Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Electric with Joy” (2 Peter 1:16-19)
August 6, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you knew your life would be over soon, and you were going to write one last letter, to whom would you write, and what would you say?
Today’s epistle reading is from the last letter the Apostle Peter wrote. He wrote it “To those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1) and then immediately reminded his recipients of the heart of this precious faith, the grace of God—“May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (1:2).
Peter knew this would be his last letter because God had communicated to him that his death was imminent, and so he sought to remind his recipients of this grace of God, as he put it:
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (1:13-14).
Peter then hearkens back to a specific episode during the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Transfiguration, which we commemorate today. Peter was at Jesus’ transfiguration, when as Luke describes, “the appearance of (Jesus’) face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Peter recalls:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain (1:16-18).
Peter did not fabricate Jesus’ transfiguration. It happened, and he was there. Then Peter writes why this matters: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1:19).
In other words, as the sun was setting on the earthly life of Peter, he wanted to remind us to be attentive to the reality of the grace of God in our lives, to remember that even though the sun will set on all of our earthly lives, the grace of God means that a new day will dawn and the morning star will rise in our hearts.
Perhaps some of you here today, like Peter, think the sun is going down on you—as Elton John sang:
I can’t light no more of your darkness
All my pictures seem to fade to black and white
I’m growing tired and time stands still before me
Frozen here on the ladder of my life…
Don’t let the sun go down on me
Although I search myself, it’s always someone else I see
I just allow a fragment of your life to wander free
But losing everything is like the sun going down on me
(From his 1974 album Caribou)
I recently watched a favorite film of mine, a film that was shredded by critics but is replete with grace, and has an amazing soundtrack too, the 2005 film Elizabethtown. Orlando Bloom stars as Drew Baylor, a young shoe designer whose work was supposed to make millions of dollars. But there was a serious flaw and so truckloads of this shoe are recalled and the shoe company loses nearly a billion dollars. The company needed a scapegoat, someone to take all the blame, and that scapegoat was Drew. In a voiceover Drew says:
There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others, that makes other people feel more alive, because it didn’t happen to them.
Drew is utterly distraught and thinks the sun is going down on him, and he decides to end his life, only to receive a phone call at the last minute from his sister who informs him that their father has died unexpectedly and that he needed to go to his father’s hometown, Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to make funeral arrangements. On his way there something else unexpected occurs, and he strikes up a friendship with a stewardess, Claire Colburn, played by Kirsten Dunst. They spend an entire night talking on the phone. Claire confesses, “I think I’ve been asleep most of my life,” and Drew replies, “Me too.” Later in the film Drew is still obsessing about his fiasco, but Claire speaks these words of life to him:
So you failed. Alright, you really failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed. You failed…Do you think I care about that? I do understand. You’re an artist. Your job is to break barriers, not accept blame and bow and say, “Thank you, I’m a loser, I’ll go away now”…You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling. That’s true greatness to me.
Peter, the chief disciple, the one whom Jesus called a rock, failed at Jesus’ darkest hour, denying him not once but three times. And after Jesus’ death on the cross, which itself appeared to be a fiasco, “a disaster of mythic proportions,” Peter decided to quit and go fishing. But Peter had an unexpected encounter with the Risen Jesus, whose glory he had witnessed at the Transfiguration.
Jesus spoke words of grace to Peter that communicated forgiveness and reinstatement as the chief disciple appointed to feed Jesus’ sheep with the same grace Jesus had given him (John 21:15-17). Peter therefore had the courage not only to “stick around” but to preach the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, ultimately at the cost of his life. Church tradition maintains that Peter was crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way his Lord and Savior had died. Do you think Peter would have done that for a cleverly devised myth? Would you?
Peter’s experience of the grace of God in Jesus Christ changed his life, and became the focus of his life and ministry thereafter. And it is this same grace of God to which Peter urges us to be attentive “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in (our) hearts.”
While on a trip out west last month on the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles my daughter Emily and I visited Salinas, California, and saw the birthplace and grave of the great writer John Steinbeck, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He was baptized and confirmed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, and was a lifelong reader of the King James Bible. In his masterpiece, East of Eden, he describes something many people experience, maybe even you:
How often one goes to sleep troubled and full of pain, not knowing what causes the travail, and in the morning a whole new direction and a clearness is there…And again there are mornings when ecstasy bubbles in the blood, and the stomach and chest are tight and electric with joy, and nothing in the thoughts to justify it or cause it (Penguin Classics edition 327).
As the sun was going down on his earthly life in late 1968, Steinbeck requested that his funeral service be held at an Episcopal church, and it was…at St. James Episcopal Church in Manhattan. He had once quipped, “A funeral isn’t for the dead. You’ll simply be a stage set for a kind of festival maybe. And besides, you won’t even be there.” So where was John Steinbeck during his funeral? In heaven, in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Morning Star, the Sun of Righteousness—electric with joy.
What about you today? Maybe you feel, as Elton John sang, frozen on the ladder of your life, with the sun going down on you—or like Claire, that you’ve been asleep most of your life. Or maybe, as Steinbeck put it, you go to sleep “troubled and full of pain,” or like Drew are distraught because of the fiascos of your life. If any of that is the case, remember what Peter said: be attentive to the grace of God in Jesus Christ, grace that is not a cleverly devised myth but very real, grace that assures you that the day will dawn and the morning star will rise in your heart.
At the conclusion of Peter’s second and final letter, what was his last exhortation? What was the last thing the chief disciple, the reinstated rock, had to say? “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (3:18). Grow in grace, Peter concluded, grow in grace.
This is good news for those who have been asleep their whole life, good news for those upon whom the sun is going down. A good friend of mine in Charlottesville, Virginia named Sam Bush is a gifted songwriter who put it this way:
If you fall back in fear
The future’s as clear as the sea before dawn
Wait for the world to turn
‘Cause the darkness can only hold on for so long
The sun will rise, to your surprise
All by itself, without your help
(From “All’s Well That Ends” on the 2011 album The Hill and Wood)
Your failures and fiascos do not have the last word regarding your life; Jesus Christ does—and Jesus’ final word regarding your life is a word of forgiveness, a word of love—a word of grace.
This is because the same Jesus whose glory Peter glimpsed at the Transfiguration revealed his glory again on Good Friday, when he was “frozen on the ladder of (your) life”—the cross—where he took the blame for all the failures and fiascos of your life, where he was your scapegoat, where he hung as the sun was going down.
And Jesus was raised again—the Sun of Righteousness, the Morning Star—and gave grace to Peter and others before ascending to heaven.
And this means that right now, like Peter, you have been given a chance to wake up and be attentive to the grace that has always surrounded you.
And not only that, when the sun goes down on your earthly life—and it will one day, you cannot avoid it—you can trust in this same grace of God.
For after your death you too, “electric with joy,” will join Peter in seeing the eternally transfigured Jesus in all his glory as “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”