Many years ago I led a Confirmation Class for a group of young people. On the night before their ceremony we held a sort of vigil…. It was basically a party with some prayers really but my abiding memory of the evening was that I`d invited along one of the Nuns from what was then called Holy Name House in Keswick. She was wonderful and she had the children in rapt attention… and they had so many questions for her. Basically they couldn`t quite grasp how someone could possibly give themselves to such an extraordinary way of life…..
That`s often how it is when we encounter people with that kind of calling and it always saddens me when I hear people criticising what we call the `religious` life as a form of escapism… because nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, the life of prayer and discipline in an enclosed order is no place for the faint-hearted and it should go without saying that many religious orders are at the forefront of caring for people in some of the world`s most deprived places… there is no escapism there!
And yet despite this we persist in believing that such people occupy a space somehow set apart from what we call the `real` world…… And of course it`s not limited to Nuns. I`ve often been asked when I`m going to get a proper job….! And hardly a day goes by without someone suggesting that the Church, religion and all the rest is no longer `relevant`. It seems that everything is nowadays measured by its apparent `usefulness` isn`t it? And we see how deeply ingrained this attitude has become when we find ourselves saying “All we can do now is pray”- as if there were a multitude of other far more practical options to go through first. But I want to suggest this morning that this is where we get things entirely the wrong way round.
We heard a few moments ago how Jesus took a group of his disciples up on the mountain to pray…. Remember, Jesus is no dizzy activist, he leads them into that place of retreat and there the disciples see something… a curtain is parted and they get a glimpse of who he really is. Again, this is no special Jesus… not a `Jesus` different from the one they`d wandered around Galilee with…. It`s just that for these few moments they have a glimpse of who he really is and of His place in the Father`s purposes.
Now, I`m skimming over the details …….but notice what happens when they come down from the mountain. A man in the most dreadful situation calls out to Jesus for help… apparently the disciples were unable to do anything for him; and we have, from Jesus the most astonishing outburst…… “Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father”. (Luke 9.41-42).
Just ponder for a moment what it was like when this man (desperate as he was) complained to the disciples and questioned the relevance of their faith in the face of such crying need…. We know what that`s like, I mean, with much justification we often do the same. But listen again to the ferocity of Jesus`s response. ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?`
What I`m getting at is that so often our standard response is to look at the mess and difficulties of life and then criticise the life of faith as escapism. We look at the world at the bottom of the mountain and we label faith as irrelevant to what we`re going through. But Jesus turns things the other way around. In contrast Jesus lives the life of the mountain… of communion with the father… and on the basis of that vision he acts to reshape the world accordingly….. In other words He brings the life of the mountain top down into the streets.
Yes, Peter would have stayed on the mountain… enjoying the glory…. “Master it`s good for us to be here” he said. You can almost imagine him setting up a tea room and souvenir stall but as the passage tells us he didn`t know what he was talking about.
No, let`s put it this way: The test of faith is when you can say, “Master it`s good for us to be here” not just on the mountain when things are good but also down there in the mess, out there in the streets. That sounds odd, I know but when you do; when you say, “Master it`s good to be here” in that place where you are perhaps least comfortable; really struggling or feeling less holy than ever … then you`ve taken a huge step in faith.
Because you`ve recognised that, hidden though he often is Christ is actually Lord of this place and this situation you are in. And When you can say “It`s good to be here” (and in spite of evidence to the contrary!) then you`re affirming that there are no no-go areas for God`s grace… You see Christ is not a cosy myth to which we cling or the one we turn to when all other far more practical options have been explored. No the courageous and some might say odd thing about a Christian is that we can stand in the middle of the world`s mess and heartache and still say BUT! “Christ is Risen”…..When we dare to do this… even when we`re hanging on by our very fingernails THEN we`ve got things the right way round… When prayer becomes not so much a last resort but the air you breathe then you become open to the amazing things he can do.
In other words, through this prayer… through communion with the Father… we get a glimpse of the `real` world and we receive the grace to re-shape the world accordingly. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Yes, we live out our lives in a different context for sure…. But the Nuns and others remind us that we are ALL called to demonstrate what life looks like when it`s lived according to the reality of God and the world as HE desires it to be.
This is where our worship helps us. This is like the Mount of Transfiguration… and when, like the disciples you manage to stay awake and listen sometimes a curtain is parted and you get a glimpse of the way the world really is. This vision, if that`s what we can call it is a gift; it`s what happens when you keep company with Christ. It`s not the same as what we might think of as a feeling or sensation.
That`s the error many folk fall into… and we thing that by our own efforts and a bit of exuberance we can create a bit of a buzz … and we all say with Peter.. “It`s good to be here”. No, Christ points us in the direction of Revelation, not sensation. The means he chooses to be present are far less spectacular. He chooses simple things like the Reading of His Word… and Bread and Wine….. and these are the means he chooses to be present to us. It`s through these things we gain a glimpse of what real life means….. life in communion with the Father…. And we are given them not so that we can hold onto them but so that they will re-shape and re-form us for life in the world.