Climbing mountains is not my thing. I’m a little afraid of heights. To be honest, I’m a lot afraid of heights. Even the thought of going up Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park gives me a queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach.
But every now and again, I’m in a place where I’m up high, and even through my fear, I must admit that the view is amazing. I just wish I could look without feeling like I’m going to fall.
You know that feeling – it’s a sense that your stomach is dropping faster than fast, and you feel dizzy and disoriented.
Can you imagine how that feeling hit the disciples who accompanied Jesus up that high mountain, when suddenly Jesus was changed before their very eyes? His clothes as white as bleached linen, his face aglow…and beside him, the ancient patriarchs, Moses and Elijah.
Those disciples who went up, Peter, James and John, may have wondered why they went on this strenuous hike. Jesus probably did not say to them, “come on up this mountain and watch what happens, guys!” He probably didn’t say that he would be transformed before their eyes, blessed and affirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, with his divinity shining so brightly that they had to shield their eyes, his heavenly father’s blessing so absolute and clear that they were speechless...
…except for Peter, who, being Peter, had to say something. “Shall I build some shelters for you and Moses and Elijah?” he asked. A ridiculous question. A God and a patriarch and a prophet have no need of shelter. Dizzy with shock, unable to figure out how to understand what was going on, he tried to do something appropriate, although there are no guidebooks for hikes with this kind of view at the top. All Peter wanted to do was to create a way for them all to stay up there, to continue to feel the glow of this amazing thing, to be close to this transfigured Jesus, and perhaps even Moses and Elijah. He wanted to cling to the moment.
But the moment was not meant to continue indefinitely. Suffice to say, Peter never built those shelters. After God the Father spoke, the dramatic moment ended. Jesus was back to being their traveling companion and teacher. Moses and Elijah were nowhere to be found. There was nothing to do but to go back down the mountain, to the others. But Jesus was clear that they were not to share what happened with the others.
Difficult, that order, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to tell the others about this amazing thing? But these disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, kept their promise and said nothing.
But they were changed by what had happened. How could you not be changed after you saw what they saw?
What are your mountaintop moments? The moments when you are shocked into a different, deeper understanding of what it means to be in the presence of Our Lord?
I had the privilege of seeing this in action when I accompanied our young people on their mission trip last year. I watched them be transformed, learning new skills, learning compassion for people whose lives were very different from them. They were very different on Saturday when we came home from the kids who had left Richmond a week before. Their sensitivity, their willingness to see Christ in the people whom they served, their desire to do something concrete to assist people in need, was a beautiful thing to see. And when it was time to go, they, too, did not want to leave. They wanted to stay up on that mountain. They spoke of frustration that they hadn’t been able to finish everything that we had started. They wanted to continue in community with new friends and old, doing something that was meaningful and powerful. They wanted to continue to be the people that they had become on that particular mountaintop, people who had the skills and capacity to help others. And yet we knew that you cannot stay up on the mountaintop forever. You have to come down. The challenge is what you do with the way you have been transformed once you’ve come down from that mountain.
Mission has a way of doing that to you. It changes you. You may leave thinking you are going to help others, but it is you who is changed. The process of change is not without its challenges – fear and confusion, that vertigo in your head and stomach, are all a part of being transformed. We’d prefer simply staying unchanged, but who would miss a chance to feel closer to God?
This Sunday is not only the last Sunday in Epiphany, not only Transfiguration Sunday, it is also World Mission Sunday. It is a time when we raise up the possibility of helping others and sharing the Word of God by love in action.
Why would we link World Mission to the Transfiguration?
Take a look at the words that Jesus uses at the end of the passage: Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” We focus on the fact that Jesus told them to be quiet, but we forget the final phrase. They were ordered to keep quiet, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Reframe it in the positive rather than the negative, and it translates to “after I’m risen from the dead, tell people about what you saw. Affirm my divinity as you saw it affirmed.” Go and proclaim the word…and isn’t that the heart of mission?
But how do we proclaim Jesus Christ in his power and glory, as seen up on that mountaintop? Certainly proclaiming with words is a part of it…that’s what we saw Jesus do again and again. But what else did he do? He healed, he helped, he prayed. He acted in ways that demonstrated what he said. And that is the other part of mission, the other part that we are asked to do.
The mission of the church is to proclaim the risen Christ through words and through actions. We are asked to bring Christ, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, to those who need Christ.
But the thing that happens when we do that is not just that we help another human being, it is that we are more deeply connected to the Christ who bade us to do these things. We climb the mountain with Jesus Christ, not knowing what is going to happen when we get to the top. When we get up there, we see things – and the Jesus we climbed with – in a clearer, deeper way. We are transformed. When we come down from that mountain, or back from that mission trip, or home from helping at Lamb’s Basket, or back from driving our Caritas guests to take a shower or clean their clothes, we are changed. We help others, we show them Christ, but we also show ourselves we are the ones whom Christ told to share his message by our words and actions in the world.
When Peter and James and John went up that mountain, they saw Jesus transfigured. But those disciples were the ones who came down transformed.
This is what mission does – it shows us Christ in ways that we never saw him before. So on this day, be willing to climb the mountain, even if you are afraid of heights. Be willing to do mission, however you are called to do it, wherever you are called to do it. Be transformed, and transform the world.