Have you ever been somewhere and not wanted to leave? Maybe you were asleep, and you did not want to get up. Maybe you have been at a party with friends, and you did not want to leave. Or maybe you were on vacation, and you did not want to return to work. We all have been in places and situations in which we would have loved to have stayed.
Why is this? It is probably because being in those places makes us feel better than being in the place to which we know we must eventually return: Reality. These times and situations give us escapes away from real life. Sleep is not only a time to rest our bodies; it is also a time in which we can escape reality and all our responsibilities, if for but only a few hours. Parties and times with friends are moments when we gather with people we know and love, when we do not have to deal with the problems and conflicts of the real world. Vacations are larger chunks of time in which we can literally escape from our normal lives, go somewhere totally different, and briefly forget that we have normal lives of busyness, responsibility, and frustration.
In my last Lent Reflection, I discussed the encounter between Jesus and Peter in Mark 8. There we witnessed the significant confusion between the two of them over what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Soon after this, in Mark 9, we are again privileged to witness and participate in the intimate experience of Jesus being with his disciples, except in this scene he is with his three closest disciples, James, John, and Peter. They have pulled away from the others to make their way up the mountain where Jesus will be transfigured.
Mountains were vitally important to prophets of the ancient world, for mountains, in the minds of the ancients, closed the gap between the physical world of earth and the spiritual world of heaven. Of course, one of the most famous biblical stories that tells of a prophet going up a mountain is when Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Mountains were places of divine experience and divine revelation.
As the story unfolds, we are told not only of the presence Jesus and his three followers on the mountain, but we also learn of the appearance of two heroes of Israel’s faith, Elijah and Moses. As Jesus is transfigured before James, John, and Peter, both Moses and Elijah appear alongside of Jesus, and the three figures carry on a conversation.
I can imagine how astonished and perplexed these three disciples must have felt. Yet, at the same time, I can imagine that such an experience was one that they wanted to last for a long time. In fact, Peter says as much when he tells 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.” Peter was enjoying the pleasure of the place and the situation so much, that he wanted to stay on that high mountain, where he found escape from the real world.
Peter is much like us when we are at places or in situations that offer us feelings of joy and happiness; we really do not want to return to the real world. Being on that mountain took them away from the pain, the struggles, and the challenges of living in the real world and their mission of carrying out real life ministry. Separating themselves from the world allowed them to think they were closer to God than if they engaged the world where people suffer. These feelings caused Peter to want to stay on that mountain of joy and exuberant spiritual experience instead of returning to the road of discipleship, where real world ministry must take place.
We Christians have a tendency to pull ourselves away from the world in very permanent ways. We establish schools that separate our children from real life encounters with those who need grace. We establish Christian businesses as ways to ensure that we do not support those who are not Christian. We draw theological boundaries around our congregations that insolate us from any thoughtful engagement with the world around us. There are many ways in which we arrogantly isolate and insulate ourselves from the world where real ministry takes place.
For sure, we are called to pull away from the world so that we can gain strength from God, when we can listen for and hear the voice of God. But we can never stay on the mountain. We can never escape our call to live God’s mission for us in this world.
While Jesus understood that there are times when we need to escape the pressures of life and shut out the voices of our hectic and complicated lives in order to hear the voice of God, he also understood that we must always return to the reality of life. For Jesus and for us, it means getting back on the road of discipleship; back on the road that leads to the cross.