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Six Days Later and 113 Years After

February 27, 2017

“Six Days Later and 113 Years After” Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:1-18; 2 Peter 1:16-19 © 2.26.17 Transfiguration A and 113th Anniversary of First Presbyterian Church, Amory by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I was ordained on October 30, 1977, and during the nearly forty years since, I’ve served three congregations as pastor. One tenure was for fourteen years, another for six, and now this one for going on eight. I was associate pastor for a short while in a fourth church. The rest of the time I was working in a law firm to pay the bills and learn real life skills; back in seminary; doing campus ministry; or was unemployed, euphemistically known as “between calls.”

As an associate, I wasn’t asked or allowed to preach very much, and the church didn’t observe the liturgical year. So the only festivals were Christmas and Easter. But everywhere else, we followed the calendar, from Advent to Christmastide to Epiphany to Lent to Eastertide. So for twenty-eight years, I’ve had to come up with something fresh to say on Transfiguration from the same three texts. And I’ve faced the same challenge with the other marker events.

Of course, circumstances change, and “the Spirit breathes upon the word,” as the hymn puts it, so taking a prayerful closer look may yield new insight. Maybe that’s how and why I was struck by the little phrase “six days later” in the gospel text.

I started looking around in the Old Testament for clues about the significance of six. Of course, the priests who authored the first chapter of Genesis have the creation done in six days. We labor six days and do all our work, so manna was collected for that time, and not on the Sabbath. Six days figure in the observance of Passover in Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy. Joshua and his army marched around Jericho for six days according to the account. And then we have the text from Exodus we heard this morning, in which the glory of the Lord settled on Mt. Sinai and covered it for six days.

Matthew means to present Jesus as a new Moses, and this gospel text is one more story meant to add a brush stroke to that portrait. Like the great lawgiver, our Lord goes up a mountain with his inner circle. They’re on the height after six days, and the voice of God comes from the glory cloud.

But more interesting to me is that six days later, counting from the action of the preceding chapter, is the seventh day. Jesus has predicted his passion, his suffering, and now he takes his disciples away to have a sabbatical, a rest, to get a glimpse of glory, to bask in mystery. They become grounded in the profound truth of who he is and hear again the proclamation about Jesus at his baptism. This is God’s Son, the Beloved. The suffering predicted six days before must somehow be in accord with the love of God for this One now transfigured, embodying mystery.

The Greek Orthodox writer Kallistos Ware has observed: “In the Christian context, we do not mean by a ‘mystery’ merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.” And this: “We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder” (

Elizabeth Palmer, an editor of the ecumenical journal The Christian Century, has also mused on the significance of “six days later.” In a recent piece, she asks: “Later than what? If you scroll back a few verses, you’ll see that Jesus has just predicted his passion in grave detail and enjoined his disciples to take up the cross. The short phrase ‘six days later’ seems like a radically insufficient transition between the agony of the cross and the glory of a mountaintop theophany. That transitional space, brief as it is, embodies the lifelong paradox in which we find ourselves—always hovering between death and life, perpetually waiting for God to show up even as we find ourselves dazzled by the brilliance of grace” (

So right now, we live in the space of six days later, according to Palmer. This is the in-between time in which sometimes we hear discouraging, disheartening news, and at others experience ineffable joy, enlivening and befuddling mystery, and a word that will sustain us when we come down the mountain.

But this text speaks to us, too, not just in that general “space between,” to quote a Dave Matthews title, but on our 113th anniversary. That’s one of those changing circumstances I was talking about that is suggestive for a fresh look at a text. As far as I can tell, there have been some years in which Transfiguration and our birthday were a week or two removed, but this is the first time since I’ve been with you that they have fallen on the same Sunday. So this is a unique opportunity for reflection.

What, then, is the word to us from the mountain as we mark this occasion?

First, this story reminds us of the importance of continuity with the past. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, speak with Jesus. He’s part of a long line of those through whom God has spoken to and challenged and comforted his people. Especially for Matthew, our Lord didn’t just show up one day and start teaching something entirely new. He came not to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it. He enriched the practice of righteousness by pointing people to what lay beneath the letter, by insisting that they honor the spirit as well.

