Text: Mark 9.2-9
Greetings from the United Kingdom, to all my friends, my brothers and sisters, and to all my adopted sons and daughters in Ho! Before I embark on my sermon – which I am deeply honoured to preach - let me just say how sad I am not to be with you in person on this momentous day. It has taken a worldwide pandemic to stop me from being with you on this, the 60th birthday of my dear friend and brother, Bishop Matthias. But as you may know…the 14th of February is not just the Bishop’s birthday…oh no! It is also the anniversary of the day in 1975 when he was confirmed into the Church he has served all his life. And not even that is enough! It is also the 33rd anniversary of the first time, as a newly ordained priest, that Matthias celebrated the Holy Mass!
But, wait, there’s more! Not only is today such an important day for our beloved Bishop, it is also the feast of St Valentine – an early Christian, who died for love. Matthias has often shared his love with me, as I know he has done with you too. So today, as we ponder the Scripture of the day, let us hold the theme of Love in the back of our minds…conscious as I am that many of you will go home to share tokens of love with each other, this Valentine’s day!
So now, let’s think about topic of the day, as given to us by the Revised Common Lectionary – the story of 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 – often here in Ghana. I will never forget, for example, being at the 10th Anniversary Celebrations – out there in the same compound where you are meeting today! Neither will I forget the wonderful ordination service I was privileged to attend, in Worawora, when Fathers Angelo, Dennis, Meriku, were welcomed into the order of deacons, and Fr Macaphuy was ordained both deacon and priest on the same day!
Birthdays are often mountain-top experiences….as I’m sure the Bishop would agree today! Weddings too 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 vegetables! Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.
I remember climbing a mountain – or at least a small hill, out of Ho in the Bishop’s car, on our way to Worawora, a few years ago. The journey up the mountain was all very well. But when we started to come down the other side, we had a lot of trouble. We smelled burning, coming through the air vents into the car. At first we thought perhaps there was a fire somewhere near, and that we could smell the smoke. But then, we realised that the smell was coming from the wheels of the car itself. It was the brakes! The brakes were on fire!
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 Beloved...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.
Mark places this story in a pivotal place in his Gospel...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, according to Mark’s Gospel, 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 to church 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 sing in a choir – as my brother Prosper would tell you. You might be the most talented singer, with the voice of an angel. But, each singer only has one line of music to sing. It’s only when you sing in the choir that your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the anthem.
Or, here’s another analogy, which I know the Bishop will like. Football! Being a Christian is like playing football. You might be the most talented footballer-trickster in the world. Perhaps you can keep a ball bouncing on your head all day long. Perhaps you can dribble a ball accurately around sticks in the playground without ever missing the ball. But until you’ve played in a Team – you will never understand what the game of football is all about.
Actually, as the Bishop will tell you, I still don’t understand what the game of football is all about! But that is one topic on which we agree to have a different opinion!
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.
So, my final encouragement to you all today is this. Go from this mountain-top of worship today with joy in your hearts, and words of celebration on your lips – especially on this most important day in the life of our Bishop! Take the joy you have experienced here, take the peace you have experienced here, take the Valentine love you have received here – and share that joy, that peace, and that Valentine love with everyone you meet.
Go, in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord. Amen.