This is my homily for Transfiguration Day (Sunday 6 August 2017).
I don’t often fly this flag in church, but I’m a huge science-fiction geek. My generation, growing up, had access to a veritable renaissance of science-fiction television shows… 4 iterations of Star Trek, the groundbreaking Babylon 5, the imaginative Farscape and similar shows, culminating with the revival of Doctor Who in 2005 over in Britain.
For a long time, science-fiction had a bad reputation, it was treated as a lesser form of fiction. It was considered childish, a silly escapism with useless speculations about aliens and futuristic technology. It’s also a genre that doesn’t age well when it makes optimistic predictions about the near future: like in Back to the Future – we were supposed to have flying cars like two years ago!
But really, science-fiction and fantasy are two sides of the same coin; one speculates about the future, and the other speculates about the past. Both can have their childish sides, but both can be powerful works of fiction. They often attract slightly different crowds of people, but they tend to bring them together, too. Other forms of fiction, too, be it speculative fiction, murder mysteries, or something else, are things that capture the imagination of nearly everyone.
The ability to create fiction is a distinctly human capability, one of the things that sets us apart from the Animal Kingdom. We are able, at least within our minds, to create! Elves and Orcs definitely do not exist, but in our minds they do. There is almost certainly no such thing as a Time Lord traveling throughout time and space in a TARDIS, but there is in our minds.
Some Christians respond poorly to fiction. They say that it is a frivolous waste of our time, or worse, a sinful endeavor that points us to sorcery and magic which is condemned in the Bible, and to science which is also anti-religious according to some. This is where you find the crowds who would ban the Harry Potter books and so forth. But I would point out, rather, that the use of the imagination can be very healthy and helpful for the Christian. For, the Christian lives between two worlds. We live in the mundane world of work and food and taxes and sleep and politics and relationships but we also live in the kingdom of God, a world of gospel and Holy Spirit and miracles and bible stories and sacraments and ministers with strange vestments on.
Between two worlds is the major theme of the Transfiguration that I would like to observe with you this morning. This odd little event in the life of Jesus is a special and rare example of “two worlds” coming together in one moment of shining clarity.
It begins with Jesus and three of his disciples going up a mountain to pray. This is not unusual for them; Jesus had a pattern of spending time in intense ministry with large crowds and then retreating to solitude and rest with a small number of close disciples. But this time of refreshment would prove to be considerably more supernatural than one might have expected. Jesus’ face and clothes shone dazzling white, the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah appeared next to him, and they spoke together, and the voice of God thundered from heaven declaring that Jesus was indeed his beloved Son. This kind of thing had only happened once before: when Jesus was baptized. That manifestation of God, or theophany if you want the technical word, was delivered to kick-start Jesus’ ministry at his baptism, and is repeated again now as he prepares to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die for the life of the world.
It’s the kind of visionary experience that many people wish for. It wasn’t a dream – the apostles were wide awake. It wasn’t in a strange location – it was a large hilltop where they often went to pray. It wasn’t an ecstatic experience brought about by an emotional frenzy or drug-induced vision – it was a legitimate voice of God booming from the heavens while their teacher, Jesus, literally shone with the glory of God. It couldn’t have been any clearer: in that moment Peter and James and John could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, priest, and king, not only the “messiah” or “Christ” or “anointed one,” but actually God-in-the-flesh.
All that theological stuff, where Jesus kept saying mysterious things like “I and the Father are one” finally made sense in that moment of perfect clarity. The world of spiritual things – angels, life after death, divine manifestations – all that invaded the ordinary world in a moment. Imagine the shock and excitement of seeing your favorite fictional character turn up at your workplace during your lunch break. You’d be amazed, dumbfounded, and yet also vindicated that your enthusiasm for that movie or book actually paid off! Take that to a whole different order of magnitude with the mount of transfiguration: the disciples had staked their lives on the truthfulness of their teacher, Jesus, who was claiming to be God. In that moment, the three disciples with him saw for sure He Was Who He Was.
Getting the story straight
But let’s make sure we get the point of this story straight. It’s all well and good talk about other peoples’ mountaintop experiences. What about mine? When will God appear to me during the course of my ordinary life and supernaturally announce to me that this whole pursuit of Christ is actually worth it? Why don’t I get to see a miraculous sign to prove to me that my faith has not been in vain? What is “my” transfiguration event?
