February 9, 2016
Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Growing up, I was pretty involved in youth group. In middle school, it was at Dunwoody UMC in Atlanta, GA. Though, and I think I’ve told you this, the primary reason I was involved in youth group in middle school was because the girl I liked was pretty involved in the youth group. If I went to youth, I got to see her. It was that simple. God works in mysterious ways.
When my family moved from Atlanta to Athens, I eventually got pretty involved in the youth group at Athens First UMC. There were girls in that youth group too, but, by then, that wasn’t my only reason for going to youth group. I began to discover something deeper. I began to build a relationship with God that had a little more staying power than my feelings for a particular girl, which tended to change on a monthly basis—until I started dating Kate, of course.
In my time in youth group, I found that I loved retreats. There was something about getting away from your normal daily life for a weekend. There was something about getting away from technology—I was in high school right before smartphones started to become so prevalent, so I didn’t deal with that iPhone separation anxiety. There was something about being in the mountains (as we usually were), about that mixture of devotion time, ropes courses, and bonfires that cultivated those mountaintop experiences. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Those moments in your faith journey when you feel particularly close to God? It’s those moments where you feel like you have reached a new level of understanding. You feel like you have encountered God in a powerful way and, somehow, your life will be forever marked by that moment.
We have those moments, in our lives and in our faith, that serve as markers. Those experiences we remember clearly and point to as being transformational for us. What are those moments in your life and faith journey? What are your mountaintops?
The summer after my freshman year at Davidson College, I went back home to Athens and worked as a youth intern at my home church. That summer we took a group of youth to a national youth event hosted in, of all places, Greensboro, NC. That was actually the first time I had ever been to Greensboro. My image of Greensboro, until 3.5 years ago, was the Sheraton, the Four Seasons Mall, and the Coliseum. That’s actually the only time I’ve been in Four Seasons Mall—though, we almost got kicked out because the middle schoolers we brought with us kept running up the down escalators, which the security guard didn’t appreciate.
I remember, though, a week or two after the event, I received an email from the older sister of one of those youth. She was a friend of mine and worried about her brother, because he was wrestling with some questions. I met with him and he talked about how he would attend retreats and church events and have these awesome experiences. A lot of events had dynamic speakers that would talk to these youth about following Jesus and then they would often end with an invitation to follow Jesus. This youth was struggling with the fact that he always felt convicted to respond, but, afterwards, he would ask, essentially, “Why do I only feel this convicted about my faith at these events? What does it mean to be a follower of Christ apart from the mountaintop moments?” You know the feeling, right? You come away from an incredible encounter with God, but then all of a sudden, regular life hits you and being a follower of Christ becomes more difficult.
I wonder if it was a bit like that for Peter, James, and John? The passage says they were “weighed down by sleep.” Do you think, after they went down the mountain, they began to ask, “Was that a dream? Did we really see Moses & Elijah and hear a voice from a cloud?” You know, right after this story, Jesus and the disciples end up back in the midst of the crowd. Jesus heals a boy, but only after the disciples prove unable to do so. Right after that, Jesus teaches his disciples something important, but they don’t seem to understand. They’ve been to the mountaintop, they’ve seen Jesus in all his glory, and yet, as soon as they get off the mountain, they face challenges, they struggle, they doubt. Don’t let anyone tell you the Bible isn’t realistic.
That’s a big struggle for us, isn’t it? How do you maintain your faith when you come down off of the mountain? How do you have a relationship with God in the midst of all the “stuff” of real life? That's what many of us are in search of, a faith that feels real and meaningful in the midst of our daily lives; a faith that isn't just about the mountaintops.
You know, if you’ve done any hiking, that when you stand on the top of a mountain, you can see for miles. If you can find a clear spot on top of a mountain you can often see both your origin and your destination. The problem is, once you head back down the mountain, your vision is obscured. You go from seeing for miles to seeing just as far as the next bend in the trail. You go from looking towards your destination to trying not to trip over roots.
The thing is, when you’re standing on top of a mountain, you’re not really going anywhere. You’re not moving. The only way to move closer to your destination is to keep following the trail that leads you back down the mountain, trusting that it is sending you in the right direction.
So, the real work of discipleship is what we do between the mountaintops. The real work of being a follower of Christ is figuring out what it takes to walk that trail even when you can’t see beyond the next turn.
