MATTHEW 17:1-9


Since Epiphany, back on January 6th, we have been in a sermon series called Walk in the Light. Epiphany is the season of light, and this series has taken us through some of the most luminous and illuminating teachings of Jesus in Matthew: the calling of the disciples, the Beatitudes, the blessing of salt and light, and the practical teaching about anger and reconciliation. This morning we are concluding this series by skipping ahead in the gospel story to the quintessential mountain top experience, the transfiguration of Jesus. Each year this story marks out the threshold of Lent: we see a vision of the risen and glorified Jesus before we follow him on the way to the cross. Listen now for the word of God:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

I want to talk with you this morning for a few minutes about how faith develops in adults. Our series Walk in the Light has been about living a life of faith, and as we close this series I want to think with you about how faith develops for adults. We have spent time the last couple of years looking at how faith develops in children, through story and wonder, mentoring, retreats, service to others, and increasing responsibilities in the community of faith. But what about for adults? How does our faith develop and grow?

Almost thirty years ago, the pastor Rick Warren wrote the book The Purpose Driven Church, and very famously mapped adult faith formation using baseball diamond.[1] Now, it was an oversimplification, which he knew, but the purpose was to give Christians and church leaders a way to locate themselves on the field of faith. First base is getting to know Christ, becoming an active member of a church. Second base is growing in Christ, becoming committed to spiritual maturity through study, prayer, and spiritual practices. Third base is serving Christ by becoming committed to the ministry of the church. Home base is sharing the love of Christ with others through a commitment to mission and service. That’s one way of modeling growth in faith for adults, and that may look like your life.

The Methodist author and pastor Adam Hamilton, of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, takes the baseball diamond that Warren developed and says that actually, in the experience people today, they run the bases in the opposite direction. Growth in faith begins with serving others and sharing the love of Christ, that leads to involvement in the ministry of the church, and that leads to a commitment to personal maturity and growth through study and prayer, and that leads to a full and active membership in the body of Christ. I believe Hamilton is pointing to something very true in our experience, that belonging often comes before believing, that serving comes before membership, that sharing the love of Christ is very often how we first get to know the love of Christ. Maybe you too have run the bases in the other direction.[2]

A very different model of growing in faith was developed by a psychologist and theologian named James Fowler, and the research for it took place right here in Western North Carolina, at a retreat center called Interpreter’s House. Fowler listened to the faith stories of hundreds of people, and then went back to Harvard Divinity, where he was teaching, and found a pattern that made sense of their experience. He divided it into six stages, and they are far more complicated than a baseball diamond. The first three relate to childhood, and the second three are adulthood. Essentially, for adults, growth in faith happens, first, when we begin to question our assumptions about faith, what we were taught and who taught it to us. Then, from there, we move to a place where we are more comfortable with our struggles and questions. We find some answers, and we accept that some answers may never be found, and we learn to treasure the community of faith where we can search for answers and live with questions.[3]

Now, you may be wondering at this point, what does any of this have to do with the transfiguration? In the scene of the transfiguration, we have before us a picture of the risen and glorified Jesus. Set down, in the middle of the gospel narrative, is a vision of the end the story: the risen and glorified Jesus, his face shining like the sun, on a mountain with Elijah and Moses, bringing together in one scene the whole story of God with God’s people.

But if we look at the edges of this story, we see not only Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; we see James, and John, and Peter. Jesus invited these disciples on their journey of faith to witness this scene. And if we look behind this story, at the historical context of its writing and telling, we find a Matthean community of disciples who are struggling to live out their faith some fifty years after Jesus’ resurrection, at a time when the church experienced conflict both within itself and with its wider culture, when some in the congregation were losing confidence in the coming Realm of God and drifting away, and they were struggling to grow in faith and walk in the light.

If we look at the edges of this story, and go around behind it, it’s a story of growing in faith, of walking and stumbling in the light. At the center of that endeavor is Peter, and to understand his journey we need to back up just a few days in the story. Back in Matthew 16, Jesus asked Peter, famously, “Who do you say that I am?” In that encounter, we find Peter at first base, at stage three, a confident and unquestioning statement of belief. “You are the Messiah, the Son of living God.” And Jesus praised him for his answer.

