Mountains and Mission - The Revd Stephen Tucker

In the train on my way here this afternoon, I found a newspaper containing one of those photographs which I suspect will stay in the memory of all those who see it. It shows the so-called death zone above 26,000ft on Mount Everest. Hundreds of climbers are queuing there, before they can reach the summit. Such is the attraction of conquering the highest places of the world that even Everest has become crowded, dangerously crowded.
There are not many mountains in Galilee and none of them rises above 8,000 feet, and yet mountains feature on various significant occasions in Matthew’s gospel, mountains climbed by Jesus and by his disciples, and in one instance also by a large crowd.

The first mountain is one that was as much in Jesus’ mind, as in a geographical location. ‘And again, Satan carries him off to an extremely high mountain, and displays before him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; And he said to him, ‘All of these things I shall give to you, were you to prostrate yourself and make obeisance to me.’

The first temptation was the self-serving magic of turning stones into bread.

The second, involved an overweening trust that God would always take care of him, even to the extent of putting God to the test by taking senseless risks.

But this third temptation puts Jesus on a mental precipice and shows him what he could achieve if he listens to that insinuating voice in his mind. The voice suggests all that he could gain, just by a simple gesture of recognition. There is another force, at work in the world and by acknowledging it you could take a short cut to glory. But Jesus chooses to worship God, whatever the consequences, and however distant God might sometimes seem.

The second mountain is the location for the sermon on the Mount in which Matthew condenses in three chapters the moral heart of Jesus’ teaching – his strenuous commands. 

I was reading recently an article in the Church Times about a new course being devised by the Anglican Communion originally called ‘intentional discipleship’ but now to be known as ‘Jesus shaped life’. The contents of this course are to cover ‘parenting, work, culture, learning and being family’. Those taking the course are to be encouraged ‘to proclaim the good news, to teach and baptize, to serve, to transform unjust structures, and to safeguard creation’. There is perhaps a faint echo here of   Matthew’s gospel, but one might also notice how much seems to have been left out of this Jesus shaped course – at least in its headlines.

In the sermon on the mount we are told to take very seriously the dangers of wealth and possessions;  to take private prayer equally seriously, seeking out places where we can pray alone; we must pay careful attention to the spiritual dangers of pride, covetousness, lust, anxiety, passing judgement, and vainglory, and we are to practice fasting and to cultivate humility, mercy, generosity, purity of heart, love of enemies, and compassion. Through such foundational virtues the poor in spirit are blessed.

Towards the end of his Galilean ministry Jesus climbs another mountain with three of his disciples and is radiantly transfigured before them. Immediately before and after this event he has told the disciples of the suffering and death that awaits him in Jerusalem, but they are not able to accept such a possibility. Nevertheless, on the mountain, they see a glory which is both inspiring and terrifying.

 And finally, at the very end of the gospel we see Jesus once again on a mountain, with his disciples, and he says to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ Jesus is to be the author of new life and a new community. And so, he sends the disciples out to instruct, baptize, and incorporate humanity into the disciplines of his teaching. And he promises always to be with them.

High stuff. Mountains can give you both a sense of your smallness and vulnerability, and a sense of glory and achievement. The mountains of Matthew’s gospel are places from which to view the dangerous complexity of the world and to understand the profound challenge of leading a Christ like, self-sacrificial life. On these mountains we catch sight of the reflected glory of God in a human face; and we are given the responsibility to carry on Jesus’ mission in the world. 

Mission is much talked about in the Church of England at the moment. Every diocese has to have a mission statement which usually features an alliterative summary. So, we have been told that the five marks of mission are:           

If we were to attend more carefully to Matthew’s gospel, I wonder if possibly something more mountainous should be attached to our concept of mission.

In one of the darkest of his sonnets, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

Hopkins was a Jesuit – his life was dedicated to ‘The defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God.’ (Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus) As a poet he struggled to make poems which were a ‘ministration of the word of God.’

In his dedication to a Christ like life, Hopkins found himself all too often wrestling with God – too much of the time his heart was in hiding and his mind tormented. Overburdened by unrewarding academic work and cut off from family and friends in Dublin, he died of typhoid fever, at the age of 44, on June 8th, 130 years ago. His life seems to have been a mixture of temptation, holiness, glimpsed glory - especially in nature - and a desperate hanging on in the mountains in his mind. Hopkins might not now be regarded as a very good example of a Jesus shaped life. His sermons often went way over the heads of his Liverpudlian congregation. His poems were mostly unpublishable in his own life time – they were too difficult.

And yet… if the mission of the Church today is to fulfil the commission on the mountain at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it must surely speak to those who are looking for something profound, that uncomfortable mystery which Hopkins experiences as an ‘incomprehensible certainty’.  Mission must be something that challenges the society in which we live and that exposes our own inner confusion. Mission must speak of suffering and tragedy, of creativity and glory, of service and self-sacrifice.   Mission must not be afraid to uncover the temptations we would rather keep hidden; it must not be afraid to reiterate the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. Such a mission may well expose the Church to doubt and failure, to criticism and even ridicule. Some of the disciples who stood with Jesus on the final mountain still doubted. Throughout his mission they had shown fear and incomprehension. And yet, whatever we may understand by the resurrection, for the disciples it was an experience which enabled them to live down their weakness and discover grace in the unlikeliest places, what Hopkins called the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’.

St Augustine once wrote, ‘Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains… and they pass by themselves without wondering.

To Hopkins the self was a special source of wonder.   And perhaps those who are responsible for planning the mission of the Church today, should invite us also to wonder at ourselves but in the special way which Hopkins saw so clearly.

For him the comfort of the resurrection was that it extended a clarion call which put an end to ‘grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.’

For him, as for all of us, resurrection means that

‘I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
this Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch matchwood,
immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.’

I’m not sure ‘Christ makes you immortal diamond’ would catch on as a strapline for modern mission, but if the church were more charged with the grandeur of God, I suppose it might. Amen