Stop climbing the mountain

Stop climbing the mountain

Transfiguration Sunday

Readings: Exodus 24. 12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1. 16-21; Matthew 17. 1-9 (view all)

I wonder whether you have ever had a particularly profound or supernatural ‘spiritual experience’? An experience of being caught up in God’s presence in an especially significant way?

For me in my own spiritual journey, I can definitely look back on  times when I felt such a strong sense of closeness to God that it was almost overpowering. And these have been in very different circumstances at different times, from the high energy music and worship of a summer youth camp as a teenager, to time spent in silent contemplation on retreat at a Benedictine monastery as a theology student.

In our gospel reading this morning, we contemplate one of the most extraordinary events recorded in the gospels, aside from the resurrection itself. In this mountaintop experience, Jesus is transfigured, his appearance completely transformed, as the disciples Peter, James and John look on astounded.

So as we reflect on today’s readings, what can we learn about God’s presence with us, through not just the highs, but also the lows of life?

Throughout the scriptures, and indeed in many ancient world cultures, the mountaintop was considered a place of profound spiritual encounter. If you wanted to meet with the gods, to hear them speak, to seek guidance or forgiveness, then you strapped yourself into your hiking gear and headed up the mountain.

It is no surprise then, that the Old Testament accounts for the origin of the law and the commandments for the people of Israel by telling us that Moses travelled up the mountain to receive them from God himself.

The mountaintop is a place where the earth and the heavens meet, where the material and the transcendent are linked. Why? Because within our Western worldview, still rooted in Greek philosophy, heaven is ‘up there’ and earth is ‘down here’, and if there is an aim of spiritual development, it is to learn how to climb the mountain and stay there.

And conversely, when we are at our lowest point, when we have ‘fallen from grace’ and made a mess of ourselves, then we feel we must be at our furthest from God. When we feel we are ‘in the pit’, as one person experiencing acute illness described it to me recently.

So what is different about Jesus’ mountaintop experience with the three disciples? And why does it matter?

Our eyewitness, Peter, writing directly in his epistle and probably informing Matthew’s gospel account, tells us as they were alone on top of the high mountain, Jesus’ appearance was completely transfigured. In a verse which always reminds me of a particular brand of laundry detergent, we told that, ‘His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.’ And the Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, appear alongside him, the three of them in conference.

So, perhaps informed by a similar kind of worldview to the one we were discussing just a second ago, Peter has a fantastic idea — they should remain on the mountaintop forever, and never go back down again. They build some makeshift dwelling and form a mountaintop community, perhaps not unlike so many hilltop monasteries, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Then they could remain in this thin place, forever staying at the meeting point between human and divine.

But in saying this, Peter has missed the point entirely. It is not that particular place, not the mountaintop, which is a conduit for the spiritual — but Jesus himself.

In Jesus, the transcendent becomes immanent. In Jesus, God isn’t beckoning us up the mountain like Moses to encounter the divine and receive heavenly wisdom. In Jesus, God is revealed in the stuff of the earth, in flesh and blood, and comes down the mountain to us.

This is Jesus, whom the voice from heaven reveals once again as God’s son, ‘the Beloved’.

When they hear this voice, combined with the presence of God in the cloud which overshadows them, the three disciples fall to the ground, ‘overcome by fear’. And it is what happens next which is perhaps the most profound moment in the whole passage, and also the most easily missed, and reinforces the whole purpose of Christ’s coming in a practical and intimate way.

When the disciples are paralysed in fear, feeling ashamed and humbled by the divine presence, it is Jesus himself who comes to minister to them. We’re told, he ‘came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”’

What about us as we gather here this morning at the Lord’s table?

Perhaps you’ve spent your whole life trying desperately to climb up the mountain in order to reach where God is. Perhaps you have collapsed, exhausted, fed up of the constant battle of putting one foot in front of the other.

This morning – just like Peter, James and John – Jesus comes to you, saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’

Perhaps you don’t feel especially spiritual and are ashamed to admit it. Perhaps you are fearful of what other church members, or even what the Vicar himself, might say if they knew about you lack of piety.

This morning, Jesus comes to you, saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’

Perhaps you could not be further from the mountaintop, feeling — like the person I described — stuck in the lowest pit. Perhaps you feel low, stuck in an impossible situation with no obvious way out.

This morning, Jesus comes to you, saying, ‘Do not be afraid.’

Jesus comes to us and ministers to us in the midst of our lives, and this morning is here to minister to us in the Eucharist.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote this:

‘[In] the Eucharist… heaven comes down to earth, the tomorrow of God descends into the present and it is as if time remains embraced by divine eternity.’

As we gather once again around the Lord’s table, may we come with all our fears and failings, our stresses and struggles, our pain and brokenness.

And may Christ, who comes to us in flesh and blood, in bread and wine, minister to us where we are, and embrace us in the love of Father, Beloved Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.