But then, Jesus began to tell them that he would undergo suffering at the hands of people in power, and ultimately would be killed before rising again. Peter hears this and says, “God forbid it, Lord – this must never happen to you!” Jesus says to him, “Get behind me Satan, you’re a stumbling block.” Now, here we find Peter – well, I don’t know what base he was on – maybe he was trying to get on second base, to find some spiritual maturity, but was caught in the middle and about to get tagged out. In Fowler’s stages, Peter was thrown into stage four, that time of questioning about what he believed and what he was taught, about God, and how God worked.

Then, after that humbling experience, Jesus called him, and James, and John, away to this high mountain, and there he was transfigured before their eyes and they saw him talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter saw this and decided he would head for third base, he would run for ministry and proposed to build three shrines for three holy people. But as the idea was tumbling out of his mouth, a cloud overtook them a voice spoke once more from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When they heard this, Peter, James, and John fell down with their faces on the ground, overcome by fear. Running hard for third base, but once more stuck in the middle, afraid of being tagged out of the game of faith, Peter, James, and John bowed in fear before the living God. But Jesus came and touched them (their eyes were on the ground, they could not see him), he put his hand on a head, on a shoulder, on a back, and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And they followed him back down the mountain. I don’t know where this would be on the baseball diamond. Fowler would say they were deep in stage five, having finally traded some old worn-out answers for better questions, and deeper knowledge of the mystery of God.

However we might model, there is something that rings deeply true about growth in faith in the story of the Transfiguration. We might see in it the movement from answers, into questions, into mystery. We might see in it the movement from knowledge, to experience, to trust. We might see in it the movement from confidence, into suffering, to confusion, and to acceptance. We might see it as going from racing through the dark to stumbling in the light. What I am most drawn to is this scene at the end where Jesus touches them with such kindness, and casts out their fear, and bids them to get up and follow.

Whether we move around the bases forward or in reverse, or go up through the stages, or whatever our journey of growing in faith looks like as adults, there is something deeply true in this: Growing in faith mean holding on to a vision of the risen Christ, even as we experience fightings within and fears without, conflict and temptations to give up, even as we bow even more deeply before the mystery of God and our own lives. There, when we are humbled by the mystery, and strangeness, and often the fear of it all, growth in faith is hearing the voice of Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.” And growth in faith is rising from our knees to stumble forward into a future that belongs to God, with the words of the Spirit ringing in our ears, “Listen to him.”

As I close this message and this series, I want to invite you to pray with me. This prayer is written by Howard Thurman, a towering 20th century theologian, pastor, civil rights activist, and contemplative. Though the prayer is his, it could easily be Peter’s, and it is surely yours and mine. Let us pray.

Grant that I may pass through
The coming year with a faithful heart.

 There will be much to test me and to make weak my strength before the year ends. In my confusion I shall often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which I am ashamed. There will be errors of the mind and great inaccuracies of judgement which shall render me the victim of my own stupidities.

In seeking the light, I shall again and again find myself walking in darkness. I shall mistake my light for Thy light and I shall shrink from the responsibility of the choice I make. All of these things, and more, will be true for me because I have not yet learned how to keep my hand in Thy hand.

Nevertheless, grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. May I never give the approval of my heart to error, to falseness, to weakness, to vainglory, to sin. Though my days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings, let my spirit be free so that Thou mayest take it and redeem my moments in all the ways my needs reveal. Give me the quiet assurance of Thy Love and Thy Presence.

Grant than I may pass through
The coming year with a faithful heart.



Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina


[1] https://www.amazon.com/Purpose-Driven-Church-Every-Gods/dp/0310201063

[2] https://notreligious.typepad.com/notreligious/2009/11/reversing-rick-warrens-baseball-diamond.html

[3] https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/wholeness/workshop2/handout1-stages-faith-development





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