“Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here ” Mark 9:5
Is it good for us to be here? What is it that brings us to church on Sundays? What is it that brings anyone to church on Sundays?
Did we lose sight of Jesus and forget what the church was about?
Over the years, churches have committed huge resources to buildings and to organisations. Busyness has been seen as a sign of success and, presumably, faithfulness. A church that could show a Sunday to Saturday programme of activities, morning, afternoon and evening, was a church that was seen as doing well—but doing well for whom?
Churches tried to provide a complete culture in which their people would live. Churches provided a community. They provided education. They provided social and sports activities. They provided welfare and health facilities. People, in turn, played their part by coming along on a Sunday.
This way of doing things worked well for a while, busy churches saw busy pews, but as people became wealthier, they became much more secular. People could find their own sense of community without belonging to a church. They would use church schools where these fitted in with their approach to life, but they would shop around for the best ones. If they wanted sports or social activities they would go to the best available, not to what the church had to offer. When people need welfare and health care, there was now a range of state services. The whole structure to which churches had devoted so much time and resources began to fall apart.
How did we find ourselves out on the margins? We cannot compete with secular attractions, but why did we try to do so in the first place? The only response to a society that no longer needs the church for material things is for the church to do the things it is meant to do; for the church to remember what it was meant to be about. The church’s task is to share the story of Jesus Christ.
Maybe, we drifted from that role because we lost confidence in the story, we no longer believed in the way we had believed in the past. We sought to hold on to our members by doing all sorts of things that weren’t our concern because we thought that people were no longer interested in the story of Jesus. Our efforts to hold on were in vain because as soon as people found a better option than what we were offering, they disappeared.
The problem lay not in the story of Jesus, but in our way of telling the story. We have presented people with a dry and formal religion instead of a sense of the holy, a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder, and even a sense of fear, in the face of the most high God.
The story of the transfiguration, the Gospel reading this morning presents us with holiness, with mystery, with mystery, and with terror—this is a meeting with God in unmistakable terms and Peter and James and John are profoundly affected. Peter wants to hold on to this moment, as if God could be contained in something that could be built.
The task of the Church today is not to try to compete with the material world, but to confront the world in which we live with this story of this Jesus. It is to confront the world with awe and wonder and amazement and fear.
When people come to church it should not to be a weekly gathering of a community or association, it should be to encounter this God, this God who was present with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. If we do not meet with this God, if we do not meet with holiness and wonder, then the church is failing.
The times we live in are not new times. The Church has been here before. At the beginning of the 18th century the Church was dry and formal and dying and there emerged the Methodist movement with its emphasis on personal faith and lively worship. At the beginning of the 19th century the Church had again sunk into a trough and there emerged the Oxford Movement with its concern for holiness and beauty in worship and a sense of the greatness of God.
We don’t need new movements, what we do need is to recover what has always been there, the story of Jesus in all its fullness. The story of God breaking into our world and walking among us and being with us now. All we have to offer the world is this story. If we have not the confidence to tell it, then we have nothing, and we are poor indeed. All the parish buildings and all the organisations we might create cannot match with a single moment of meeting with God. Imagine the wonder of that moment on the mountainside, what is there that anyone might create that could compare with such an experience, even if that experience is no more than a few seconds?
“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” says Peter. To be filled with a sense of that presence is to be filled with the courage to go out to face the world, to face a hostile world, with the story of Jesus.
We need to meet with the God whom they met, in order to go out and meet with our world. When we meet with that God, like them, our lives will be changed.