The Transfiguration is kind of like Sunday morning. Or, maybe I should say that Sunday morning aspires to be like the Transfiguration—an encounter with God, a mountaintop moment. And yet, it is one day of the week. The other six are for walking the trail, for moving closer to our hoped-for destination. When we gather here on Sunday mornings, we seek to catch a glimpse of something that we can only see from the mountaintop. But, the progress along the trail happens once you come down the mountain.
So, what we have to continue to figure out, as followers of Christ, is how you live and grow in faith between the mountaintops.
Methodists are a part of what we call the “Wesleyan tradition”, a reference to John & Charles Wesley, who were Anglican priests back in the 1700s that started the movement that became the Methodist Church. And, in our little corner of the Christian tradition (I say little, but there are 12 million people in United Methodist Churches around the world) we talk a lot about what we call the “Means of Grace.” And, what we mean by that, what John Wesley meant by that, is that there are certain key ways that God works in our lives. Now, God works in our lives in more ways than we can count, but we identify those ways that are common to all of us and important for anyone who seeks to follow Jesus.
So, that’s our answer for how you live and grow in faith between the mountaintops--you attend to the means of grace. You engage in those practices that allow God to work in your life. John Wesley divided the “Means of Grace” into two categories: works of piety and works of mercy. Now, that’s 18th century language. Here’s the 21st century translation:
Works of piety basically refers to our individual and communal devotional lives. So, the things we do by ourselves and with each other to learn and grow in faith. By ourselves, this means praying, reading scripture, fasting, and healthy living (interestingly, that was a big priority for Wesley.) Part of a strong spiritual life means taking care of yourself.
Then, there are the communal things we do together like gathering for worship, participating in the sacraments of baptism and communion, and being in a small group. And these things are important. Kate and I are a part of one of the young adult small groups and it keeps me grounded. It keeps me connected to God and to other followers of Christ. The people at the Connection Point desk have a list of the classes and small groups of the church. It’s also on our website. Take advantage of it.
Works of mercy is what it sounds like. It’s serving others and showing them the mercy and love of God. It is doing good for the sake of others. It is visiting people who are sick, homebound, or imprisoned. It’s meeting the needs of those without enough food, clean water, or adequate clothing or shelter and, in all of that, treating those you are serving as equals, as children of God.
So, as we’re thinking about the primary ways that God tends to work in our lives, we talk about, basically, three things: our private devotional lives, our communal devotional lives, and using our time and resources to serve others.
There are no shortcuts to growing as a disciple of Christ. It’s about regular attention to these things.
I suppose I can’t get you out of here today without a Super Bowl reference. If you were here last week you know that our Senior Pastor, Mike Bailey, is a hardcore Panthers fan. He’s pretty excited about the game today, as are many of you. I’m a little less excited, because I grew up in Atlanta. I’m a Falcons fan. I honestly don’t know who to cheer for today. As a Falcons fan, it hurts me to cheer for the Panthers. And, as a UGA fan, I don’t have the fondest memories of Cam Newton. So, I think I’ll wear my Tony Gonzalez Falcons jersey today. But, here’s my point: Denver and Carolina didn’t make it to the Super Bowl because of the Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights. Sure, you have to win games, but, if you’re going to play in the Super Bowl, you can’t simply show up for the game each week. You have to commit yourself to what happens between the games; you must commit to the real work of being a football player.
It’s the same for us as we seek to follow Christ.
Do you live mountaintop to mountaintop or do you seek to follow Jesus daily? It is easy to have a faith that is all about Sundays when there are less things distracting you from time with God and with other followers of Christ. It’s much harder to commit to following Jesus between Sundays, between the mountaintops. But, that’s where the real movement happens, when we engage regularly in the means of Grace, in individual and communal devotional practices, in showing mercy and love through serving others. That’s where we truly grow as disciples.
- Share a mountaintop experience in your faith journey. What was so meaningful about it? How did it shape you?
- Do you ever find it difficult to continue to progress in your faith journey between the mountaintops?
- What do you think it felt like for the disciples when they came back down the mountain, following the Transfiguration. What about as they were increasingly separated from the event?
- What helps you to walk the trail between the mountaintops, moving towards where you want to be as a follower of Christ?
- Reflect again on the different means of grace. Which ones do you practice regularly?
- Which means of grace would you like to practice more regularly?