Today’s gospel lesson is quite spectacular: Peter, James, and John witness how Jesus, their rabbi, son of a simple carpenter in the remote outpost of Nazareth, is transfigured, transformed before their eyes on the mountaintop. His face shines like the sun, his clothes, soiled from the long travel on the road, become dazzling white. The ordinary turns into the supernatural; flesh and blood turn into radiant, and as I imagine, unbearable light. And if that wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear, representing Israel’s story and history with God.
The disciples are just awestruck. God is here – they are in the presence of God. This is a special moment. Somewhat confusing, yet, but mainly a moment of wonder, a moment of majesty, a moment of grandeur. A moment that also elevates those who are witnessing it.
Before cell phone cameras existed, people talked about Kodak moments. And what happens on that mountaintop would have been a quintessential Kodak moment. Today, of course, the disciples would just grab their cell phone cameras and capture the moment for all the world to see. Take a selfie with the radiant appearance of Jesus. Put it on Facebook or Instagram. I was there, see?!
Peter of course doesn’t have such means at his disposal. But he wants to do the next best thing to capture this extraordinary moment: build monuments, memorials which would be witnesses of this great event for generations to come. As if Peter wanted to say: I was there, see?! Alas, his great idea is snuffed out by this terrifying voice of God from heaven. No, Peter, this moment is not about building monuments. Rather listen to Jesus.
Now Peter of course is not alone in his desire to build a monument to the glory of God. Many religions of antiquity had their sanctuaries, temples, often on top of a mountain. Think of the Acropolis in Athens, or Stonehenge (which may not be on a mountain, but at least on a hill). And of course the Jewish people had their magnificent temple in Jerusalem. But God in that moment on the mountaintop doesn’t seem to be interested in a monument built to God’s glory.
That must have stuck with the first followers of Christ. Interestingly enough, the young Christian community did not build magnificent monuments to Christ and their faith.
The first Christians met in open spaces, in homes, and in the Jewish synagogues throughout the Roman Empire (and beyond). Sometimes already existing structures, like homes, were remodeled to better serve the purpose of a church. An example would be the Duros-Europos Church in what today is Syria. It is the oldest known building to have served as a church. But is was just a humble building.
But the oldest known structure to be actually built as a church is Aqaba Church in what today is Jordan, at the Northern end of the Red Sea. This church building wasn’t started until about 293 AD – more than 250 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it was far from being a magnificent structure: built of sandstone, Aqaba Church measured 85 feet by 53 feet and most likely had a modestly high ceiling. About 60 people could worship there.
One of the reasons why there are so few buildings used as churches from the early centuries is the Christian movement’s precarious status in the Roman Empire. But it also had something to do with the fact that the early Christian Church understood itself as a movement – and not so much as an establishment. Many also expected Christ to come back any moment now – so why build churches?
The Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as his religion in the year 313 AD and henceforth favored Christianity – he didn’t make it into the official religion of the Roman Empire – that didn’t happen until 380 -, but Constantine was gently or not so gently pushing his subjects to accept Christianity as well. And once that happened, the building boom started. The Christian Church now became the establishment – and structures befitting the glorious Christian God sprung up everywhere.
One of the oldest church building that’s still pretty much in its original state is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; construction started in 325.
In Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica was built, beginning in 326, though the original building was much smaller and humbler than what we know today.
One of the first major magnificent cathedrals built in the Christian Empire, was St. Peter’s Cathedral in Trier, Germany – and this church was built literally on top of the house of Constantine’s very devout mother Helen – and it was built in her memory. Construction started in 340 AD. And this is of course a whole different structure than what we’ve seen so far. And it still stands today!
Throughout the medieval ages, church architecture became more and more elaborate. Builders were capable of building structures that were more and more daring. The culmination of church architecture was found in the Gothic period which roughly stretches from the late medieval ages to the Renaissance. Imagine the cathedral of Cologne, or Notre Dame in Paris, or Westminster Abbey in London, majestic buildings with sky high towers, with ceilings reaching up to the heavens, with massive gates and long, sleek windows, with high altars and elegant pillars, with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, all of them drawing your gaze up to the heavens, to the majesty of God.
Visiting one of the great Gothic cathedrals in Europe still is awe-inspiring. These are monuments built to a majestic, victorious, all-powerful God.
And our sanctuary at St. Matthew’s, though it may not be a cathedral, still bears traces of this architecture. Everything there is designed to direct the gaze to the heavens. I heard that, until a couple of decades ago, there were even stars painted all over the ceiling, to emphasize this effect.
It is so easy to see God, to find God in such places of majesty. It is easy to see God when life is good, when we feel elated, when we feel that we are bathing in the glorious light of God. Just as it is easy for Peter, James, and John to see the presence of God on the mountaintop. It is easy to feel that God is with us in glorious moments, when we sing songs of praise, and the organ is full of jubilee, and we lift up our hearts to God.
But there always comes a time when the great, majestic, radiant moment passes.
After the great vision on the mountain, there are just Peter, James, and John with plain old Jesus. Peter doesn’t get to build his monuments, but is called to follow Jesus, back down to the valley, and ultimately into suffering and death. His moment of basking in the glory of the Lord passes quickly. After the elation follows a sobering moment. After this glorious season of Epiphany with all its allusions to the light of God and majesty of Jesus, there comes Lent.
Not quite a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and rudely pushed us out of this church building, the glory and splendor of this place. The weekly little mountaintop experienced we had in this place were taken from us. Worshiping virtually at home is not bad, but it just isn’t the same, it just doesn’t convey the same sense of awe and wonder. At least that’s how I feel. Where and how do we experience God during these times?
Going back to our gospel story: God is on the mountain, yes. However, God on the mountaintop points to Jesus, the word become flesh, who came down to be with all those who are downtrodden. God is not only to be experienced in the glorious places and moments, but God is also in the low places in this world and in the low places of our lives, not in majesty, but with compassionate hands that wipe away all tears. With hands that break bread with the hungry. With hands that heal and set fee. With hands that are far outstretched and all-embracing – yet pierced by nails on the cross.
It is one thing to experience God in majesty and splendor in our mountaintop experiences; it is another to take this God down to the real world and reflect God’s light and radiance into all those places in this world where people live in darkness. To be messengers of this God who is coming down, deep down into the depth of our conflicted, burdened, sometimes guilty, often painful, existence. To be church in times like these, when our church building is closed. To let go of the idea that church is an establishment, and to newly embrace the understanding of church as a movement.
God became man, living flesh and blood, not a lifeless building, a statue, an idol. It is good and proper for us to come together here on Sundays (when we can – and I hope we will be able to do so in the not-too-distant future), in this beautiful house of God, to worship God and to bask in God’s glory for a while, to have our little mountaintop experiences here; however, this building is not a means in itself, it is not the goal of our existence as the community of Christ in this place; it is much more a launching pad, strengthening and empowering us to be the incarnated body of Christ in the world: the living, breathing, healing body of Christ, called to be God’s presence in all the valleys of earthly existence, even the valley of the shadow of death, even in the valley of a pandemic. We are called to follow Christ. From joy to sorrow, from confidence to struggle, from being served to serving, from life to death – and to life again.
This post is also available in: German