We are about fifty metres (in my case fifty-two metres) above sea level, much higher than our visiting choir’s hometown of Cambridge but still hardly a mountain top. Nevertheless, our job is to see what the story of Peter, James and John up there might have for us down here. Let's think about what they see on the mountain, what they are doing on the mountain anyway, and what happens next.
What they see on the mountain is a vision of Jesus transfigured. This person they know well - he changes. They see more in him than they have before. The reality that underlies all their experience of Jesus emerges, and they see that it has something to do with what matters most to them: they see him with Moses, the giver of the Law (the ten commandments and more), and Elijah, giant among prophets - two people who sum up what really matters for a Jew.
If you come to Christian faith from a Jewish background, the scene of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, those two heroes of Jewish faith, will have real punch. If not, you’ll have other heroes; so, if not Moses and Elijah, then who? How about Pankhurst and Fawcett, Churchill and Roosevelt, Beveridge and Bevin, or Tutu and Mandela? Rees-Mogg and Johnson, anyone? Or, musically speaking, Bach and Beethoven perhaps, or Beyoncé and Bruno Mars? The two people who sum up what you would work for or even fight for, whatever delights you and excites you and makes life worth living - what matters most for you. (And if your names are Dolce & Gabbana or Ben & Jerry, then you are very welcome this morning; and see me afterwards.)
Transfiguration: the great potential, the rumbling volcano beneath our feet every time we worship God. Unless our worship is transfiguring, unless it touches our hearts at the level of these deep-down things, then there is less to all this even than meets the eye. It’s nothing more than what John Bell of the Church of Scotland calls ‘a happy hour, imbibing cheaply of the Spirit’.
But transfiguration does happen, even in the Church of England. I don't mean totally out-of-this-world experiences - though they may occur - but times when something or someone you know well reveals a depth, and glows with a reality you hadn't seen before. Canon Charles preached on this last Sunday, those moments when you see more than you expected to see.
I remember a moment at a service when I was a student. Those taking part were all very familiar to me, but suddenly I saw more: that they and I were just the latest people to take part in something that been going on for unnumbered generations, that it was beautiful, that it mattered to worship God and to do it with care and love. And transfiguration needn't be churchy. Your moment might have come when a friend or family member said something, and you realised that they had been swimming in deeper waters than you ever thought.
Transfiguring experiences can ambush you at any time, but we can help them to happen. Here, for instance, we can allow an atmosphere of worship to arise among us. That’s not too hard in a space like this, soaked in the prayer of centuries, but we still need to do our bit. Here's one way we can do that.
Never let being late stop you coming to church; but, if you can, do get to church before the service starts. If you have a small person to look after, then that’s your job at that moment, and a noble one. Who knows how these early-years experiences of church might transfigure that person's life in the years ahead? Evidence suggests the 0-10 decade can have huge influence on faith in adult life.
If you don’t have childcare responsibilities, though, then cherish those pre-service minutes. Let them be quiet, keep them empty, so God can begin to fill them. (This is actually easier when you’re new to a church than when you have friends there.) Your near miss on last night’s lottery is a big story, but it will keep. Don’t tell your neighbour as soon as you sit down, or during communion; let it wait until after-service coffee. Instead, wait on God. And if for some reason you decide you don’t need to pray, be aware of the person in the next row who does. We need to notice that what the disciples see on the mountain is connected with what they are doing on the mountain: they have gone up there to pray.
What happens next is that they come down again, with Jesus, back to earth. Mark’s gospel will go on to say that immediately they are plunged into politics and human need. The way this comes so soon after the vision on the mountain urges us to make connections between the two scenes: what the disciples see up here must have a cutting edge down there, or it has no point.
In this place, ‘up here’ and ‘down there’ are closer than they may seem. This, our metaphorical mountain top, is just steps away from the ringing tills of the shop and refectory. We attract over a quarter a million visitors a year. We belong to Salisbury’s Business Improvement District and Economic Task Group. We are (among other things) a business, part of the world of work, just as some of you are in your lives away from here. What is happening in that world, deep down? What is its underlying reality? How might our views of that world be transfigured by what we encounter ‘up here’?
In his book The Experience of God David Bentley Hart surveys our present discontents. He argues that, while we have been very successful in piling up facts about our world, we are viewing it overall through a self-imposed veil (Paul’s word in the first reading). Hart sees our culture as suffering from what we might call transfiguration deficit, a failure ‘to see what is there to be seen…the self-evident mystery of existence’.
This has happened, he believes, because of the way we have been taught to think and live. ‘Late modernity’, he says in a verbal firework display, is
a remarkably shrill and glaring reality, a dazzling chaos of the beguilingly trivial and terrifyingly atrocious, a world of ubiquitous mass media and constant interruption, a ceaseless storm of artificial sensations and appetites, an interminable spectacle whose only unifying theme is the imperative to acquire and spend.
No wonder, he adds, we have become such reckless plunderers of nature.
If this is even half-right, the task we have ‘up here’ is no religious hobby. It is the nourishing of practices through which God can change the world: an instinct that can see life transfigured, that is ready for the moment that makes you say, with Peter, ‘It’s good to be here’, that seeks glimpses of the ‘reality that…underlies all other experiences’; and a wisdom that that can name it for what it is, what St Paul calls ‘the knowledge of the glory of God’.
We live, apparently, in the tenth least religious country on the planet. God is no less present here than in, say, Ethiopia (joint top in a recent survey), but our culture has less and less ability to name God, less access to the vocabulary to identify transfiguring experiences, to clothe them with words that will begin to reveal their meaning. So if you have ever received such an experience, that is something the rest of us would be even more interested to hear about over after-service coffee.
The self-evident mystery of existence David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God - being, consciousness, bliss (Yale University Press, 2013) page 320
Reality that underlies all other experiences Hart, 328
Late modernity Hart, 329