Transfiguration, a mountaintop experience


Scripture: Matthew 17: 1-9 Nigel Bunce

Today, we retell the Gospel story of the Transfiguration, a mountaintop experience, both literally and figuratively.  It is more than just a walk up a mountain.  Rather, it invites us into  a holy mystery. 

Many of the Gospel stories that come up every year are the most difficult to preach on. The Christmas story, the Resurrection,, the Baptism of Jesus, and today, the Transfiguration. What can I say that’s new? How do I relate their miraculous nature to our everyday lives? How should I try to interpret them? Literally and historically, or as parables and metaphors?

To me, both approaches work. That’s because the messages are more important than the medium, to misquote Marshall McLuhan. Put another way, these stories point us towards holy mysteries that lie outside ordinary experience. We cannot look for scientific explanations.

Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration

What got me interested this week was the relationship of Jesus with Peter, James, and John. They appear repeatedly as an inner circle of the disciples. They alone witness the Transfiguration with Jesus. Likewise, they are the only ones that Jesus invited to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Something I’ve never seen, nor thought of before is that Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’ first disciples. Could it be that these fishermen were Jesus’ first disciples in the sense of primary disciples? First in importance, rather than first chronologically? But if so, why, I wonder, did Jesus exclude Andrew from the inner circle?

Rich symbolism in the Transfiguration story

The Scripture story of the Transfiguration reads like an historical event, yet it is completely other-worldly. It is so rich in symbolism that we could study it for hours.  But to me, it doesn’t matter whether you experience the story literally or as a kind of metaphor or parable. Its significance is that the story involves a journey up a mountain.

In Scripture, mountains are always sacred. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Temple Mount, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, is the site of the Jewish Temple. The location is still holy in Judaism, even though the Temple building no longer stands. Mountains were significant because of the ancient belief of a three-tiered universe, in which God resided in heaven above the firmament. Therefore, a mountaintop brought human beings closer to God. That’s why Matthew tells us that Jesus took the disciples somewhere that heaven and earth were in close proximity. Celtic tradition would call it a ‘thin’ place.

Mountaintop experiences

View from the top of the Costanera Building, Santiago, Chile. Photo, Nigel Bunce.

But there’s also the sense of wonder when you reach a geographical high spot, or even a very tall building. You look down at the world, and see tiny cars, trains, and buildings spread out below us. No wonder that we use the expression “on top of the world” for feelings of pleasure or elation. The expression “mountain-top experience” comes directly from the Transfiguration story. It goes beyond mere pleasure towards ecstasy. Perhaps that’s why rich people build monster homes in high locations.

The words of the heavenly voice emphasize the holiness of the Transfiguration. “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” They repeat exactly what we heard at Jesus’ baptism. Of course, it’s repetition for us, but not for Peter, James, and John. They were not present at Jesus’ baptism.

In the vision, the disciples saw the two “greats” of Old Testament Judaism (Moses and Elijah). Peter put Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah when he suggested building a shelter for the three of them. Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the expected one. That didn’t make him the Second Person of the Trinity. That came much later. Peter saw him as a “heavenly human being” like Moses and Elijah.

Mountaintop experiences are the great moments in our lives

Superbowl 2020 MVP Patrick Mahomes. Picture

In a sense like the Transfiguration, mountaintop experiences might include the day we got married, or graduated from school or university.  Another might also be the first day at our dream job, or the time we ran a mile under five minutes. You see this emotional intensity in the faces of a winning World Series or Superbowl team.

Those players probably don’t have the same look a week later, as our second hymn reminds us. “Not always on the mount may we, rapt in the heavenly vision be.” Most of life is spent on the lower slopes and in the valleys. It’s not that these physical or emotional places are bad. They just don’t have the intensity of the mountaintop. When you come down from the mountain, everything is back to its normal size. You are no longer a god on Mount Olympus, looking down on the ant-like earthlings below.

Transfiguration parallels transformation

The word Transfiguration means that Jesus changed his appearance. Scripture tells us that he shone like the sun. Transfiguration parallels transformation, which is part of the understanding of something else we are doing today – namely the Eucharist.

We may believe that the bread and wine remain the same when we say the prayer of consecration. Or we may believe that they change into the actual Body and Blood of Christ. But no matter. Either way, it becomes possible to have a spiritual encounter with the divine when we take the Eucharistic elements. Not every week, because you can’t just dial up the experience. But sometimes it is possible to have a mystical encounter at the holy table. 

The Transfiguration was more than just a walk up a mountain

In our Scripture story, you could say that Jesus and his friends just “went for a walk” up a mountain. However, their walk was intentional; it was not a stroll around the block. A better description would be a pilgrimage to the top of a mountain. Scholars suggest that the mountain was Mount Tabor, in Galilee.

Words from the hymn “Sister, let me be your servant.” “We are pilgrims on a journey; fellow travellers on the road.” However, we do not know where our particular journeys of life will lead us. That’s why the next lines of the same hymn are, “We are here to help each other, share the mile and bear the load.” Human beings are social animals. We all fear loneliness and isolation. When times are bad, we need the help of other people to walk with us, just to be with us. We can’t necessarily do anything. But our mere presence may be exactly what the other person needs.

And that’s the great thing about belonging to a Christian church. The sense of community, or fellowship. At its best, a Christian community like St. George’s is like extended family. People you can count on for help at those times when life does not go smoothly.

Have you “reached your peak”?

Of course, once you reach the peak, “it’s all downhill from there.” Like Transfiguration, a mountaintop experience has to have a literal down-side.  Most of us are of an age when we peaked physically long ago. But spiritually, I believe that our journey through life, our pilgrimage, can lead us continually upwards. I have met and counselled people in their seventies whose spiritual lives transformed dramatically.  Transformation is always possible.

Personally, I am not the person I was when I was twenty or forty. I hope that I have become at least a somewhat improved version, and I hope, God willing, to continue to do so. On our spiritual journeys, we are all still on the climb upwards, except for those who decided to give up and have stayed at the base camp. But when we feel ready to throw in the towel, we can recall what Jesus told the disciples in our Scripture story: “Get up; do not be afraid.”