Religious Tourism

After foretelling his death, Jesus takes his senior disciples on a hike. Their breath quickens with each switch back until they crest the tallest mountain in northern Israel. At the ten-thousand-foot summit, Peter, James, and John drop their packs and start passing the water bottle. Until a supernova detonates mere feet away, consuming everything in radiant glory. In the blast center is Jesus, tunic luminescent, eyes glowing, face turned liquid sun.

To the left and right of the flash appear Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, the prophets. The three men of God have much to discuss, and a conversation ensues. Then, pupils adjusting to the dazzling light, Peter uncurls from the fetal position and starts rummaging about for tent supplies: fifteen-foot juniper branches for the poles, woven goat hair for the sides, leather loops for the corners, hemp cords to lash it down tight.

And he didn’t stop there. Positioning stones in a circle for a fire ring and arranging stump seats to face west, he makes himself comfortable for a longer stay than planned. With this miraculous transfiguration- a total metamorphosis of appearance- in progress, why, of all the possible responses, does Peter hastily start a building project on the mountaintop?

Matthew 17:1-9 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 bright as light. 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 set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud 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 raised their eyes, 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.”

Congregational Responses: 

He wants God to have a tabernacle.

He believes the holy can be boxed in and managed.

He doesn’t want the mountain top experience to end.

With 250,000 visitors annually from every state and over one hundred countries, Christ in the Smokies was America’s #1 religious attraction for decades. Families planned their vacations around pilgrimages to downtown Gatlinburg to experience “the greatest story ever told.” After paying admission, patrons walked past three-dimensional dioramas and Holy Land exhibits inside 22,000 square feet of air-conditioned space. Static figurines of the wise men adorned in exotic tunics stand at attention behind Mother Mary crib-side. A mannequin devil with a sinister stare, paused mid-temptation, lurks in front of a wilderness panorama. Jesus, with a plastered Caucasian face and carefully painted white hands, waits outside a door with no exterior handle. The Son of God’s face, carved into a six-ton block of marble, watches every move as visitors exit for the gift shop. In February 2020, a traveler from Chattanooga wrote a TripAdvisor review saying, “I haven’t visited since the late ’80s. … the place looks like it always has. Old school Gatlinburg attraction. If you miss several things … replaced in town, visit here, almost unchanged since my first visit.” 

Before the Christian landmark opened in the Blue Ridge, Peter was hard at work in the Judaean Mountains. While Moses and Elijah talk with his rabbi, the head disciple pitches an event tent. Underneath, he’s organizing the space in a frenzy: a welcoming kiosk with headphones for the self-guided tour, a timeline of events for the carpenter from Nazareth, locked display cases with a program from the wedding at Cana, the leather sandals that walked on water, one of the leftover twelve baskets. And for the lead exhibition- set apart by velvet stanchions, behind shatterproof glass, safely at a distance to be seen but not touched- Peter plans to preserve Jesus in wax as a memorialized relic of history.

Terribly aware of what awaits in Jerusalem, Peter starts the first building project because he wants to freeze-frame the moment in perpetuity by constructing walls around it. Preferring to be a religious tourist, he can curate the Jesus Museum on repeat as a tactic of avoidance.

Peter, and the Church built on his rock foundation, struggle with stalling. The vistas are beautiful above the treeline; the rarified air is invigorating; the transfigured light is comforting on our skin. But hear the Good News that’s most often costly news, Jesus isn’t a mountain top attraction to frequent or a possession to protect but rather a Messiah calling us to follow to the very end.

On this last Sunday before Lent, it’s time to shoulder our packs and begin the descent. We’ll reach the bottom by Wednesday, when ashes will be smudged on our foreheads, marking us as grave-bound. While no one wants to lay down their life, the steps ahead are clear. To finally arrive on Easter morning, you only have to die.

Peter’s correct, hammer and nails are required. But he got the wrong structure and the wrong mountain. All that’s left is a cross erected on Calvary.

Homewood, T. “Good Rainy Day Activity.” Tripadvisor, February 2020,