The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s147g09 The Transfiguration 22/2/2009
'Elijah with Moses .. talking with Jesus' Mark 9.4
Quite a while ago I was in a group and the 'ice-breaker' question was to tell the others about the stand out experience of your life. One after the other in the group spoke about times when they were in a rain forest, on a beach, viewing a sunset and the like sorts of experiences, alone. My particular reminiscence was the time I was walking by myself on the island of Iona and the sound of bagpipes being played wafting over the hills. And as I reflected, each and every one of these stand-out experiences was when the people were alone and myself just as much as anyone else.
And I reflected afterwards, I wondered why experiences like the first time we were sexually intimate with another was not mentioned. When we were married, when I was ordained, at a Neil Diamond concert, whatever. Curious. Not critical just curious.
Jesus' 'standout' experience on the high mountain was not solitary. He was with Peter, James and John. And of course then there was Moses and Elijah too. And we can't forget God. Quite a crowd really. And they weren't admiring the view. They were talking, one with the other. Significant words were being said.
I have to confess I'm a happy after-hours hermit. After a day of visiting in the two hospitals where I work I get home very tired. I watch the news on TV while I prepare and eat my tea. I'm not sure why, it's only bad news especially because every item on the hospital system is **bad news** and I think of the good people working their guts out in those hospitals and how discouraged they must get. How are we to encourage nurses and doctors into the country with this sort of press? Sorry a personal gripe :-)! I do my cello practice and a few things around the house before retiring to bed to listen to the radio. I do not look for company in the evening. But I suspect that this isn't all that healthy really.
On the other hand the things that sustain and empower me are my hospital visiting and my sermon preparation, and actually each of these is a corporate activity. It is obvious that I am relating to others in my visiting, and I hope that those I visit are as encouraged as I am in the encounter. But while sermon preparation might seem solitary, in fact of course I am communicating with others the characters described in the scriptures and through those characters - God. Nothing I do or say comes out of my own head it's always a product of communication between equals.
And the time that Jesus and the disciples were 'alone' on the mountain-top was fairly short-lived. Soon enough they were returning to the hurly burley of real life. Peter's desire to remain apart from the rest of humanity is again to imitate the raison d'etre of the Pharisees, the separated ones. But Jesus leads them down the high mountain and back to real people. The mission of the incarnation to all people was interrupted for only the briefest of moments.
And the command to not speak to anyone about the experience on the high mountain is deliberate. As I look at life, perhaps one of the motivations for those who play golf is to get that elusive 'hole in one'. Even a relative amateur might get an 'ace' and you've got to be in it to win it. Certainly one of the motivations for those who gamble is that they will despite all the odds - one day strike it lucky and win the jackpot. It doesn't require any special skill, just perseverance. And church attendance can be seen likewise. Eventually with perseverance God may act to bring an ecstatic experience to an individual. Again this might come to the newcomer as much as to the long-standing member. We will have succeeded, while others are still on that treadmill. So telling others about the mountain top experience is likely to suggest to others that there is this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that, if they persevere, they will find.
God is not interested in rewarding us with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the 'hole in one', the jackpot, the deep and meaningful spiritual experience. God's aim is for us to get along with those around us and we do this by relating to others, not involving ourselves in activities whose essential aim is to set us apart from others.
God is not about rewarding an elite God is about accepting all and encouraging us to accept all others as well. God's way of life is to accept life as it is and get on with it - rather than enduring a mundane life wishing for something or someone to extricate us from it.
And I reflect that the other 'high' in Jesus' life was the time when he was alone wrestling with the devil in the wilderness. The contrast of being alone and wrestling with the devil and being in company on the mountain top hearing the voice of God is worth pointing out. Clearly some people do have remarkable experiences when they are alone, but like Jesus, while the reality might not be questioned they may not be life giving. The devil quotes scripture, and demands Jesus prove himself. God speaks to us when we are in the company of others, and they are words of reassurance you are / this is my Son!
It is curious that so often the mantra of 'evangelicals' is 'turn to Jesus' as if this was something that they alone do, and that as a consequence, they alone will be saved. But turning to Jesus implicitly implies the acceptance of the other. It is a turning to other people in acceptance and love. So for all the superficial orthodoxy of the 'evangelical' they miss the whole point of the incarnation and effectively crucify the real Jesus anew. While anyone concentrates on their own personal salvation it necessarily eludes them.
I am grateful to Hans Küng for pointing out that the marks of the kingdom that Jesus lists to John's disciples: 'the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them' are followed immediately with the words: 'And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.' (Matthew 11.5-6) These acts of grace towards the undeserving others scandalized those who believed Jesus' sole attention should be on them and their religious devotion. (On Being a Christian p 237)
And I spoke last week about the spiritual and social capital the church has. If we as the Church concentrate on people and their own personal misdemeanours, then the likelihood that society in general will be transfigured is slight indeed. But Jesus was not transfigured alone, but in the presence of the representatives of the law and the prophets of the Old Covenant. So again Jesus' mission is about the transfiguration of the church - opening the church to all sorts and conditions of people - not setting up a little enclave of the devout, the orthodox, the powerful - but a message of peace for one and for all.
But the more important aspect that Jesus was not alone on the high mountain - that he was with Elijah and Moses - is that he brings together different expressions of faith. When different expressions of faith are brought together into communion truly God is there. One sees the importance of this if we were to think of Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and the Buddha together. Just think of how transfigured the existence of the world might be if we glimpsed and acted on this vision!
Jesus promised that when two or three are gathered together in his name he would be with them. 'In his name' is code for different people coming together despite their differences, and he comes to bless that communion. The experience on the mountain top is just this promise writ large. God blesses the communion of religious leaders who come together in acceptance despite their differences. It is sad that the religions 'christianity' as much as any other are structured to make this communion well nigh impossible.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"