Most biblical scholars agree that the New Testament book of Second Peter was not written by Peter. Near the end of it there is a reference to “all the letters of Paul” that implies not only that those writings have been gathered into a collection, but that they also have achieved the status of Holy Scripture. Which are things that did not take place until long after the Apostle Peter was dead. For this and for other reasons, the general consensus is that this was the last book of the Bible to be written, and dates from well into the 2nd Century.
Taking that into account, it seems strange that this morning’s reading from Second Peter stakes such a strong claim to being eyewitness testimony. “We were not just passing on clever myths that someone made up,” it says, “when we told you about the power of Jesus and his coming. We saw his glory with our own eyes. We heard the voice of God with our own ears when it said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.’ We were there with Jesus on the mountaintop.”
So was the person who wrote these words lying? Was he putting forward what some today might call “alternative facts?” Well, the simple answer is “yes.” But as with most things pertaining to the Bible, the simple answer isn’t really satisfactory. It only opens the door to a lot more questions. And there is ongoing, robust academic debate about all sorts of historical problems related to the authorship of Second Peter and other New Testament books that seem to have been written under the names of people who did not in fact write them.
But for me as a preacher those historical-critical problems, though worth thinking about, are less important than the questions about what the texts themselves are trying to say. And the way I see it, even if this author knew that his audience understood perfectly well that he was not the Apostle Peter, he wrote it as if it’s what Peter would say in the present circumstances if he were here.
If you read Second Peter as a whole, you’ll see that its context is an argument with other religious teachers. And the beef it has with those teachers is that they seem to have relaxed any tension between being a Christian and just kind of going with the flow of business as usual in the world as we know it. They are teaching that the conventional world is not going to change much, for the better or the worse, so the point of religion is to accommodate you successfully to the world: to looking out for number one, and getting rich, and doing whatever it is that seems like it will make you feel good at the moment.
But if Peter were here, he wouldn’t stand for this. He would say that God has called us to expect more from life than that. He would tell us that, in fact, God has promised to radically transform the world as we know it, and to transform us along with it, so that we become sharers in the very nature of Godself.
And Peter would remind us that our faith in these promises is grounded in concrete historical experience. Certain people got to see and hear for themselves, in a real time and a real place, what we will be like when God transforms us. They were able to do this because they were disciples of Jesus. In his presence, they caught a vision of what the world really is and what God really means for it to be, and how a person speaks and acts who really understands the difference and wants the world and God’s purpose to be reconciled.
The author of Second Peter could have chosen any of the well-known Gospel stories to make a case for the unique authority that comes from having been there as an eyewitness. But he chose the one we read from Matthew today, the story of the Transfiguration. And I think this is because it’s the one episode in the gospels that focuses entirely on a few disciples and a transient revelatory moment in their experience of Jesus. Jesus himself doesn’t do anything remarkable in the story. It is Peter, James, and John who see him talking to Moses and Elijah. It is they who see the vision of his face transfigured and shining like the sun. It is they who are enveloped in the cloud of light and who hear the heavenly voice. It is they who fall down on their faces like dead men, and then lift up their eyes to see no one but Jesus alone.
And as they are going down the mountain to rejoin the rest of his disciples, Jesus tells them not to speak of it until after he has risen from the dead. So the whole thing kind of feels like a dream, like a shamanic journey to another world, and we have only the word of Peter, James, and John to tell us that it really happened. And that might be the whole point. Because it is of such rare material that we often must construct our faith.
In a lifetime we may have only a few fleeting glimpses of the glory that God intends for us, a precious handful of moments on the mountaintop. Or we may feel as if we’ve never been there, and depend on the testimony of hardier souls to tell us what it’s like. And yet such moments, even second-hand, impress on us such a radically-different vision of reality, that they haunt us. The longing they awaken for a greater significance to our lives, the discontent with a shallow materialistic existence they leave behind, often have to be enough—enough to sustain us through long periods of just going through the religious motions, wondering if it’s all a sham.
Second Peter tells us that this is actually providential. It helps us avoid mistaking the lamp we have been given to guide us on the path for the glorious dawn toward which we are going. And it teaches us to measure the worth of our mountaintop experiences by the lives we live every day down here in the suburbs. Which is also goes for our efforts at religious discipline.
At the Zen temple we used to have seven- or ten day meditation intensives called sesshin, which is Japanese for “gathering the mind.” During sesshin we would sit upwards of twelve or thirteen periods a day of silent meditation, interspersed with walking meditation and services of chanting and prostrations. We would eat in silence at our seats in the meditation hall. Except for a daily sermon and an optional brief, private conversation with one of the teachers, there was no talking. There was no reading or writing during the breaks after meals.
I can still vividly remember certain moments that occurred twenty-five years ago during sesshin, moments in which exactly nothing happened. You could say they were moments on the mountaintop. But our teachers used to tell us that the point of sesshin is to realize that your whole life is sesshin. And we could say something like that about the Christian season of Lent. The point of Lent is to realize that your whole life is Lent.
During these forty days every spring we intensify our effort to pay attention, to let go of what is not essential, to purify our bodies and minds, to take less and pray more, and remember those whose needs are more pressing than our own. But our purpose is not simply to “get through Lent” and move on, but to remember some basic spiritual truths to carry with us throughout the remainder of the year. We do not approach Lent like convicted criminals being marched into prison to serve our time. We come as those returning to the valley from the mountaintop, as those who have seen the glory of God’s beloved Son, who have felt his healing touch, and heard him say to us, “Get up; do not be afraid.”
If we come to Lent seeking silence, it is because we know there are some things for which words are inadequate. If we come for instruction, it is because we’ve heard the voice that tells us to listen to God’s beloved. If we come to repent, it is because we have seen the glory for which we are created, and which we have stubbornly refused. If we come praying and fasting for justice, it is because we know that another world is possible.