“Jesus Has Left the Building”
It is good for us to be here today, gathered in the name of Jesus, to worship, and listen for God’s Word, and share fellowship with one another, and be equipped to serve God and our neighbours in the world. That’s what the Apostle Peter said too, when he was up there on the mountain with Jesus and with his friends: “It is good for us to be here.”
It was such a wonderful experience for Peter and James and John that day. Although they kept it to themselves for a while, eventually they would tell the story, saying that they saw God’s glory that day as Jesus shone, and the prophets of old appeared with him too.
“It is good for us to be here,” Peter said to Jesus. And then he suggested that they could construct three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Although God interrupted, and stopped Jesus’ first Apostle from building a shrine or a temple on the hill that day, the Church that Peter later founded went on to construct a great many places of worship and holy structures in the centuries that followed.
Think of the great cathedrals of Europe. Think of the mega-church auditoriums of North America. Think of the millions of churches and chapels, worship buildings big and small, busy or abandoned, scattered across the globe wherever Christians have gathered to worship.
This passage often serves as a reminder to us that our faith must consist of more than the practice of Sunday worship and the maintenance of church buildings. We may notice that the Revised Common Lectionary nudges us in this direction by suggesting that we read not only the story of Jesus’ transfiguration today, but that we go on to the next section about the healing of a sick boy as well.
Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is revealed in the spiritual vision on the mountain. But when Peter suggests that this would be a good place to stay and hang out, God quickly gets to the point and stops him from settling there. God’s voice from the cloud affirms that Jesus is the chosen son, and the disciples are commanded to “listen to him!”
Then they all come down from the mountain where they find people in desperate need of help and healing. There’s a crowd of people gathered, and a man from the crowd shouts to Jesus: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”
Healing and helping and putting their faith into action is what Jesus is telling his disciples then and now to make their priority. Yes, there will be times for worship, for listening, for learning, and growing in our understanding of God and God’s will for us. But we must not settle in there to enjoy our spiritual highs and forget about the suffering world below that so desperately needs our care and attention.
Until this week, I never took much notice of what actually happened up there on the mountain. I mean, I noticed shining Jesus. That was pretty cool, and the disciples must have been pretty convinced by that glowing that Jesus was from God.
And I noticed Moses and Elijah. The commentators always point out that these two prophets are very symbolic. By Luke’s day, many Jews considered Elijah to be an eschatological figure whose return would signal the imminent end of the age; in that sense Elijah was among the most prestigious of prophets.
And Moses, of course, was considered to be the author of the Torah, the one who delivered God’s commandments to the people. Together, then, Moses and Elijah personified “the law and the prophets,” so when they appear with Jesus it suggests that he stands in profound kinship and continuity with them and with the faith of the Jewish people, both carrying on and culminating their work.
But what I hadn’t noticed before is what the prophets are discussing with Jesus on the mountain. Verse 31 says, “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
The Greek word that is usually translated as “departure” is actually “exodus,” and it’s a likely reference to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. While at the same time, it reminds us of the Exodus of the Hebrew People from Egypt – God bringing them out of suffering and slavery and leading them into freedom and a new life.
What I find so interesting about that conversation is that Jesus is not settling in or settling down in the world. He’s only just begun his ministry and his first followers are starting to recognize who he is and what he needs from them. But he’s already preparing to leave.
When you think about it, Jesus could have had a nice long ministry in the world – maybe 40 or 50 years of healing and helping, preaching and teaching. He could have continued his travels around the countryside, or he could have established something more stable in some central location. He certainly had no trouble attracting the crowds. As long as he was willing to moderate the political implications of his preaching, he could have done very well.
But his goal wasn’t to establish an empire or even to build a church. But he meant to teach the people God’s ways and gather them together in love, peace, and joy. And the only way to do that was to leave – to die, to be raised, and to go up to God – so that God’s light and love would be revealed to all people, in every time and place, and God’s eternal kingdom would come.
The Apostle Paul writes about the concept of being “in the world” but not “of the world,” and as Christians we are encouraged to think of ourselves as sojourners in this place, trusting that our eternal home is in heaven with God. We must not get too attached to the “things” of this world that are temporary, or to the “places” where we live for a time, or to the “buildings” where we gather for worship, service, and fellowship.
I don’t think that means that we should necessarily tear down all our church buildings, but we should be careful about our attachment to them and not allow them to take priority over the mission to which God calls us.
For example, here in Regina I’m aware that the Anglican parishes are in conversation and discernment about the fact that they have seven parishes in the city, but they probably don’t need that many buildings or separate ministries. At some point down the line, they may reduce the number of parishes to perhaps 3 or 4.
But that’s going to be difficult, right? You can imagine what it might feel like to give up some special places of worship, and to let some ministries come to a conclusion in order to help others to grow strong and flourish.
The problem is that Anglicans and Presbyterians and other Christians can get very attached to our churches. These holy places are full of history, and memories, and we’ve settled in and held on to the glorious spiritual experiences that we’ve had here. When a congregation closes, or even when they let go of their church building, I’ve heard people say that it feels like a funeral, like they are saying goodbye to a dear friend or family member. It’s that hard.
But we know with funerals too, that our physical death is not the end. Even though we experience sadness and grief at the deaths of our loved ones, we do not mourn and weep as those who have no hope. As people of faith, we trust in God’s promise of resurrection and everlasting life, of the kingdom of God and the world made new. And these things are only possible for us if we are willing to let go of the things of this world and receive the gift of the next.
I think it’s quite striking that when Jesus’ identity is revealed and the glory of God shines from him on the mountain-top, there is no talk about the glorious kingdom that he will establish, or his power and might, or how everyone will bow down before him as God’s mighty son on earth.
Instead, the prophets talk about his departure, about his death. And Jesus shows us the way of God in which the Greatest becomes the least, the Master becomes the servant, and the Holy One humbles himself even unto death. He is willing to give up position and power, and even to give up life in this world, for the sake of life for all in the eternal realm.
Jesus will not settle on the mountain in the glory of God. He will not stay in a dwelling that Peter would set up for him, or in a building that we might construct either. But he comes down the mountain to heal and help the suffering children of the world.
One commentary that I read this week described our Christian worship and sacraments as moments when time and space collapse – when, like the disciples on the mountain with Jesus and the prophets, we commune with each other, with those who came before us and after us, and with Jesus himself. Especially when we gather at the Table of the Lord, we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God, and we get a glimpse of the glory of God.
But when we worship together, we also talk about Jesus’ departure. Sunday-by-Sunday we remember the mystery of his death and resurrection, and we consider the challenging call to follow where he leads us.
This morning’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus’ way leads down the mountain, out of our spiritual dwelling places, and into the world where healing and help are needed today.
Jesus has left the building, and he calls us to follow him out into the world that he so loves.