Perhaps a popular line of thought from this juncture would be to say that we are to pray for manifestations of the Spirit – signs and wonders – in our worship services and our lives. Don’t expect miraculous things to happen unless you actually have faith in them, right?
Saint Peter, one of the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration, did us all a huge favor: he wrote about his experience in a letter, and explained what the rest of us, who missed it, can do about it. He wrote “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). What does he say next? Does he talk about how much that shored up his faith in Christ? Does he express his hope that we will also get to see that glory and hear that voice anew ourselves?
No. Instead he writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21). There is more here than I can comment upon right now, but I can say this: personal experiences, be they revelations or visions or direct-download words from God, are purely matters of personal interpretation. Signs and wonders can be faked. The demons are more than capable of performing signs and wonders if it will mean taking glory away from God. Rather, Peter sets his own mountain-top experience aside, and tells us that the “prophetic word,” the Scriptures, are “more fully confirmed.” If you want to see God’s glory and hear God’s voice, read the Bible.
Along these lines, I’d like to quote from the hymn Not always on the mount. The first verse went:
Not always on the mount may we Rapt in the heavenly vision be:
The shores of thought and feeling know The Spirit’s tidal ebb and flow.
If you want to rely on supernatural experiences to strengthen and confirm your faith in God, then you will live the life of a spiritual addict. You will be rushing from one place to another, desperately seeking your next spiritual fix, trying to regain that high. I’ve seen signs of this among both traditionalists and contemporary worshipers. For the traditionalists, I’ve known people who refuse to go to mass unless there is chanting, incense, an East-facing altar. The experience has to be just so, the rubrics must be followed to the letter, otherwise it’s a waste of time. Among the contemporary crowd, which is a much larger group these days, I’ve known people who constantly crave their next retreat or conference where they can get their emotional high on the Holy Spirit renewed, because the ordinary run-of-the-mill church service just doesn’t “do it” for them. These are tales of spiritual addicts, people who want to live on the Mount of Transfiguration all their days. They have not heeded the words of Saint Peter, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention.” Where the Word of God is read and preached, and the sacraments celebrated and offered, there you will find the voice and glory of God.
Psalm 27, also, captures the dialogue of our hearts with God quite well: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple… You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” Hide not your face from me” (verses 4, 7, 8). The Christian’s heart’s desire is to behold the face of God – indeed that is one of the very definitions of heaven! So we must understand where and how to see the face of God so we don’t burn ourselves out in the search. That same hymn ends thus:
The mount for vision: but below The paths of daily duty go,
And nobler life therein shall own The pattern on the mountain shown.
We see and hear God in the Scriptures, especially in its context in the liturgy (with preaching and sacraments); those are our glimpses of the heavenly glory, our “mount for vision.” We then take that word of God with us into “the paths of daily duty.” In that way our lives are made nobler as we own, or conform ourselves to, the pattern of life taught in the Scriptures.
But wait, there’s more!
There is so much more that could be said about the Transfiguration. If you have a keen memory you may recall what I said about it on the last Sunday before Lent – how such manifestation of God’s glory also serves as a preparation for dealing with suffering in this life.
I would also direct you an old blog post of mine that explains an Early Church 40-day fast that begins today and ends on the feast of the Holy Cross, September 14th. There you’ll see how it contrasts with the other two big fasts of the year, in Advent and Lent, and that each of the three bring out different aspects of the purpose and role of fasting in the Christian life. The Transfigurationtide fast, in particular, is a fast of orientation, a discipline of fixing our eyes more closely upon the face of God. You can read about that at your leisure.
For now, as we conclude, I want you to remember that you’re living in (or between) two different worlds at once. Just as your favorite fiction stories, whatever they might be, help keep your imagination active, healthy, and strong, so use that mind power as a stepping-stone and reminder that there are indeed spiritual realities beyond what eyes can see and ears can hear. And just as we can find ourselves emotionally invested in a work of fiction, we can there remind ourselves that if a fiction book can be so engaging, how much more powerful can the greatest Book of all be in our lives.
So I invite you, through these next forty days, to follow the steps of Christ from the Mountaintop to the Cross. Fiction stories are great, but let’s make sure they’re just a stepping-stone for us as we continually ponder and live in the light of The Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of God saving the world from sin and death. You don’t have to start calling Jesus your “superhero,” but you do need to remember that he saved you, and all of us, out of darkness and death into eternal life and light.