For most of this congregation, it’s a silly question to ask if you ever have been on a mountaintop. Back in Kansas, the question would merit not too many raised hands. Though if you asked the question “Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?”, you could ask it freely in either setting. We use the term to describe a moment when overwhelmed by something far beyond the situation we’re in. It can feel as if the moment at hand has stopped time or we feel like something about our life has been suddenly illumined in a new light. Mountaintop moments can bring great peace or a sense of sharpened clarity to us. Years later, we look back and remember. We might even tell this story to others, sharing the awareness that such a moment brought to us, and more than likely the joy that accompanied it.
The concept might trace its origins back to the biblical traditions. A number of times God is encountered on the mountaintop, particularly in the stories of Moses. Similar concepts exist in other religions. The mountain becomes this place of mystery, where in the remote altitudes the pilgrim seeks out wisdom or an experience of the divine. When such encounters take place, the resulting reports are not explained in exacting terms. The accounts are written with a sense of prevailing awe, or being overwhelmed to the point that the person sharing such stories knows that human language is still exceedingly imprecise or falls short of the wonder.
When we get to this part of Mark’s gospel, the ordinarily fast pace of Mark’s narrative slows to ask some “big picture” questions. Jesus asks his inner circle of disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” After this, Jesus will go up to a mountaintop with a select few followers and experience a moment that seems so ethereal that we often ponder how best to describe it. We tend to call this moment “the Transfiguration” of Jesus, when he experiences a moment of intense light and divine affirmation with two greats of the Hebrew Scriptures arriving to be alongside him.
The question rises: so after what happened up on the mountaintop, why does the story continue after it? It’s such a grand moment, yet why do hardship and a cross still await Jesus? Everything up there on the mountain confirms what Mark has been telling at the outset: Jesus is the expected messiah. Jesus is surely God’s beloved Son. Why does this story need to go on?
Here, the disciples experience the mountaintop moment of Jesus’ transfiguration and try to make sense of it. Well, they try to make sense of it, as best they can as they are likewise terrified at the spectacle! Yet again, Simon Peter is the first one to find his voice. (Remember: this is the fellow who tries his hand at walking on water and bravely declares he would never distance himself from Jesus. Bravado, not bravery, is at work most of the time for Peter.)
Like many of us, Peter is overwhelmed by this moment that boggles the mind. Like many of us, he rushes to put a label on it or something that will make sense what he doesn’t quite understand. The Transfiguration is a great moment when earth and Heaven touch, the light so intense, and Peter is already trying to capture it. “Let’s build something in honor of this!” he offers.
And at this point, I recall a book published a few years ago: “Adventures in Missing the Point. The book was geared for people who lead churches. Peter’s remarks mean well, but they are not the most “on the point” of what is really going on.
A similar moment occurred once when I was a guest Sunday school teacher for a Kansas City congregation. The church had finished a visioning process over a period of several months, discerning what they believed was their direction to take for their future ministry and mission.
Part strategic planning, part spiritual discernment, they arrived at a mission statement with several bullet points underneath their statement that they wished to “build bridges” within the congregation and around their community. They aimed to build bridges or ways to help congregants grow in faith and help the community meet its needs: social, economic, and spiritual.
When I offered a series of classes for the senior adult Sunday school class, one old-timer brought up the new mission statement. He said the best thing the church could do was put up their mission statement on the front lawn so that any passersby could read what the church stood for. (I looked over at where posted on the wall was this new mission statement and its many, many bullet points. I thought to myself, “If they put all of that up on the front lawn, a car will have to circle the block eight times!”
From the other corner in the classroom came another old-timer who said, “You could do all of that… Or, you could actually build some of those bridges we’re always talking about!”
In Mark’s gospel, Peter and the other disciples are cast sometimes as the ones, of all the people in this gospel, who should be “getting it”. The gospel of Mark may appear a bit sharp in its criticism of the disciples being around Jesus and missing what’s really going on in the story. Jesus will step away from the crowds and sharing additional comment and explanation to the disciples, yet the “insiders” still miss the point.
The disciples mean well, yet Mark’s gospel keeps the tension between what the Reign of God is not (i.e. something that is about the way the world tends to want in terms of power and authority) and what’s really going on with God at work through the life, ministry, and yes even, death of Jesus. Peter sees something grand. Jesus experiences the same moment as affirming yet again of his divine mission and the realization that there’s still a steep descent ahead of him after the mountaintop experience.
On the way back down, Peter is likely nursing wounded pride. The disciples accompanying Jesus are pondering the spectacle of Jesus’ odd word to “tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead”. Jesus, the glow of the heavens fading, his ears just clearing of the ringing from that booming voice from heaven above, finds himself with the call to heal a child afflicted by a violent evil spirit. The moment of heaven and earth touching is only a moment. The real work, the real challenge shall come not only in the difficult days ahead. Like all those other glorious moments in the Bible when the Divine is glimpsed, it’s not about the loftiness of the moment. An encounter of God prompts us back to the mission God sets before us, especially ending in the call to serve.
Followers of Jesus are called to make sense of what God is calling us to do in mountain top experiences as well as those times when we are caught up in the midst of the world as we know the world to be. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus suggest a pattern that we follow as disciples, taking his teachings and his signs that the Kingdom/Reign of God is at hand seriously enough that we try our best to live as if God’s Reign is the shape of things (which will get you into no end of challenge and conflict with the ways of those who claim control, authority and power.)
Similarly, the Transfiguration reminds the faithful that even the Church has its needs for rediscovering what the Reign of God is about. We can be too institutional in our priorities, too caught up in issues that “miss the point”, or too insulated from the needs of the world that we never see anything than the need for another “mountaintop moment” fix to feel like we’re being “church” enough. The call to serve gets eclipsed in such moments.
A good word comes from the writings of the Rev. Simon Bailey, an Anglican priest who lived with AIDS, continuing his church work even after going public with being HIV positive. Now today a person living with HIV/AIDS and living a full or active life sounds quite common, though in the early 1990s when Bailey’s health became public, it was a different time, one in which he may have been subject to stigmatization or exclusion. After his death in 1995, a few of his writings were shared by his family, including a brief piece about his dreams for what a church could be like.
(One note: In this piece, Bailey uses the word “minister” as a verb rather than a noun or title. We tend not to use the term this way in “American” English. To minister is to be engaged in the act of care or support. He suggests it’s not just about the ordained person involved in such work. It’s the entire people of a congregation who he envisions engaged in the “ministering” one to another.)
I’m dreaming about
A church of sensitivity and openness
A church of healing and welcome.
I’m dreaming about
A community of friends that celebrates differences and diversity and variety,
A community that is forgiving, cherishing, wide open.
I dream about
Women and men who minister life, and laughing and love;
Of men and women who minister healing and harmony and hope;
Of women and men who minister to each other and minister
to the crying needs of a world that hurts.
I dream against the rough climb still to come,
Against pessimism and despair.
I dream, I dream of the clear panorama of the vision of light
Right at the top of the mountain.