A Sermon for a Faith Grounded in Mystical Experience

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Augustana Lutheran Church
26 February 2017 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17.1-19
Vicar Josh Evans



I have a confession to make: I hate the Transfiguration. Or maybe more to the point, I hate it because it seems so hard to grasp and  to make any possible meaning out of it. But I love what the Transfiguration means. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain… Six days after what? In the preceding chapter in Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a memorable scene: Peter, who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, is called “blessed” by Jesus and told he is the “rock” upon the church will be built. But lest Peter’s ego should get the best of him, only a few verses later, Jesus sharply rebukes him — “Get behind me, Satan!” — for his misunderstanding of what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

The details there are not important, but suffice it to say that it was probably a confusing, upsetting time for Peter. And so it’s not difficult to imagine why Peter is the one who, upon witnessing this strange and wonderful spectacle on the mountain, suggests they build tents and stay a while in this moment of glory and excitement.

So what happened on the mountain that was so awe-inspiring that left Peter grasping at the opportunity to make it last?

Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, once argued for the rediscovery of the mystical foundations of Christianity as vital to the church’s survival — mystic, by one definition, meaning “one who has moved from mere belief systems…to actual inner experience.”

By that way of thinking, what happened on the mountain, all that was witnessed by Peter and the other two disciples, was a mystical experience — something so inexplicable and beyond comprehension that it simply had to be experienced.

I also suspect that these sorts of mystical moments often come to us in situations like the one Peter found himself in — in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of everyday life.

The closest thing I’ve ever had to a mystical experience happened a few years ago when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat with the church I used to attend. The retreat was designed for those, like me, who were about to embark on small group leadership, as well as a refresher course for seasoned leaders. It was those seasoned leaders I remember looking at, thinking how inadequate I seemed for this work compared to them.

At one point, we were given some free time to roam about the building for contemplation and prayer. Never having been great at spiritual practices which require me to sit in silence with nothing to do, I found an empty pew in the sanctuary, opened a bible to Exodus, and began to read, just to pass the time.

I was reading the familiar story of Moses encountering Yahweh, the Hebrew god, in the burning bush, giving excuse after excuse about what Yahweh has asked him to do. Who am I that I should go? Moses asks. Exactly! I thought. Who am I that should lead this group? Who do I think I am? And Yahweh answers Moses, I will be with you. It was as though those words were being spoken directly to me that day. I will be with you.

And they were overcome fear. Because sometimes mystical experiences can also be downright terrifying. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, found himself in a state of shock, doubt, and fear the night he received the first revelation of the Quran. According to tradition, he alternated between feeling that, at best, it was all a hallucination or, at worst, it had been a confrontation with an evil spirit.

Terrifying — because mystical experiences like Mohammed’s and the disciples’ and even my own mean something is changing. In Matthew’s gospel, the Transfiguration marks a decisive turning point from Jesus’s public ministry to what he will soon encounter in Jerusalem, events we too will soon recount as we inch closer to Holy Week. Peter and the other disciples, in this moment of change, need the memory of what is happening to stay with them because of what is about to happen.

Like Peter and the disciples, we constantly find ourselves in states of change — everything from job to family to personal transitions. They’re in between moments of both holding on and letting go, oftentimes at once excruciating and exciting.

And that, I suspect, is the whole point of the Transfiguration: permission to be in those in between moments of holding on and letting go. The Transfiguration as mystical experience acknowledges this tension, offering something to hold on to as we let go.

As they were coming down the mountain… The Transfiguration is more about the journey down the mountain than the mountaintop experience itself. Yes, it’s about coming down the mountain to the valley below, but let’s  also not overemphasize the destination at the expense of downplaying the journey.

With Transfiguration Sunday, we mark the turning toward our Lenten journey — a journey in which we call to mind the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. But, as one theologian reminds us, “Until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.” In other words, the journey is a thing to be personally experienced, even savored.

I don’t think that Peter and the other disciples could have ever conceived intellectually of what would happen on the mountaintop that day. It had to be experienced, and having been experienced, it changes them. The glory of the mountaintop moment, the mystical experience of God’s enduring presence, gives them strength for the journey ahead.

It gives strength for the moment, for moments of change, and for leaping into an unknown future, letting go of all control and certainty, while at once holding on to the  memory of what has been and looking to the hope of what can and what will be.

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