Peter was there

Sermon: Sunday 19th Feb, 2023 at St. Andrew’s Ealing by Revd Sue McCoan

Matthew 17:1-9
2 Peter 1:16-21

Jesus is transfigured – his face, his clothes, dazzling in their brightness. And Peter
was there.

Peter, James and John were there, but it’s Peter who gives the eye-witness account
later. Let’s think, then, what this moment means to Peter.

Peter was one of the first 4 disciples to be called, along with James and John and his
own brother Andrew. They have been with Jesus a good while by now, watching
him, learning from him, beginning, on a good day, to understand something of what
he is about. Then, in the chapter before today’s reading, Jesus is with his disciples in
the north of the country, near the town of Caesarea Philippi, and he asks them who
people think he is. They chip in their various answers, and then Jesus says, ‘What
about you? Who do you say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answers, in a moment of
inspiration, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God’.

‘Bless you, Simon Peter, for this leap of understanding!’ Jesus is delighted. You are
Peter, you are the rock; on this rock I will build my church and I will give you the keys
to the kingdom. What a moment of recognition, of mutual affirmation. Peter is

But before Peter can fully absorb the honour, Jesus changes the tone. He talks
about suffering, and death. Peter can’t bear it. ‘Surely not! Not to you!’ And Jesus
turns on him – get out. Don’t tempt me. I’ve got to do this and I don’t need you
standing in my way.

‘I was only saying..’

‘Well don’t!’

Tough talk for tough times. Peter, praised one moment, crushed the next.
It’s a lot to take on board. This is the first time Jesus has talked about his death. That
wasn’t mentioned when we signed up! And all this bit about his followers losing their
lives too… is this really God’s plan? And do we really want to be part of it?
Six days later, in today’s reading, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the
mountain to be alone. And while they are there, Jesus’s appearance begins to
change. His face shines; his clothes become dazzling white. As the three look on,
Moses and Elijah appear beside him and talk to him: Moses, the great law-giver, and
Elijah the great prophet. Wow. These are the heroes of their faith. Peter wants to
make the moment last – let’s make shelters for you, so you can rest and talk in
comfort. Before he can do anything, a bright cloud comes over them all and from the
cloud, a voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to

It’s all too much. Peter, James and John fall down terrified, and when Jesus gently
brings them round, the experience is over. Don’t tell anyone, says Jesus, and they
don’t. But they remember.

This brings us to our second reading, from the second letter of Peter. This is a
controversial book. It almost certainly was not written by the apostle Peter – the
Greek is too florid, the ideas too different. It wasn’t written by the same person as 1

Peter. But it does seem likely that it was written by someone who knew Peter, and
who was writing it, towards the end of Peter’s lifetime or shortly afterwards, as if it
were Peter writing. Whoever produced the actual words, this passage is clearly one
that Peter could have written, and for today, I’m going to say Peter just to keep
things simple.

Peter is writing to encourage people to stick to their faith, and not be drawn back into
the ways of the world around them. In particular, he is addressing the issue of the
second coming of Jesus. Jesus had indicated that it would happen within the lifetime
of those who were around him – and yet here they were, 30 or so years later; it
hadn’t happened, and some followers had died. So did this mean, some of them
were wondering, that Jesus had it wrong? Did it mean the second coming was never
going to happen? And if so, did that make the whole basis of their faith a bit shaky?
Peter is just the man you need in this situation. He knows the feeling, when faith isn’t
turning out the way you expect; he knows about faith being shaken. He understands
what it’s like to have questions. And he knows how to counter the shakiness of their

Peter is able to say, his faith does not depend on something he’s been told by other
people. He was there. He was with Jesus – and he was there at the moment Jesus
was transfigured. Peter, James and John all saw it, so it wasn’t a vision. And they all
three heard the voice of God speaking.

And in that moment, Peter saw something much more than a great spectacle. He
saw God breaking through into human existence.

God broke the boundary between heaven and earth and spoke directly to human
beings. The only other time anything like this has happened, in the gospels, is at the
baptism of Jesus, and then according to Matthew only Jesus heard the voice. This is
huge. Peter can say to the people with confidence, of course you can believe the
second coming; of course you can believe that the risen Jesus can and will return in
glory, can come from heaven back into the human world – because I have already
seen God do this.

There’s more. Jesus, at the moment of transfiguration, was joined by Moses and
Elijah – representing the Law and the Prophets, the cornerstones of the Jewish faith.
So that moment also affirms and validates all the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophetic
witness of what we now call the Old Testament. It’s a pretty powerful argument for
keeping faithful. It’s an argument Peter may well have used with himself, when he
was going through tough times as one of the leaders of the early church.

One of the things I really appreciate and love about Peter is the way he was able to
use his whole experience – his moments of clarity and his moments of doubt, his
direct experience of God and his personal experience of attack and persecution – to
be of benefit to others. It’s all there in the gospels.

Peter’s example is incredibly helpful for us, too, as we go forward into the season of
Lent, and start the journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross. It’s helpful, I
suggest, in two main ways.

The first is when we hit difficult times ourselves – when we are struggling with life, or
when we start to question our faith. There is plenty going on in the world that might
make us want to ask, where is God in all this? Peter shows us that having doubts
and wobbles is a normal part of our faith journey. We need never feel bad because
we have questions, or because we have misunderstood. We need never feel guilty
because we are not striding forth with shining faces telling everyone that God is
wonderful. Faith is a struggle as well as a gift.

But Peter also shows us that finding faith difficult is not a reason to give up. It’s a
reason to hang on to what we know and remember. That might be something from
our own life, a time when we felt more confident, when we felt God close to us. It
might equally be a passage of scripture – and this is where we have an advantage
over Peter, because we have the whole of the New Testament to draw on, his
example and that of many others. And every so often, God gives us a glimpse of
heaven, not on a mountain top but in the small radiance of every day: in the eyes of
a child, in raindrops on a spider’s web, in the morning birdsong, and in the hearts of
people we love.

The other way in which Peter’s example is helpful is when we come to talk about our
faith. I have in the past felt under pressure to say faith is wonderful and Jesus is the
answer to everything – and when I’ve not felt able to say that, I have tended to shy
away from talking about faith at all. But I think now that we make a better connection
with people of no faith, or of other faiths when we admit that we don’t know it all; we
don’t have a snap answer to poverty or illness; we don’t have a monopoly on truth.
What we have is a God who loves us, who will work with us and through us, as God
did with Peter, as we grapple with what this means in everyday life. Being honest
about our questions brings an openness that allows others to engage.

The transfiguration of Jesus was a wonderful moment, of dazzling glory. That
moment didn’t last. Peter couldn’t make it last. But he could use it for strength and
encouragement for the rest of his life, and hand that on to others, so that we can all
share in the glory.

Let’s pause for a moment, and then I’ll end with a prayer.

God our Father,
Thank you for moments of revelation,
For words of encouragement,
And times when we feel close to you.
Give us courage for the difficult times,
And use us to encourage others.
In Jesus’ name.