Once again, we stand on a mountaintop with Jesus. For the last four weeks, we’ve been in the Sermon on the Mount, sitting on top of a mountain, listening as Jesus explains God’s vision for blessing the world by blessing us. Next week, we will stand on another mountaintop with Jesus, along with the devil, who will be trying to convince Jesus to use his blessings for himself, for power, for gain. And this week, we stand on a mountain looking out toward the season of Lent, toward the journey to the cross, and we hear the familiar story of the Transfiguration. We read some version of this story every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and every year as we stand on that mountain, Peter gets all muddled and confused. Every year, I hope Peter will get it right, but every year, no matter how much preaching and teaching and healing he has seen, Peter still wants to make Jesus his personal savior.
All my life, I’ve heard people talk about accepting Jesus as my personal savior. It was always the question that was asked by the door-to-door Bible salesmen and the street corner preachers. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?!” And for at least a few years now, I have walked around with a ready answer, based on my very Lutheran understanding of salvation. If someone were to ask me today whether I had accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I would respond, “He has accepted me. Thanks for asking.” But my focus has always been on that word, “accept.” And now I find myself asking instead about the word “personal.” What does it mean to have a personal savior? I have a personal trainer. I’ve heard of personal chefs. Personal secretaries. Personal assistants. Does a personal savior show up in the rolodex just before the personal shopper?
This is what Peter is looking for there on the mountaintop. A personal savior experience. It’s what most of us come looking for on the mountaintop. A personal savior.
But the concept of a personal savior is more about American Christianity and individualism than it is about the Bible and the God that is revealed there. At least the way that it gets talked about and used. It is an understanding of salvation as an individual pursuit. Something that I can choose for myself, and then ignore for everyone else. It is a way of selecting and securing my own individual redemption. A way of claiming Jesus as mine, but no one else’s. A personal savior implies that Jesus is ours to command and control. After all, the point of a personal trainer is that she will tailor my workout to my goals, and not let other people’s needs get in my way. The point of a personal shopper or a personal chef is that I don’t have to deal with crowds or conform myself to anyone else’s concerns (I assume – I’ve never used one). So a personal savior should be one that I can use as I see fit. One that is primarily about and for me.
“Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let me build you a dwelling; let’s hang out here on this mountaintop, where you can be my personal savior. Let me keep you to myself, for myself.” After all, here we are on the mountaintop, getting what looks like the Jesus we want – the dazzling display, the glory, the hanging out with the Biblical rock stars, Moses and Elijah.
And then the voice comes from the clouds. It seems to be the same voice we heard back in chapter 3, at the beginning of Epiphany, at Jesus’ baptism, the voice that says, “This is my son. Listen to him.” Notice that it does not say, “This is your Savior. Accept him.” Instead, the focus is on God. This is God’s son, and if we listen to him, we might just learn something about what God is up to in this world. About why God would come into this world. About where God would have us show up. About how God would have us act.
Because it turns out we actually do have a personal savior. It just doesn’t mean what we think it means. It’s not about the personal trainer, personal chef, personal shopper kind of personal. It’s not about how Jesus is just for us, for us to horde up here on our mountaintop. Instead this is about the savior who shows up in person. About the God who shows up right in the middle of this world, in flesh and blood. The God who refuses to stay on a mountaintop, all glow-y and dazzle-y. No, this God turns from the mountaintop toward the people, toward the hurting needy broken world, toward the cross. This is our personal savior – the God who shows up in person and places God’s own self on the cross, personally carrying the brokenness, pain and need of this world right up onto the cross.
This is God, as person, the Jesus we get. It’s not really the Jesus we want – the one who will be all about us, who will live inside the tent we build, conform to the box we create, all dazzling displays and miraculous revelations and my best life now. It’s the Jesus we get – the God who shows up in person, in all the messiness of human personhood, for the pain and grief and disappointment of this world. For the betrayal and the broken relationships and the broken body that hangs on the cross. For the sake of the other. For someone else’s best life now. For our neighbor’s best life now.
This is what we are baptized into. Not our own personal salvation, for our own personal sake. But the person of Christ, the Body of Christ, that shows up in this world for the sake of this world. The One who has come into this world, to fulfill God’s love for each and every person. And this is why baptism is not about accepting Jesus as your personal savior. It is about the God who has already accepted you, and freed you, and now sends you into this world, to be a person in this world, to live for the sake of this world, as the Body of Christ.
Today we welcome Cameron and Alyssa Stewart to the waters of baptism, a mother and son coming together to be named and claimed as a part of God’s mission in this world. It is particularly beautiful to be able to baptize them together, because it is an acknowledgment that we are not baptized for our own sake. We are not coming to this water to accept Jesus as our personal savior. We come to this water to receive the promise that God has already made, to acknowledge that we are already accepted by God, and to be joined to the Body of Christ, for the sake of one another. Alyssa already knows what it is to work for the good of others. First as a nurse, and now as a mother, she has given herself personally to improving the lives of others. And now, today, she and Michael promise together that they will raise their son to this same life. As a Christian, they will raise him to listen to the Son of God, and to follow him, down the mountain and into the world, for the sake of the world.
But let’s be clear about this. These promises that they are making at this font, all the words that I am going to say about responsibilities and living the Christian life: these are a response to what God has already given us. These are a response to our personal savior, the one who has already shown up in person, has already given everything to us, has overcome death and the grave for us, has set us free. In this freedom, we do not have to worry about whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior. Jesus has accepted us. We do not have to worry about whether we have said the right prayer with the right tone and the right sincerity. We do not have to worry about whether we manage to be perfect disciples. Even Peter failed at that, spectacularly and often. This is the freedom of the Christian. Because God has shown up in person, we are freed ourselves to show up in person, to live for the sake of our neighbor, to get up and not be afraid, to come down off the mountain and step into the messy business of life, even if we are muddled and confused and imperfect in our discipleship.
There are more mountains to come. As we head into Lent, we will walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward Calvary, toward the cross. But we walk from the waters of baptism, from the table of our Lord’s supper, strengthened for service on the mountaintops and in the valleys, blessed by God’s love, to be God’s love in the world. Blessed to be a blessing.