Following Jesus Down the Mountain

Mt-Tabor[1]

Luke 9:28-43

 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen ;listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

I wonder what Church would be like. . . 
if the Christian story ended with the story of the Transfiguration?

The Transfiguration of Jesus a strange story in many ways, but let’s ponder that question for a moment. . . What if we only had one Gospel – say, the Gospel according to Luke – and it ended with the story of Jesus, his disciples, and Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop? What if it ended right there and nothing more?  What if this was the final story about Jesus? What do you think the life of the Church be like?

Perhaps this Sunday would be the high holy day of the Christian calendar. People would invite friends and relatives to join them in worship, and then everyone would go home for the annual Transfiguration Dinner. Grandparents across the country would make their signature cheesy potatoes as requested by their grandchildren, and we would all dress in our Transfiguration best. Our churches would likely be filled to the brim with guests, people who come to worship twice a year — you know, at Christmas and Transfiguration.

Pastors and church leaders would simultaneously be filled with energy and exhausted as they worked every day of the week to build up this story of Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. We would tell the story successively over several days: On one day, we would celebrate Jesus and his disciples climbing the mountain. On another day, we would commemorate that moment when they began to pray together. Throughout the course of a week, we would build up to this special Sunday — the day when we celebrate Jesus transformed before our very eyes with his face changed and his clothes dazzling. If the Gospel of Luke were our only Gospel, and if it ended here, we would certainly worship Jesus in a triumphant way.  That would make sense.

And if it ended right here,
and if this were the only Jesus we knew,
Christian life might be concerned primarily with personal triumph.  

Mountains would be depicted in our stained-glass windows and on our church bulletins. We would wear mountain shaped pennants on necklaces. The mountain would be our primary religious symbol.

And we might become concerned with building ourselves into mountains as we practiced the triumphant meaning of that symbol.  Maybe we would build our own churches that way, and like Peter on that mountaintop, we could construct them into holy, everlasting dwellings to hold and commemorate all that is triumphant.

Triumph could become our primary aim, and we could spend all our money, energy, and resources to ensure that we stay on top of the mountain.  Like the mountains on our necklaces, we could create an institutional church based on that symbol, determined always to be solid and unchanging, staying triumphant on the mountaintop no matter what. We might become concerned with our image – after all, we’re mountaintop people — and we could use all sorts of techniques and marketing to tell our culture that we, the Church, are indeed a mountain. And we could tell others that they can also have a mountaintop experience if they will just climb into our pews and join us.  Who knows?  Even their money and time and talents might ensure that we stay solid on top.  We might invite people to join the church to ensure that we stay safe, secure, unchanging, and triumphant.  We could be a mountaintop church with a mountaintop Jesus.

Maybe that’s who we would be if the Christian story ended here, if we had only one Gospel that ended with chapter 9 verse 36.

But, of course, that’s not where it ends.  Jesus is triumphant in this story.  That’s true.  Jesus is triumphant in a story that is strange to us in some ways. . .  because it’s filled with symbols and images that were important to a culture and time period so distant from our own.

Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, two men who are prophets in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. They symbolized the Jewish law and the prophetic writings.  To include Jesus in their company was to convey that Jesus is connected to these figures and to the law and the prophetic writings themselves. To have Moses and Elijah conversing with him about his departure – or as the original language puts it, his upcoming exodus – communicates that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and prophets.

His face shone and his clothes became dazzling.  
He was glorified.

And in a moment of awe and wonder, Peter just doesn’t know what to say or do. . . Awkward words come pouring from his mouth: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He doesn’t know what he’s asking for, really.  And in response, the voice of God declares who Jesus is: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The disciples are so awestruck by the entire experience that they don’t say anything to anyone about it.  How could they even put it into words?

Whatever it was, they probably wanted to stay longer.  They wanted to build the experience into a structure and dwell in it until the end of time.

But that’s not the end of Jesus’ story.  
And that’s not the end of our story either. 

Though mountains are valued, they aren’t our primary symbol; instead, the cross is the primary symbol of Christianity.  Jesus may be triumphant, but not without cost.

In great, unfathomable love, Jesus shows us continually that he is determined to be with us – determined to be with us when we’re vulnerable and in need. He joins us when life is messy and transforms us there.  Jesus doesn’t stay enshrined on a mountaintop.  He does the opposite.  Jesus comes down the mountain and leads his disciples in doing the same.

In this story, Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain, and at the foot of it, they all encounter a man and his son. They are suffering greatly, and nothing is neat and clean about this experience.  It involves sickness, pain, injury and uncertainty, and the disciples had no idea how to heal the boy or this difficult situation.  Jesus enters the situation and is troubled himself.  But it is from that place that he heals the boy and restores him to his father.

And the story continues. . .
Jesus continues to walk with the people.
Jesus continues to walk with us.

The story continues. . .
We know that Jesus will demonstrate such radical love
that the powers-that-be will feel threatened.

And Jesus will risk that love even if it leads to a cross.  
Love like that transforms the world.

Jesus will be with us, no matter the cost.  Even when life is messy. Especially when life is messy. . .

When the diagnosis comes. . .
When the loved one dies. . .
When unemployment stretches out. . .
When we can’t seem to put the bottle down. . .
When human beings are reduced to skin color. . .
When depression seems to have taken over, and
When we are unsure where our next meal will come from.

Jesus will love us at great risk.  
And this love transforms everything.

And is church not called to follow Jesus down the mountain, straight into those places where life is messy and there is suffering?  Is that not our call?  To go there and to love there?

Michael Jinkins is the President of Louisville seminary, and he wrote a book with a provocative title.  It’s called The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology for a Post-Modern Context.  In the pages of his book, Michael Jinkins proclaims that the church is called to love so greatly that it risks its own death.  In fact, he would say that the church is only alive when it lets go of its need for safety and institutional survival, loving and serving first — not ultimately to gain or to grow — but to follow Jesus.

That is a church alive.
That kind of love changes everything.

And that’s a challenging posture to take because it feels uncertain and risky.
But life is there.
Jesus Christ is there.
God’s unending love is there.
The power of the Holy Spirit is there.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent. During this season, we journey to and through the cross with Jesus as we contemplate God’s presence and mission among us.  We’re called to get our hands dirty as are grounded and as we work alongside others.

I wonder what our work clothes ought to be. . . Will they dazzle? Maybe.  Or maybe they’ll just look like plain, solid faithfulness.

After all, we know that the story of Jesus doesn’t end on a mountaintop.
It continues on to a cross.

And it doesn’t even end there!
Even death is transformed by Christ’s love.

Resurrection always comes – sometimes in unexpected ways —
But it always comes.

May God’s great risk to us call forth our own risk,
and may God’s great resurrection call forth our own resurrection. 

Renee Roederer

This post is adapted from my recent sermon at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, MI.

[1] The image above is of Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. I found this image on the Holy Land Franciscan Pilgrimages website.

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