Last summer, the family of one of Nathan’s school friends invited us to spend a day on their boat zipping around the Long Island Sound. As Nathan knelt on a seat with the wind whipping through his hair and his fingers white-knuckling around the handles, Jonathan asked him, “Are you excited or scared?” His response, “I’m excited and scared.” His face was a mix of terror and delight—part smile, part grimace—and the day was unforgettable for him.
Luke’s gospel says that Peter, James and John were terrified… but they must also have been exhilarated. And I bet it showed in their faces when they came down the hill just like it did in Nathan’s—they were excited and scared, smiling and grimacing, adrenaline pumping, sure they would never forget that moment on the mountaintop. They have heard the voice of God say, “This is my son, the chosen, listen to him,” and hearing the voice of God changes you—just look at what it did to Moses in the first reading. He glowed so much he had to put a veil over his face to even talk to the rest of the Israelites.
So when Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down off the mountain, aglow with being excited and scared—even though they’re silent about what transpired up there—I wonder what Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot thought? As I read that second story in today’s gospel, I figure that it’s the other nine disciples who were the ones trying to heal the boy with epiplepsy. While Jesus, Peter, James and John are off galivanting and having a mountaintop experience, the rest of them spend a frustrating day trying to heal this boy—no doubt praying and laying hands on him and grieving and feeling totally helpless when they fail. Following Jesus looked easier when he was there—now he’s off with a smaller group, and they are left to their own devices and discover that they aren’t as powerful as they thought they were; and in a scene that is sandwiched between predictions of Jesus’ passion and the haunting phrase that he has “set his face to Jerusalem,” it’s a foreshadowing of what life will be like after his death, resurrection and ascension. Eventually, they will have to rely on Jesus at a greater distance than they do now.
And then their four compatriots come down off the mountain, and Jesus calls some group—perhaps the crowd, perhaps the nine disciples—a “faithless and perverse generation” and heals the boy in an instant. How frustrating that must have been. And to look over at Peter and James and John and see them aglow with their expeirence must have been maddening—even if they didn’t say specifically what happened on that mountaintop, I’m sure the other nine knew that something had happened from the glow on their faces. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that it’s only a few verses later that the disciples get caught arguing on the road about which one of them was the greatest. They’ve been divided by their experience.
Which is why this year I’m reading this Transfiguration story as a story about how to be a disciple in a community. How do mountaintop experiences—profoundly moving experiences of the divine where you feel you are in the presence of God and are somehow transfigured yourself—how do those experiences affect a community of disciples? Because I know there are people in this church today who have had that kind of experience… and I’m also pretty sure that there are people in this church today who have never had that kind of experience. And yet we’re all one community and we’re all disciples of Jesus.
Being a disciple is being willing to face our own fears and accompany Jesus on the mountain. Being a disciple is staying awake long enough to see the miraculous. Being a disciple is being willing to make mistakes—to be a Peter and volunteer the wrong suggestion. And sometimes being a disciple is staying in the valley, slogging away, working hard without appreciation or an emotional payoff.
One of the challenges and gifts of being part of a community is that we are never all at the same spiritual place at the same time. A few people may be on the mountaintop; some people may be on their way up the mountain path; others are on their way down, caught in the afterglow; some have only distant memories of what it was like to be on the mountaintop years ago; and for a few, there’s probably doubt that they will ever find the right mountain to climb, because they have never felt transfigured.
How do we celebrate one disciple’s mountaintop experience without getting jealous? And how do we not allow our communities to be divided into those who have had mountaintop expeirences and those who have not? We hold the mountaintop experience up as something to be desired, and we should—to have a moment where you are close to God in a transformative way is is desirable; but it can be terrifying, and there are many of us who would prefer not to be terrified and transformed, even if it is what God is calling us towards. I don’t think you fail at being a disciple in some way if you don’t have a formative mountaintop experience. But the reason the Israelites want Moses to veil his face is that it can be discomforting to see someone so transfigured by their encounter with God.
Perhaps most importantly, how do we do the work that at some level Peter was trying to do in building the booths by inviting people into places and times that have the potential to be mountaintop experiences. Peter believes that if Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay in that transfigured moment, then he can go back down the mountain and bring everyone else up to share in it. He can share the mountaintop experience with all the believers, not just the three who accompanied Jesus that day. That’s not how mountaintop experiences work. They are inherently transient and temporary. And they are usually only for a small group at a time. But we can work together to make sure that there are opportunities within our church and our world for people who are seeking God to deepen their life as a disciple of Christ and hear that voice from heaven.
If you’ve had a mountaintop experience—don’t hide it, or put a veil over it. Share it. Help it move the rest of us along—show us a new path, a new way that might lead to a different mountaintop for one of us. And if you’ve never had a mountaintop experience—don’t hide that either. Let that ground those who have—remind them that ministry doesn’t happen on the mountaintop, it happens in the valley. Those rare but substantive mountaintop experiences are what give us the strength and courage to set our faces to Jerusalem; to prepare ourselves for the cross and suffering and give us hope for resurrection. But the healings, the teachings, most of the prayers—those happen in the valley.
In thinking about my own mountaintop experiences this week, one stood out—because four years ago on Transfiguration Sunday I was in the middle of one, giving birth to Nathan. Talk about “exciting and scared.” But as I was reflecting on it, I realize that the moment that it became transfiguring for me wasn’t the actual birth—that was too overwhelming; it was dinner the next day. Jonathan brought me dinner, and finally it was just the three of us. Jonathan and I had always sung the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” as our dinner grace… and we always included our cats in the “all creatures here below” since once of them used to know that this particular song meant there was a good chance he could get a handout from the table. We started to sing it in the hospital, with Nathan in his little bassinet. And then it hit me. Here was the blessing that had flowed from God. Here was a new “creature here below.” Jonathan and I were both a weepy mess by the time we finished singing. Most of motherhood, for me, is life in the valley, but Nathan’s birth changed how I live life that in the valley profoundly. I never understood God’s love for us in as full a way as I do now until I met Nathan. Life in my family community was transfigured, too—it was harder, but so much more full, and has increased my understanding of dependence, patience, and forgiveness—both of myself and others. And each member of our little community has the potential to move the whole community forward. Thursday night, I was explaining to Nathan that our cat was very old and sick, so old and sick that she was going to die. He buried his face in my chest for a moment and appeared to be crying, and I—as a mother—thought, “Oh good, I’m helping him grieve.” Then a moment later he looked up at me with a big grin and exclaimed, “Now we can get a puppy!” By the next day Nathan had refocused on getting a kitten. Jonathan and I were looking forward to some time being a family of just humans… but I found myself looking up Abyssinian kittens online over the weekend. You never know—Nathan’s mountaintop revelation that there was room for more feline love in our house may move us all forward. And so might the stories of your mountaintop experiences. Amen.