Have you ever sat down on the top of a high mountain, maybe out on a rocky outcrop or up above the tree-line, maybe sharing some trail food with good friends? Up there atop the mountain the view can feel like you see forever.
The “six days” wording surely links Jesus with Moses and Exodus 24 as a narrative device, but falls in Matthew chronologically six days after Jesus asked the disciples a question of identity, “who do you say I am?”. Peter answered “you are the Christ”. Jesus then affirms Peter, “You are the rock God will use to build the church”. Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them to the top of a very high mountain.
Six days after Jesus began to teach the disciples that he would suffer terrible injustice at the hands of temple police, church elders, preachers, and legal experts. Six days after first speaking telling them that he would be crucified and then on the third day be raised. Six days after Peter grabbed Jesus holding him tight and scolding or maybe pleading: “God forbid, Jesus, that this would ever happen to you.” Six days after all that Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them to the top of a very high mountain. Who helps you navigate the spiritual life? When were you last asked the question early methodists asked each other each week, “how is it with your soul?”
Wednesday, I sat with our bishop and some United Methodist pastors, some of who are serving churches deeply divided over disaffiliation. We shared our souls. I saw colleagues weeping, placed my hand on a shoulder, noticed nervous feet shuffling under the table and heard unmuted sympathetic sighs. Zoom and Facebook are great for what they are, but our screens can’t bridge soul space the same way our physical presence can. I am better for sharing tangible space with these siblings in Christ. I am more whole and perhaps more holy for hearing their stories of grief over division in the church.
Maybe Jesus needed time away with committed coworkers- they are the same three who will try to stay up all night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus takes; Peter who was courageous enough to risk challenging Jesus to even grab hold of him longing to protect Jesus. Jesus takes John who the fourth Gospel names as “the beloved disciple” and James, a bit of a contrarian, whose writings will become a counterweight to our tendency to cheapen the cost of grace. Don’t we all need others to help tend to our souls?
Jesus did not take all twelve disciples with him. Why not all of them? Jesus did not take Mary, Magdalene or Salome, who he would ordain on Easter. Why not take along Matthew and Luke who would one day write Gospels and could have been eyewitnesses? Why just three?
Jesus did not take the crowds with him. Maybe the crowds were not the ones who needed to hear God’s voice thunder on the mountain, or God whisper through the clouds? Was that kind of big church show not the devil’s original temptation? The tempter whispered, “Why not on Passover leap off from the tallest spire on top of the temple trusting God to magically float you down to the adoring crowds below and then glide into the temple-palace complex and toss out those sell-out kings and clerics?” Maybe faith is not about the big shows but the quiet whispers that keep us going in the tough seasons.
Matthew 14 recounts the disgusting cruel murder of John the Baptist while in King Herod’s custody awaiting trial. Did John’s murder bring the cross to light for Jesus? Matthew tells that “when Jesus heard about John, Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” When do we step away from the always running news cycle and care for each other and our souls?
Even Jesus sought time away. Last Sunday, Ingrid, Louis and Lizia shared from Mark six. Mark tells us the crowds of hurting people were pushing, pulling and pressing in on the team so heavily that the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. My staff sometimes tells me that I am getting hangry and to go eat lunch! Jesus called them, ““Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” Jesus and the team got into a boat and sailed across the lake to care for one-another. But the crowd ran around the lake and met the boat. Despite his weariness Jesus felt a soul-level physical compassion for the crowds and took care of them. When do you come away from the pulls and pushes of life- making space apart for the sacred? When do you care for others and your own soul?
Up on the mountain with three deeply committed disciples, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter suggests exactly what Moses did when speaking to God on Mount Sinai. Peter suggested 3 shrines, Moses put up 12. They would not put up any shrines. They would not even share this holy moment until after Easter. Maybe we need to be careful about our love for shrines and the past’s holy moments. Maybe we should remember that shimmering transfiguration mountain top worship is not what defines Jesus. Jesus is strengthened on the mountain top- bathed in holy light and upheld by the words of powerful prophets like Elijah and Moses- but the real work of Jesus happens down in the valley. The mountain tops of worship do not mean much if they do not lead us back to the crowds, back to people needing compassion, welcome, food, healing, housing and forgiveness.
I think Jesus needed this time away worshiping and conversing on the mountain top; Jesus needed to come away with spiritual friends; Jesus needed the light to fall warmly on his face; Jesus needed to hear the voice of God’s affirmation: “you are beloved, you are my child, your words have worth”. Jesus needed three rock-solid spiritual friends to confirm “I heard that too”. Classical orthodoxy has always viewed Jesus as fully-divine and fully-human; perfect in both natures. Surely a human Jesus needed time on the mountain top to process the coming suffering, but maybe the divine side needed this time as well. In Isaiah 8&9 the prophet speaks for God, voicing God’s compassion, almost humanity, and empathy.
Perhaps any authentic relationship with God flows in two directions?
The Lord speaks “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed; Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”
As the cross loomed, Jesus heard God say: “This is my child whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Don’t we all need that deep affirmation, that reassurance that God loves us? Knowing we are Loved transforms, liberates, and sustains us.
There is something especially reassuring about having our holy moments confirmed by others. It surely meant something to Jesus when Peter said to Jesus: “You are the Christ”. To not be spiritually alone- to do life with spiritual friends around us, to share in our holy moments, to say “I saw your face shining like the sun” or “I heard the voice too”, that kind of shared affirmation can change our lives. In reading this week I noticed, there was no mention of a mirror on top of the mountain that day. You can’t see your own face shining without a mirror or trusted friends telling you about the glow! Coming down the mountain the four friends all process this holy moment. Jesus even tells them not to share the moment until after Easter. Jesus’ spiritual friends were the ones to tell Jesus how his face lit up like the sun! Did not Jesus say “you are the light of the world?” Sometimes we need others to spot the light in us. Sometimes others need us to help us spot the light in them! We need to speak the words of God to each other: “You are my child whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with You. You have sacred worth and something worth saying!” Who needs you to help them see the holy light shining through them? Do not hold back from speaking Jesus’ radically inclusive love into others! This week, find a way to say to someone; “you are a child of God, You are beloved by God and have something beautiful to say and do for God in this world.”
Those deep reassurances can keep us moving when things feel bleak- when Pontus Pilote turns a blind eye or we mourn for John the Baptist. When the sun feels like it has stopped shining, those words of love and hope that others have poured into us can keep us moving. You know, the holy light did not shine like the sun around Jesus’s face when Jesus stood before Calvary’s unjust court. Luke tells us the sun stopped shining. (Luke 23) The voice of God did not shake apart or mute the kangaroo courtroom as the witnesses lied about Jesus. But I wonder, if amid the worst of our injustice, Jesus remembered the light shining warmly on his face and heard again:“ You are my child whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with you. Speak!” Maybe those transfiguring holy moments gave Jesus the courage to see the hate-fueled crowd around the cross with divine compassion and empower to preach mercy to the end, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”.
There are groups doing this kind of soul-work work every Sunday. I’ll be in the Iris room next week during Sunday discipleship hour to pray and chat as we walk through Matthew together. The youth are on retreat today and Pastor Heather is offering a retreat next week. Where are you finding spiritual friends to process life with? Who is helping you see God’s light around you- and shining through you? Who are you helping to shine?
Oh friends hear the Good News, may it sustain you in hard seasons and be your joy when the way seems light: “You are God’s child whom God dearly loves. God is pleased with who you are. You have sacred worth and something good to add to this world!” Amen.