From the Mountain Top
Matthew 17.1-9 - The Mount of Transfiguration
Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember? I've had a few. I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me. I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember. And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks.
Weddings are mountain-top experiences. For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day. Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the food...it's all vitally important. And then, at the wedding itself...as I well remember...you find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences. Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency. You become determined to drink in every moment.
But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made. New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet! And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to couscous! Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.
Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience. It’s called ‘the story of the Transfiguration’. The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus. There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them. And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"
The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever. But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again. Discipleship involves following, and going on.
Today, we have heard Matthews’s account of the ‘Transfiguration’. Scholars believe that it is based on Mark’s account - because they are remarkably similar, and Mark is believed to be the earliest gospel. Mark places this story in a pivotal place...it is dead centre at the middle of his 16 chapters. Before the Transfiguration, Mark deals with Jesus’ ministry around Galilee - his teachings and his miracles. Then comes the mount-top experience of the Transfiguration - Elijah, Moses and even the voice of God meeting with Jesus - strengthening him for what is to come. Then, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem...towards challenge, torture, death and ultimately, resurrection.
Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith. Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences. Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.
But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced. You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.
My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences. They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other. They are a moment in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.
But we have to come down the mountain. We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us. We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them. Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.
One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding - or sometimes from church members who haven’t been for weeks.
Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps! It’s a bit like learning to play in an orchestra. You might be the most talented musician, who can play every scale and arpeggio at break-neck speed. But, each musician only has one line of music to play. It’s only when you play in the orchestra that you see how your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the symphony. Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we receive, together, the same spiritual food for the journey.
But it’s never about the mountain-top...it’s always about the journey. It should never be about the Sunday Service...it should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours. Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet. Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.
As we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.