Our apologies for our neglect of this blog! We’ll do our best to post a bit more regularly in the future. At First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR we are now beginning a sermon series which focuses on various traditions of Christian Spiritual Formation Practices. Each week in Lent, we’ll be focusing on one of the traditions Richard J. Foster names in Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. Yesterday, on Transfiguration Sunday, the sermon was an introduction to the series. Here it is:
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘I am spiritual but not religious,’ then I might not be any wiser about what that means—but I would be richer…” so begins Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection on everyday Christian practices in a book I highly recommend, An Altar in the World. She continues, “I think I know what they mean by ‘religious.’ It is the ‘spiritual’ part that is harder to grasp….It may be the name for a longing for more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. When I hear people talk about spirituality, that seems to be what they are describing. They know there is more to life than what meets the eye. They have drawn close to this ‘More’ in nature, in love, in art, in grief. They would be happy for someone to teach them how to spend more time in the presence of this deeper reality, but when they visit the places where such knowledge is supposed to be found, they often find the rituals hollow and the language antique. Even religious people are vulnerable to this longing….”[i]
Taylor’s words strike a chord, don’t they? How many of us here—us “religious people”—long for the “more” she’s talking about? And how many of us here want to know how to spend more of our time in the purpose, presence, and power of the deeper reality which gives life meaning?
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration is a strange word, maybe one of those “antique” ones, and we rarely hear in our usual speech. It literally means to change figure or form, and it is a good word to consider in the transition space between the church season of Epiphany, in which we celebrate the surprising ways Christ’s light shines out of the darkness, and Lent (which begins on Wednesday) in which we examine that which hinders the full brilliance of Christ’s light in us. It is a good time to consider our longings for “more,” God’s desire to complete us, and the opportunities God gives us to draw yet closer to him.
Now, the disciples were certainly longing for “more” from Jesus. They had seen some amazing things: people healed, demons rebuked, Jesus walking on water, thousands miraculously fed. Yet they longed for this man whom they believed to be God’s anointed one to pull out all the messianic stops and liberate their people from Roman oppression. Jesus has just begun teaching them that the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, be killed and be raised three days later. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says, but his words fall of deaf ears. They want a Messiah of power and glory, not the suffering Son of Man. Still, these fishermen who left their nets behind keep close to this one who said “Follow me.”
Up a high mountain, they are finally given the gift of “more.” Jesus was transfigured, his appearance radically changed, his clothing become dazzling white “such as no one on earth could bleach them.” I must admit it tickles me that Mark adds those words. I can’t help but imagine that Jesus has an “ancient Palestinian secret”! But despite the domestic, laundry imagery, there was nothing domesticated about this experience for the disciples. The brightness stung their eyes, and it triggered every story they’d ever heard about angelic messengers and every fear that went along with those stories. Everybody knew it was dangerous, or at the very least, life altering, to look upon God’s glory. Mark says “they were terrified.”
But if Jesus’ radiance were not enough, the disciples are given yet more. Moses and Elijah appear by his side, revealing that the same Spirit which rested upon Moses and Elijah also rests with Jesus. God’s power and glory is on full display for those with eyes to see it. What an overwhelming experience of “more”!
But is it enough? Peter’s response seems to indicate otherwise. As Jan Richardson puts it, “Faced with an event of overwhelming spiritual import, he responds at a physical level: Let me build something.”[ii] Maybe he was just so flabbergasted that he said the first thing that came to mind, but I think Peter’s words reflect desires we often have during spiritual experiences. Maybe the disciples want to freeze time and linger in the wonder, or maybe they are grasping for a “container” to define and stabilize the experience so that it can be fully absorbed. Or maybe they just don’t want Moses and Elijah to get away before they can ask them a few burning questions!
Do you know the difference between an idol and an icon? This has been a tricky question throughout church history. Ought we be permitted to make images which help us to “see” Christ?[iii] Some have thought Christians should keep the Jewish ban on making graven images, because of the risk of idolatry. Others argued that, because Jesus is the image of God incarnate, images might now be permitted.[iv] The acceptable form of divine imagery came to be called “icons.” Where an idol is any object in which we try to “freeze” an experience of God, an icon is a picture by which our vision may be opened to experience the divine presence beyond the image. The only catch is that we must be taught to “see” through the window of the icon.
In the same way, I think there is a difference between “spiritual experience” in and of itself, and what I’ll be calling “Christian spiritual formation.” “Spiritual experience” is always elusive, always intangible; just a glimpse, just a foretaste. And the trouble with human beings is our insatiability. A foretaste of the divine can never be enough—we crave a full banquet, every night of the week. So, in our seeking after “more,” the danger is that we will just keep consuming so-called spiritual experiences, and, gluttonous for power and glory, we ultimately get sick on rich foods and perish from lack of true nourishment.
But the good news is that God loves us and wants for us the “life abundant,” so God provides rigorous opportunities to be shaped as vessels fit for Christ’s presence and power. For the disciples, Christian spiritual formation, is what begins when that cloud overshadows and envelops them on the mountain. With vision obscured, they can hear more clearly as God calls them back to their purpose: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” These words are not a new revelation. They simply instruct us to focus again on what we’ve already heard Jesus saying, and on what we will hear him say again: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Author Jan Richardson notes that the only other appearance of the word “overshadow” in the gospels comes in the angel Gabriel’s response to Mary, when she asks how it will be possible to give birth to the child she’s been asked to bear. Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” [v] Connecting the Annunciation and the Transfiguration, Richardson writes, “Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture but for anatomy. Or, rather, God makes architecture of our anatomy: God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.”
Richardson’s insight helps us understand the goal of Christian spiritual formation: God wants to fulfill our longing for more light by making us bearers of Christ’s light to others! It also helps us understand why Jesus asked the disciples to keep quiet about the transfiguration, until after he had risen from the dead. Like Mary, they need time for God’s vision to gestate within them. For, while the transfiguration reveals the glory of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. A snapshot of that moment is not enough. There is yet more. The full picture comes as we are opened to a long-term relationship with the divine beyond the image.
When the cloud passes, there is Jesus, standing there just as he’d been, in the travel-stained garments of the discipleship road, ready to lead us back down the mountain, right into the thick of human suffering and confusion, all the way to the cross, the resurrection, and beyond.
This Lent, Keith and I want to challenge you to seek more light, more meaning, more life, gaining a more complete picture of Jesus as you follow him down the mountain, and grow in your relationship with the divine beyond the image. I know that some of you have had “mountaintop experiences” which led you to a deeper longing to experience God in everyday life, and thus a deeper attentiveness in prayer and practice to the words and ways of Jesus Christ. Others of you have spoken of your struggles to find the time and space to live out your faith amidst the everyday chaos of our time. Wherever you are on the discipleship road, now is a great time to experiment anew as we delve together into the rich traditions of Christian spiritual formation practices.
We undertake this Lenten journey in the recognition that only God can transform us as Christ was transfigured, a gift of grace we cannot earn or merit; but also that God has given us instructions to help us place ourselves where we are available to his sanctifying grace. “Listen to him!” God tells us, and so we will listen, attending to the words and imitating the ways of Jesus our teacher, savior, Lord, and friend.
As we pursue these practices, and as we gather for conversations about the joys and struggles, let us pray for the courage to place our lives again in God’s hands, that he may shape us to bear forth yet more, yet more, of Christ’s startling light, the image of God and the image of true humanity. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009, xiii.
[iv] Ragan Sutterfield, as above.