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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Transfiguration 02/11/2018

One of the things I’ve tried to do in the years I’ve been a pastor, is to make the churches I’ve served places where you don’t have to check your brain at the door when you walk in. I was greatly inspired by some of the teachers I had at seminary, some of the smartest people I’ve even been around, people whose intellect didn’t get in the way of their faith. They could reason and question and think, especially about the Bible, and still remain faithful. I learned that to be a good Christian you don’t have to believe that everything in the Bible happened just that way because the Bible isn’t so much about historic truth as theological truth, truth about God and so biblical authors take remembered events and use imagination to convey that truth. I learned that Christian faith was more than unthinkingly believing things that are hard to believe.

Anyway, that has been an important part of my faith journey and some of you have told me it’s been helpful to you as well, the idea that it’s OK to think and ask questions, even doubt sometimes, that the path of the intellect and reason can be part of the journey. What I’ve been finding more and more, really for a few years now, is that the journey goes on, and for me anyway, the path of the intellect and reason doesn’t seem to be the end of the journey. You perhaps notice that things like mystery and poetry and imagination work into my sermons quite often, things that aren’t always reasonable.

I just finished reading a book by a theology professor from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who spent a year in Russia, mostly immersing himself in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. As an ordained Presbyterian minister he acknowledges that there are many positive results of the Reformation but one result that he highlights as not so positive is what he calls the disenchantment of Protestant churches as compared to the Orthodox Church and to some extent the Catholic Church. Now if enchantment is understood as superstition that claims miraculous powers for certain icons or for the bones, the relics of saints, things like that, then disenchantment would not be a bad thing, but that’s not really what he’s talking about.

He’s talking about enchantment as the ability to create a sense of wonder that enables you to imagine things differently and find truth beyond what human intellect and reasoning can figure out, beyond the who, what, when and where facts on the ground. On one end that enchantment gets lost in biblical literalism which does result in check your brains at the door religion, requiring you to believe things that are hard to believe; on the other end it gets lost when reading the Bible and studying theology becomes mostly an intellectual head trip, just another subject to study.

The risk then is for church and worship to lose any sense of mystery concerning a holy God which also leads to extremes. On one end it becomes believe it or else theology that places anyone who doesn’t believe the right things burning for eternity in a lake of fire and there are lots of churches like that. As ELCA Lutherans we’re more on the other end where faith can mostly become encouragement about what we can do to promote what we see as righteously sanctioned moral causes for justice and peace, and God becomes more of an idea than a reality. Lutherans are good at thinking the faith and wrestling with the complexities and demands of that faith and, as I said, it has its place and definitely has been and continues to be part of my journey. But then you come to Transfiguration Sunday and you find out that thinking and wrestling and reason can only take you so far.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. Suddenly his appearance changes, his clothes become dazzling white, in some of the accounts his face shines like the sun. Along with that, two great Old Testament figures who had also shared in God’s glory appear with Jesus, Moses who spoke to God directly on Mt. Sinai as he received the Ten Commandments and Elijah who was lifted up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Peter, James and John fall down in fear and confusion and then there’s the voice from a cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The disciples then look up and Jesus is alone, Moses and Elijah are gone.

For rational, thinking the faith Lutherans, it’s a story that poses challenges because it’s just a little too strange. Because of that strangeness, the tendency is to want to tame the story and that’s what we do. We make it about mountaintop experiences, those moments that lift us out of the mundane, ordinary of our lives and carry us, at least for awhile; my guess would be that fans of the Philadelphia Eagles are still in the midst of such an experience right now.

Mountaintops happen in other ways too; it might be in the beauty of nature; curiously, in the book I mentioned the author who lives in Pittsburgh cites a trip to the UP as such an experience, Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks, the Keweenaw. It also might happen through music or literature. It might even happen in worship. We do cherish the mountaintops; they do help us to carry on and do the work that needs to be done when we come down from the mountain. The mountaintop experience approach to the Transfiguration story is legitimate and helpful, but it also exposes one to the accusation of disenchantment. The sense of wonder about Jesus’ transfiguration is greatly diminished.

When it comes to the story of the Transfiguration and actually lots of other stories in the Bible as well, we do better to approach them more like kids (or adults) who read things like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. You don’t read such things cynically and dismissively and say, “Well that could never happen.” Instead you just kind of lose yourself in the wonder of it and let the imaginative part of your brain take over and create a different reality for you, a reality capable of revealing truth. You allow yourself to be enchanted.

If you approach today’s gospel that way, you begin to experience the Transfiguration differently. As was the case for Peter, James and John, you experience Jesus differently, transfigured, as he really is, both human and divine, not just a teacher and moral example, but the Son of God, the Beloved. Through Jesus transfigured, we experience the power and majesty of God, the creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

With enchantment, our vision of the world takes on a new dimension. We’re not bound by the limits of our intellect, however great that might be, but we allow ourselves to see the world differently, and it’s a world touched by and filled with God’s glory.

Having invited you into the world of biblical enchantment though, for thinking the faith Lutherans, there is still much to consider in this event of Transfiguration. Unlike the disciples, we can talk about it because the Son of Man has risen from the dead. The underlying theme of the season after Epiphany that comes to an end today has to do with Jesus’ identity being revealed. Over the past weeks we’ve learned that his identity includes identifying with humanity in baptism, it includes calling disciples, it includes teaching and healing. All of those are human qualities and Jesus’ humanity is important.

In the Transfiguration though, Jesus is revealed as participating in the uncreated light and glory of the divine. In him, what it is to be human is changed not just for him but for us as well. We are not trapped in a humanity defined by sin and alienation that leads only to death, but instead the way to eternal life is opened to us. Our fallen humanity is restored as we dwell in and with Christ. We don’t join Jesus in his divine essence but we are able to reflect his divine glory.

Martin Luther never lost a sense of wonder. As brilliant as he could be intellectually and as opposed as he was to some of the more superstitious aspects of the religious life of his time, when you read Luther, a sense of awe about the God revealed in and through Jesus comes through very clearly. In commenting on the Transfiguration, Luther put it this way, “The resurrection of the dead and the future glory and brightness of our bodies are shown. For this was something very remarkable, that Christ was transfigured while yet in the mortal body, which was subject to suffering. What then shall it be, when mortality shall have been swallowed up, and nothing shall remain but immortality and glory?”

In the Transfiguration there is much to chew on theologically but we perhaps come closest to understanding it when we let the wonder and enchantment of it back in. Then, along with the disciples on the mountain that day, we’re invited to not just see Jesus transfigured but to look ahead to a day when all creation will be transformed, a day when everyone and everything reflects the glory of God.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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