— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Transfiguration Sunday ~~~
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Seatbelts fastened, or fluff your pew pillow; I’m going to start today with something I learned in Divinity School. It was and remains to this day helpful to me and even liberating in that it gives me a new way to approach Scripture. It came in one of my Biblical Studies classes when we studied a German, Lutheran Biblical Scholar named Rudolf Karl Bultmann. Dr. Bultmann was a proponent of something called “demythologization.” See what I mean about the seatbelts?
Anyway, what this term means is that the world-view of the Biblical writers is not the same as the world view now. The composers of the Bible thought in terms of supernatural events and supernatural beings within a three-tiered universe – heaven above, hell below, and earth in between. They used the stuff of their culture and their time to tell the story of Jesus. For us, according to Bultmann, the way to interpret the Biblical narrative is to “de-mythologize” those texts and find the universal meaning of the story. In other words, according to Rudolf Bultmann, we should not get caught up in trying to defend the historicity of the Bible or in thinking that the mythological ways of telling the story of Jesus are the important details. Rather, we should look to the ways in which the stories point to universal truths that can shape our lives in the direction of integrity and authenticity. For Bultmann the story of Jesus is primarily about overcoming alienation from God and one another, and moving into lives of wholeness.
Now let me say, as one who preaches each week and one, as you, who seeks to be a follower of Jesus in my life today, I have found help in Bultmann’s proposals. I don’t think it is particularly helpful to get caught up in debating whether something happened in just the way the Biblical writers said that it happened. The stories, in my mind, carry the message without having to be thought of as inerrant history. It does make sense to me to hear these stories and ask what they might tell us about ourselves, about God, about the world in which we live… to look, in other words, for universal truths.
I do have a few issues with the way Bultmann dissects the Scripture — namely, I bet he was a lousy storyteller and maybe a boring preacher. There are truths in stories that cannot be boiled down to universal principles. Also, and related to the value of story, Bultmann’s “demythologizing” is also, I’m afraid, a form of “demystifying” the wonder-full story of Jesus. Even now in this modern world I think we need to recognize and celebrate the “mystery” of the divine presence. Things happen we don’t understand — good and hard things. We do not always have ways of talking about these things other than myth or story. So, I am not a Bultmann follower, hook, line, and sinker, but I think his allowance for looking for universal truths as opposed to fighting over scientifically questionable happenings is, at times, a good and faith-giving way to approach the Bible.
So, you might be asking, Why, Bob, have you taken us to seminary today? Well, good question. Here’s why — this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top on the eighth day with Peter, James, and John and the voice from heaven and the clothes dazzling white and the presence of Elijah and Moses and the healing of a demon possessed boy in the valley… this is a perfect story to demythologize and tease out the universal meaning.
Do we, as Christians in the 21st century, have to embrace the historicity of this event? Did it happen just like the gospel writers say that it happened? I do not know, but in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus and healing in the valley there are universal truths to discover within this mysterious story that can be instructive for faithful living in 2019.
Here’s one. Peel away the mythological features of the story and what you have is a group of seekers who had a mountaintop experience, but they all had to go back to the valley to serve. Jesus and his companions experienced a religious high, and the desire, for Peter anyway, was to stay put on that mountain and never come down. Jesus, however, would not allow it, and they returned to the valley where Jesus tended to the needs of those he encountered once he came off the mountain.
I suspect all of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt bathed in light, at peace, one with goodness and love and with the world. I suspect all of us have experienced what we might describe as a religious experience of joy. I also suspect all of us have wondered why life cannot be like those moments all the time. What life teaches us and this story teaches us is that each time we have experiences of being on a mountaintop, we realize we have to come down into the ordinary and sometimes messy work of daily life as a follower of Jesus.
This story of the Transfiguration gives us, all of us, who have experienced highs and lows of religious life, companions — Jesus, Peter, James, John. It is the pattern of life within which we have to live. That we are not always experiencing a religious high or the ecstacy of mystical union is not a sign of lack of faith; rather, the highs, if they are of God, are in service to the lows, the ordinary, in service to the work in the valley. It is demonic to be lured into a belief that the highs are all that matter and that the call of a faithful life is to live forever on the mountaintop without a care for the needs in the messy valley.
Here’s what I mean… as soon as Jesus and the disciples are off the mountain of this holy, intense light, Jesus was healing an epileptic boy. Luke seems to be leading us into the realization that any religious experience must be measured in terms of whether or not it leads us back into the ordinary world as servants of God’s people. All so called “religious” experiences that leave us longing to stay fixed upon the mountain and separated from the world of ordinary hungers and needs have been misunderstood. God reveals God’s holy light to lead us into the valley of service.
Teresa of Avila, who lived in the mid-1500s, is considered one of the important figures in Christian mysticism. She had many ecstatic experiences. One experience that she had several times she describes in the book of her life (Libro de la vida) — Teresa writes of an angel coming to her and “in his hands I saw a large golden spear and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times, so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails. When he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out with it, and left me totally inflamed with a great love for God. The pain was so severe, it made me moan several times. The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul is not satisfied with anything less than God.” (Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul, by Cathleen Medwick, pages ix-x).
Teresa’s visions and stories would be interesting no matter what, but what makes them authentic in Luke’s framework of religious experience is that Teresa was a hard-working, hard-driving reformer of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and of Carmelite convents there. Her experiences of rapture led her back into the world to serve — sometimes at great cost.
Somewhere Teresa is supposed to have said following the accidental burning down of one of her convents — she prayed to God… “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
The poet Richard Wilbur speaks of this test of religious experience in his poem entitled Teresa. Teresa wondered at times if her ecstatic experiences were holy or demonic. What validates Teresa’s ecstasies as holy for (Wilbur) is the fruit they bore in a disciplined balance of contemplation and action. (Divine Inspiration: The Life ofJesus in World Poetry, ed. Robert Atwan, et al., page 359).
Here’s the last stanza of the poem by Richard Wilbur about St. Teresa of Avila:
The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.
(Divine Inspiration, page 360)
Richard Wilbur’s measure is the same as Luke’s measure — “Visions were true which quickened her to run God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain beneath its beating sun… “
Here’s one universal truth of this wonderful,
mysterious, mythological story of Jesus transfigured
before Peter, James, and John
and then down in the valley casting out demons
from a writhing boy…
God’s Light on the mountain leads to service in the valley!
Thanks be to God. Amen.