactly that – forgiven.
Second, because we have seen God work in the way of suffering and the cross through Jesus, it enables us to trust in our God when we experience suffering and loss that we don’t understand. Living as sinners in a fallen world, God does not promise that we will understand why things happen. What he has done is to show us how he worked our greatest good through the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son. And because we have seen this, we know that his love for us is certain and sure. We know that we can trust in him even when we don’t understand.
And finally, when we see that Christ’s suffering and the cross led to resurrection and glory, this helps us to be willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus. In Christ we know the outcome. We have received forgiveness, peace and life. We have that already now. That’s what your baptism tells you! That’s what the Sacrament we are about to receive tells you! We know that it is the risen Lord who gives us his true body and blood and that we will share in his resurrection when he returns in glory on the Last Day. And so the Spirit leads us to take up the cross and follow Jesus. He leads us to speak instead of being silent. He leads us to act in ways the world doesn’t understand.
And we now follow that leading because we know that for Jesus suffering and cross, victory and glory, are not contradictory. That’s what we see today at the transfiguration of Jesus. And because it was true for him, it is also true for us.