Christian faith in general and the Presbyterian way of following Jesus in particular are not divorced from the practice and belief of the people of Israel nor do we exist today in isolation from those who have gone before us. We’re not in a bubble, a vacuum or an echo chamber. We listen to and learn from the past with its diverse chorus of voices and find in it a guide and goad for the present and the future. Our Book of Order says “the Church receives the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ through the testimony of those whom Christ sent, both those whom we call apostles and those whom Christ has called throughout the long history of the Church….The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the Gospel of Jesus Christ as received from the prophets and apostles, and stands in continuity with God’s mission through the ages” (F-1.0302d).

In a word, we value tradition, whether that of the church catholic, of our particular denomination or of a local congregation. But having said that, we also need to be reminded that tradition and traditions can be stifling or creative, exclusive or inclusive, a slavish adherence to the way we have always done it or a celebration of connection with a bigger story. With Kallistos Ware again: “Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration… Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words”  (

Tradition at its best is dynamic, as the story continues to be written, with all of us contributing chapters as we journey with God. And it’s this very tradition, such as the morning’s gospel, that reminds us that God is doing something new. The One who stands in continuity with the past is also the One in whom the past is uniquely and authoritatively interpreted. Our Lord is the One to whom we must listen, on whom we need to focus our attention. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him,” said the voice from the cloud.

Jesus is the Word of God. Doctrines, liturgies, church rules are all important, but they are tools, ways and means of approaching the mystery of God in Christ. They are not the One in whom God’s glory shines. The Barmen Declaration, one of our confessions, written in a time of national crisis in 1930s Germany, stated plainly: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death….We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.” A foundational principle of our way of being Christian is that “Christ alone rules, calls, teaches, and uses the Church as he wills” (F-1.0202).

We have to keep returning to the feet of Christ, for him to teach us, guide us, challenge us, comfort us, as he is revealed in Scripture. If we do not follow this Jesus and listen instead to other voices, accept other claims, give loyalty to other would-be Messiahs, then we can scarcely call ourselves Christians. As my friend Pat Terry once put it in a song: “Christ alone will wear the crown.” To him belong all power and authority and glory.

This Jesus whom we must hear in life and in death calls us to give a timely witness. He instructed the disciples as they were coming down the mountain not to tell anyone about the vision until after he had been raised from the dead. We can leave for now a discussion of why such secrecy was important. What I’m interested in this morning is “until.”

There is a time and a place for things. We don’t just blurt out whatever is in our heads or make a shameful public scene about something that’s upsetting us. And positively, we wait until the right moment, we set the tone and the mood, to declare love or to spring a wonderful surprise on someone. The ancient wisdom teacher reminded us that “for everything there is a season.” His colleagues who penned Proverbs invited us to speak the right word at the right time and in the right way. And it may be that we simply need to shut up and listen, to enter into the world of another for a while and earn the right to say something.

Our witness in word and deed is to be timely and proper, whether we’re talking about caring for a neighbor or a family member who’s grieving or ill to addressing the myriad of issues that face our nation and world today. The renowned theologian Karl Barth famously said we preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That was in the early 20th century. If he lived today, he might change “newspaper” to “phone.” The gospel addresses us when and where we are, and faithful witnesses of Christ need to discern what is appropriate and helpful and healing for this place, this time.

Finally, the gospel to us from this story on our anniversary is that God goes with us into the future. The promise embedded in the prohibition was that Christ would rise from the dead. God brings success out of failure and defeat, hope and wholeness from suffering and pain, and life out of death. When it looks as if the story is over, there is yet more to tell. So if in coming days and years this congregation faces obstacles, loss, and uncertainty, remember this: God raised Jesus from the dead, and that means his journey with each and all of us goes on, too.

This is both our comfort and our calling. As Fred Pratt Green put it in a hymn: “The church of Christ in every age, beset by change but Spirit-led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead” (

Jesus predicted his passion, and six days later, his inner circle was dazzled and encouraged by their vision of Mystery Incarnate. 113 years after the founding of this church, the story of Christ with his own continues, and God keeps transfiguring our lives, revealing his glory, calling us to share the good news. Take courage, then, whether on the mountain or the plain, in life or in death, for God has spoken: “This is my Beloved Son; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

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