Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Ephesians 4: 7 – 16
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ 9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Mark 9: 2 – 10, 30 – 32
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The Coming of Elijah
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Peter, James and John are up on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and suddenly his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Now a modern person – especially if this had happened in the sixties or early seventies, would have exclaimed, “Wow! Far out!! Way cool!” or words to that effect.
This did not happen in about 31 AD. In fact we read in verse 6 that they were terrified.
When you’re terrified or uncertain and stressed, you don’t always make the right decisions. Peter certainly didn’t.
You’ve heard the saying, “Stop the world I want to get off”, right? In actual fact what most people do when they feel that things are going too fast is to try and slow them down, rather than try and escape.
Peter has just this sort of reaction to the Transfiguration and the appearance of John the Baptist and Elijah.
When things got wild, Peter didn’t want to run, he wanted to tame them. So Peter pops out with the strangest suggestion: 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
He can’t explain the experience so he wants to contain it, to make it manageable, to institutionalise it. “Let’s shut it up in a box here – a little temple for each one of you.” He wants to make a great deal of the occasion. He’s seeking to provide some context for the experience.
I tell you what, given half a chance there would have been three denominations on the go, all claiming in years to come, to have originated on the Mount of Transfiguration and all claiming to represent the most authentic interpretation of what Jesus was up to.
God started doing something and Peter wants to control it. Very human that.
Verse 6 tells us 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Dead right he didn’t know what to say!
You see by definition, in our dealings with God, God is in control, not us. You’ll notice that God completely ignores Peter. He can’t afford not to. Peter has hardly finished speaking and we read 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
A voice from a cloud just at that moment while Peter is trying to handle his terrified response silences him. That’s not surprising. I don’t think any of us would have had the courage to speak at that point.
God speaks right over him. But notice what it is God says: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
Just in case any of you thought this idea of Peter’s was any good … No, no, no – don’t listen to him, listen to my Son, the Beloved.
And then in verse 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Suddenly, as verse 8 says, everyone withdraws and we are left, in the last two words of the verse, with only Jesus. God makes sure the focus in this passage is on Jesus.
The story of the Transfiguration begins in Verse 2 with an action of Jesus Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, reaches its climax with God the Father saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ and ends with the withdrawal of the heavenly protagonists and the words only Jesus.
The complex of responses we as humans have in giving expression to our spiritual urges must drive God to despair at times. Like Peter, we tend to want to control things, to institutionalise them, to appeal to our group exclusiveness – our tribalism would be another way of looking at it. We get together with like-minded people (our tribe) and try to please God in a context in which we set the agenda and where we are in control (not God).
In Wesley’s time the Church of England missed, in the main, what God was doing both at a Parish at a Diocesan level.
- It led for example to the Bishop of London saying to Wesley that he thought a total of three priests was enough for the Americas.
- It led to Vicars giving the cold shoulder to the groundswell move of God’s Spirit such that the people who responded to God’s call found it very difficult to find a place to meet other than during normal church services.
- It led to criticism in church circles of what was increasingly known as Methodism – itself a derogatory tag that implied that one had to go through a particular method in order to meet God.
This opposition stemmed from a tribalism which said, “We are comfortable with the way we do things. It reinforces the social stratifications we have come to love and we are not putting up with this revolutionary movement trying to affect the Church.”
In one fell swoop the Church of England both shot itself in the foot spiritually and rejected what in effect was their own warm heart – and in the process forced Wesley’s followers to break from the Church of England.
I wonder if the Church of England has ever apologised for that?
- I’ve made the point that we should seek to put Jesus first in everything and follow his agenda.
- I’ve made the point that as Anglicans at a point in history we ripped out our own warm heart and forced those whose faith was brought to life by the teaching and worship of John Wesley to go their own way
- I’d like to conclude with what we can do about that now.
I’d like to begin with a little flight of fancy.
A little while ago, in reflecting on the three dwellings Peter wanted to erect in honour of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, I said that given half the chance, had the disciples stalled on Peter’s suggestion, there would have been three denominations on the go – three different ways of looking at the experience of God in Jesus. Well, let’s imagine that they did. Let’s let our minds play with the idea that that is exactly what happened, and then ask ourselves some questions.
- One denomination of course would be driven by Peter. I wonder what form that might have taken? Being the assertive type that he was Peter may well have reckoned that his perspective was the right one and that James and John had got their focus wrong. He may well have said that unless one met in his tabernacle, Jesus would not be found. His was the original idea and anything else was, well, simply a derivative and off-track.
- Then would have come one of the brothers. It seems John was the “Beloved Disciple” so of these two Sons of Thunder (you know that was their nickname, don’t you?) he would probably rank next: a quieter and more reflective denomination may well have been represented in John.
- James, then, would probably have inherited a little of Boanerges’s thunderous nature – tamed of course by his Christian character – but at least to start with his tabernacle would have been a lot more enthusiastic than that of his brother John.
I think you get my drift. We do indeed have three denominations – and of course a great deal more than that.
Someone once said to a friend of mine – Ken Balcolm – an influential Christian schoolmaster at the leading Methodist private school in Natal, that he was cracked. He used to retort that, that was where the light came in. Ken used also to say to the criticism that Christians kept splitting into different denominations, that we should go on splitting until we were all one.
While I’m not sure that he meant that literally, the lesson we learn from Ken’s sentiments is that our tribalism, so frequently expressed in our denominationalism, is not always a helpful thing.
We tried valiantly (I think it was in the eighties) to reunite our two churches but that effort foundered on a vote involving the narrowest of margins.
Serious attempts at ecumenism have failed all over the world. It often amounts to an attempt to rearrange Peter’s three tabernacles.
You know, people get very excited about working hard towards the compilation and formalisation of memoranda of understanding – sometimes they even call them Covenants. For some these can be mountain-top experiences. The real question, though, is “What do you take from the mountain?”
The point is this: we have a covenant. It says all the right things. But having it –
even if it is bound in leather and sits on Methodist and Anglican coffee tables throughout New Zealand,
even if it becomes the hot topic of conversation at dinner tables,
even if it is the central concern of Anglican Synods and Methodist Conferences all over the country
– will only do any good at all if we at our grassroots local level give realistic expression to the things it contains.
Where successful efforts to express our oneness in Christ have worked (and Juan Carlos Ortis’s efforts in Argentina are a good example of this) God has commanded blessing. These things always begin with relationship-building between leaders and are given expression in joint activities.
I have a very personal testimony of how this worked in the city of Pietermaritzburg where I went to uni and spent the following eight or nine years of my life. But that is for another time.
Peter and I have been meeting monthly now for a while. That is a start.
If we can learn anything from the way God the Father spoke over Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration and shifted the focus away from his efforts to control things, to Jesus, it is that Jesus is to be our primary focus, not the way we might want to order our tribal affiliations in order to provide a monument to his memory.
Simple to understand, but with God’s help also able to be implemented.
I am going to conclude by reading a short Psalm
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.
God bless you.