“A Different Kind of Mountaintop” – Sermon from Luke 9.28-36

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Link to the biblical text.

This sermon followed the following combined choirs singing “We Shall Overcome”: University Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir, Jubilate, and Charlottesville High School Choirs. You can see the anthem by clicking here.

“We Shall Overcome” is an anthem of hope. It’s aspirational even when there is no hope. Thinking back to the dark days of flagrant and open racial oppression in the United States, I can imagine that certain achievements would have seemed inconceivable. For instance, as the embers of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre still smoldered, I cannot believe anyone would have looked into the future and pictured a black U.S. President. Yet it happened. There’s a reason for hope. 

Still, for all the strides forward, like the Civil Right Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and more, we still have a lot of work to do. Everyone does not experience equality even though God created everyone equal. In Romans (6.23), Paul points out the obvious fact that everyone has sinned and falls short of God’s perfection. That’s true every single day. We are all sinners in need of grace. And, as long as people choose their own way over God’s way, there will be a need to overcome oppression and inequality. 

Every February, we celebrate racial diversity during Black History Month. We remember the great accomplishments of people of color. We also note the need for continuing work in overcoming inequality. Right now, when I think of overcoming oppression, my mind goes to Ukraine and the Russian invasion. 

Change

Overcoming oppression and inequality requires change—an inner transformation. Whether that is spiritual transformation or not, fixing broken systems means people change the way they see the word. For people of faith, this means turning to the divine.  

Transfiguration

In Luke 9, Jesus, along with Peter, John, and James, did just that. They went up a mountain to pray and reflect. Getting away from everything is a good way to find clarity and clear one’s head. When they reach the mountaintop, Jesus transforms before the disciples’ eyes. Then, Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, appeared with Jesus.[1] Their presence and respective roles add to this story, but for today, let’s focus on change and the impact that has on the world. 

In that moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter grasped for something familiar. He offered to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This might sound like a strange reaction to us, but his offer referenced Sukkot—or the Jewish Feast of Booths.[2] He was trying to make sense of what was going on. While the disciples are still trying to wrap their minds around what was happening, a voice from a cloud affirmed Jesus’ identity. “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him.”

Can we truly change?

This experience would seem like the kind of thing that would change someone forever. Yet, just after this episode, the disciples squabbled over which one was the greatest (Luke 9.46-48). These are some of the same guys who were just with Jesus on the mountaintop. 

Now, barely having gotten over the mountain hike, they had the audacity to argue about which one was the greatest. We don’t need Paul’s reminder that everyone has sinned. We find creative ways to sin even when we are in the presence of Christ. It’s no wonder the world is so messy. 

The ways we hate

We should not be confused that people find innovative ways to hate and exclude, whether it’s based on someone’s skin color, sexual orientation, or, simply, they live in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects the lengths to which humanity will go to avoid living in harmony. Still, we don’t have to travel around the world or back through time to find people excluding, ignoring, or hating other people. 

We do it too. Since most of us can’t directly stand up to the Russian oppression in Ukraine, we can take a look at our own lives and see how we can live to reflect the holy calling from Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10.27). When we go with Jesus up the mountain, we can experience who Jesus is. 

Come down from the mountain

But we don’t stay on the mountaintop. We come down and proclaim a kind of divine kingdom that encompasses every part of life. We step away from everything that keeps us from living in full communion with God and with others. This transformation involves painful and unavoidable aspects of living,[3] like dealing with our own racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, intolerance, isolationism, biases, or political polarization.

The experience of transfiguration is not about staying on the mountaintop though. Before our gospel lesson, earlier in Luke 9, Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. In that exchange, Jesus corrected Peter’s acknowledgement by saying, “You don’t get what being the Messiah is all about. I’m going to suffer, be rejected, die, and then overcome death through resurrection” (Luke 9.20-22). 

Our reading, the Transfiguration, comes along, not as a confirmation of Jesus’ prediction, but to emphasize his power over death.[4] It’s about who Jesus is. 

Get to work

Peter wanted to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah because being on the mountaintop is an amazing experience. We would all like that. Once we get there, we want to stay. Yet, if we follow Jesus, we keep following him when he says, “It’s time to go. It’s time to come down from the mountain and get back to work.”

We have got work to do in Charlottesville. There’s too much racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and intolerance. Jesus meant it when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” so we’ve got work to do. There are example of how to do that work all around us. 

On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He spoke to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. In the speech, he said, 

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.[5]

It doesn’t matter where we are or who God calls us to help. “Love your neighbor as yourself” takes many forms. We can stand against hatred and exclusion, or we can stand with people who experience injustice, like King did with the sanitation workers. We can stand for peace in Ukraine, fair wages for everyone regardless of their gender or the color of their skin. We can stand for inclusion and full participation for everyone. 

King concluded his speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[6]

King didn’t stay on the mountaintop. He came down and returned to his work for racial equality—and was assassinated the next day. We can go to the mountaintop with Jesus and experience something amazing. Like Peter, John, and James, we don’t stay on the mountaintop. We come down to the world and join the holy work of living out Jesus’ calling. 

Whether we seek to overcome oppression and inequality in our own city, stand with Ukraine, or join another movement for peace and equality, with God’s help and guidance, we shall overcome.


[1] Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, trans. Hubert Hoskins (New York: Crossroad, 1979), 449.

[2] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 205.

[3] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 52.

[4] Joseph A. FItzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 794.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 284.

[6] King, A Testament of Hope, 286.

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