Bishop's visitations are done far in advance for congregations in the Episcopal Church. So to have the Diocesan Bishop come to Confirm, baptize and Receive several new members into the Church, is an exciting and honestly exhausting ordeal. It was a glorious Sunday when the bishop visited. The church was full. Several guests were in attendance, we had special music to celebrate the day, and the church grew that morning. Having such an exciting, Spirit-filled day just one week before the Last Sunday after the Epiphany when the gospel lesson is always the story of Jesus' Transfiguration, is timely. It's timely because the excitement that Peter demonstrated through his ill-thought request to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus, may have been represented well by the congregation's excitement of a full church, with tons of kids, while literally adding to the number of Christians in the church, specifically, the Episcopal Church. This was not planned. Many, many months prior when the bishop's office emailed to set a date for his visitation, one could never know what that visitation would exactly look like in terms of turnout and energy.
Several members in the congregation asked - and understandably so - "how do we keep this going?" Meaning, how do we keep the church full every Sunday? How do we sustain growth so evidently on a regular basis? Why can't the church look this this all the time? In other words, 'Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; how can we preserve this moment?'
Who wouldn't want to preserve this event? It's exciting. It's hopeful and hope-filled to witness a glimpse of the potential that our church (Church?) can and will thrive. That our church (Church) has a future. It is so timely that this event happened just one week before the lesson on the Transfiguration, when attendance in church was very different. We skirted the mountaintop, for some perhaps it was the peak, and saw the Holy Spirit at work. Indeed, it was a wondrous occasion. But just like the Transfiguration story, there's more and there's something different. Perhaps this more and something different reality is more of what God in Christ is calling the Church to be (I used capital C on purpose).
I am not going to begin this sentence with word, "perhaps", I am going to be definitive: the goal of God's Church is not to have a full building each Sunday. Those that experience full churches each Sunday, I say, great! It's a wonderful feeling knowing that a particular community is dedicated to church attendance and that they show up. Now, I believe that we are formed each and every time we attend corporate worship. In the Baptismal Covenant that we recite on a somewhat regular basis in the Episcopal Church, we do promise to participate in corporate worship, among other things. Attendance at corporate worship is a measurement of spiritual vitality and congregational health. But the goal of God's Church is not to fill a building every Sunday. The goal of God's Church is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP 855). Therefore what we do after we fill the church on Sunday morning is of significant importance.
The mountain top experiences are awesome. I love them. We all do. But we must come down from the mountain. Peter's words were reactionary and again, ill-thought. Mark tells us Peter offered three booths because the disciples present were "terrified." The New Interpreter's Bible notes that this term may be used to demonstrate Peter's "lack of understanding." Likewise, if we fail to understand why God sends people, sometimes numerous people, to our church gathering on a given Sunday morning, we will miss out on a significantly important calling: mission. Or purpose.
Jesus and the chosen three, while in the midst of spectacular divine revelation, were not called to stay atop the mountain. Could you imagine if Jesus agreed with Peter? Could you imagine if Jesus said to Moses and Elijah, "Just a minute guys; yeah, Peter, great idea! We don't need to be anywhere else or do anything else. Let's just stay here." Imagine what that would say to the Church? If there ever even would have been one after such a statement.
Rather, Jesus ignores Peter's offer, and after the divine announcement (once again like from Mark 1), the figures of Elijah and Moses disappear and they are all, just the four of them, left alone. They followed Jesus down the mountain. They followed Jesus down the mountain because that is where Jesus was going. Jesus was about his Father's work...among the people...among those who needed God's love and presence.
Imagine if the Church, rather than building a meeting place, a shrine, a house of worship, or whatever you choose to call it, went out to the people as a continual practice. Imagine if being Church was engaging the stranger, rather than sitting in a pew reciting prayers and singing hymns. While these have importance and they shape us and inspire us, imagine if we said, "Unless I have engaged with a stranger in the name of Christ, my week will just feel 'off''; I just wouldn't feel like I've been to church." Perhaps this thought "terrifies" you. But this is what it means to have a full church: we are sent out. Read Mark's gospel (or any Gospel for that matter) and count how many times Jesus attends worship versus how many times Mark has Jesus "go."
This is what it means to have a full church: to be sent out. To be sent back out! We are baptized, Confirmed, and Received into the Church of Jesus Christ whose mission is to be sent out. At St. Christopher's we engage more strangers than friends. Literally! Through the ministry of the Resale Shop, the Day School, support groups, neighborhood gatherings, community events like pet blessings, ashes to go, and trunk or treat, we literally engage more people we don't know than we do know. As Bishop Andy Doyle writes in his book, The Jesus Heist, "But Jesus heads back down the mountain. We don’t get much from Jesus. Only that the real work isn’t happening on that mountain. He goes right down the mountain and begins a ministry of healing in the town. We see very clearly that the ministry is among the people who are in need of God."
Go in peace to love and serve Jesus. Come to church...then go. Go and be God's ambassador for Christ's peace, compassion, mercy, and healing to a world that needs God and thirsts for God's love. Follow Jesus down the mountain where he will be present with you always.