This story about Jesus going up to a high mountain and meeting Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36) was of course written about 40 years after Jesus had died. Luke, using material in Mark and Matthew’s gospel, had a larger literary vision than his two predecessors. He explains in the introduction to Acts that he wanted to record the facts of Jesus’s life and death, but he clearly wanted to put them into context, create a historical setting. Luke’s gospels are formed documents, shaped and influenced by events he lived through after the resurrection and filtered through the experiences, the challenges that confronted the early Christians.
By the time Luke wrote his first gospel, Jesus’s followers had told each other a huge numbers of stories about this extraordinary man. Some of the stories were the stories that Jesus himself had told; others were about things he did and things that happened to him. People began to see a pattern in his life, similarities with the lives of the great leaders of their past. They must have said to each other: of course he had a vision of Moses, the man who lead his people from slavery in Egypt into freedom in the promised land. Jesus has freed us from slavery to the law. He has brought us into a new kingdom, Of course he had a vision of Elijah, the great prophet of Israel. Elijah told his people about the Messiah, the man who would would give his people a new way of life. This Messiah is Jesus, they said.
These gospel stories are our inheritance. The men and women who knew Jesus in the flesh wanted us to know about his uniqueness, the effect he had on people and the way they carried on making sense of what he had said and done long after he was taken from them in the flesh.
It’s interesting that the disciples who saw this vision of Jesus in heavenly glory are among those who wanted Jesus’s kingdom to be like the earthly kingdom they knew, except that people like them would be in charge, instead of the Roman government and the Jewish hierarchy. The mother of James and John, you remember, came to Jesus and asked him to make sure that her sons would be in pole position when the new kingdom was established on earth. In another account, it was the brothers themselves who asked. Peter, the third disciple there on the mountain side, had been so outraged when he thought that this new kingdom was doomed to failure that on the night of Jesus’s arrest he started to lay about him with a sword. And then in disgust and dismay and disappointment he denied that he had ever known Jesus. So here are these three men seeing Jesus as they would have liked him to be, with the great lawgiver and the great prophet of Jewish history.
No wonder they wanted to stay on the mountain. No wonder they wanted this moment to last for ever. The dazzling light reminds us of the radiance of Moses when he met God on Mount Sinai. It also reminds us of the brilliant aura that surrounded the angels who announced that Jesus had risen on Easter morning. These were truly transcendent experiences. They remind us that there is a dimension to life which is extraordinary, beyond the normal, an experience of the sublime.
These moments when we feel totally fulfilled, full of joy, of wonder, are perfect moments and we relish them and cherish them. Some of us may have experienced them on holiday. We see a magnificent bit of the country side or coast line and we wish we could see the world like this all the time. We meet family or friends or we make new relationships and we value what we find in these people and the way we get on with them. We hear the Prom on the radio and it uplifts us. These transfigured and transfiguring moments give us a glimpse of life at its best. They are when heaven and earth meet. No matter how rarely we experience them or how swiftly they pass, they are sublime moments. They uplift us and sustain us.
We have celebrated the life of Neil Macfadyen this week. Neil was a man who shifted the kaleidoscope, showed us how to see things in a different way. At his funeral, we heard a variety of people putting into words the effect of Neil’s creativity, his aesthetic sense, his acceptance of risk, his need to keep on finding challenge in his professional life. Above all, he was full of love. He loved his wife and family. He loved his work. He loved his friends. He loved God. He saw goodness in people. He was a man of high principle, innately good in himself. The church was full of love. In the midst of the sorrow at his death, memories of Neil radiated a transfiguring, uplifting love and gratitude at having known such a man.
Like Peter and James and John, we have to return to the plain. We have to leave behind the intensity of life on the mountain and confront the reality of day to day. The day after the three disciples had their vision of glory on the mountain top, Luke tells us that once again they were arguing among themselves about who would be the greatest in the new kingdom.
Our life on the plain often seems to present us with scenes which dismay and depress us. Today we remember the 100,000 men, women and children who died when a bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. There was a flash of brilliant light that day and it was followed by untold horror. Last weekend we commemorated the horror of Passchendaele when men died in unspeakable horror, lions led by donkeys. Today no doubt there are scores of people dying violent deaths in the Yemen, in Syria, in the Congo. In our personal lives, there may be disappointments, anxieties, unresolved difficulties, perhaps grief.
We are sustained by our own vision. This is a vision of Jesus the man who moved around the countryside without sandals or wallet, finding hospitality wherever he could and eating and drinking whatever was provided for him, often sharing it with the dregs of society. This man was a healer and teacher who had so little sense of his own status that he wrapped himself in a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. This most unconventional figure shows us how the values of the kingdom he preached can be put into effect in the lives of all of us here and now.
And then there is a vision of the resurrected Jesus, the man who shows us the glory, the splendour, the majesty that is in the world around us and in our brothers and sisters and in ourselves if we free ourselves from our prejudices and preconceptions and allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities that we are offered by the God of love.
Margaret is a Reader at the Ascension Church
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