Luke 9: 28-36
Transfiguration of the Lord
10th February 2013
This is one my favorite Sundays of the year. The transfiguration – whether it’s Matthew’s or Mark’s or Luke’s version – is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. The fact that Matthew and Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) include this event tells us that it was pivotal in Jesus’ life and significant because it reveals something essential about Jesus’ identity and God’s glory at work through him. It’s not the only story shared by them. The feeding of the five thousand and last supper, the crucifixion, and of course the resurrection are included by these three witnesses. (John’s Gospel is a “horse of a different color,” as it were, which is why I’m leaving him out.) But my point here is that while the Synoptic Gospels refer to the Transfiguration, placing it almost at the center of their narratives, serving in some ways as the hinge upon which their narratives hang, for the most part, its importance has been ignored or overlooked. It’s a text that leaves us feeling puzzled and confused. A lot of my friends and colleagues don’t like to preach on this text. What do we do with a text like this?
I would probably feel the same way but for the fact that almost twenty-three years ago this September this text and it’s meaning took on enormous significance for me. At every ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in addition to the sermon, there’s a charge directed to the ordinand and a charge to the calling congregation. At my ordination, I asked a Princeton Seminary professor, mentor, and friend, James Loder, to give the charge. He walked into the pulpit of my home church, the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, NJ, just a few feet from the font at which I was baptized 26 years earlier, read this text (Matthew’s version) and then proceeded to offer a second sermon on it.
I can still hear Jim’s voice in my ears, saying to me, charging me to, “Listen to him. Listen to him.” Jim said to me, a week before I left for Scotland, that the life, the vitality, the effectiveness of my ministry wherever I go, wherever I serve will always be contingent upon my capacity to “Listen to him.” My failures and successes in ministry will be directly related to my ability to “Listen to him.” If that sounds heavy, it is. That’s what a calling is, it’s a burden, a weight we’ve been asked to carry. That’s what these stoles represent, the yoke of the calling, being yoked to Christ. When I arrived at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I served, I was struck by the large stained-glass west window in the sanctuary with a depiction of Jesus’ transfiguration. Since then, transfiguration features prominently in my journey and has shaped my faith and theological outlook.
Jim’s words are never far from me. Over these twenty-three years as a minister I have tried to listen, worked hard at listening. Sometimes faithful, I like to think; but also, I know, at times faithless. Jim was right. Listening matters. Listening to Christ is what counts. Listening has changed my life for the good and hopefully for others who listen to me.
But it’s only now, twenty-three years later, that I’m beginning to sense something else about this text; I’m beginning to sense how much I’ve heard “Listen to him” primarily as a command, instead of hearing it as something else – and it’s the something else that I’ll get to in a minute.
Until recently, my own moralizing ear was getting in the way of me hearing the text. The moralizing ear so often distorts our capacity to hear and perceive grace in scripture. Moralizing ear is my term for a filter that often informs our hearing of scripture. (Those in the Thursday Morning Bible Study have heard me talk about this over the years.) What I mean here is that somehow, some way so many have come to assume that faith is primarily about following the rules, about laws, proper behavior, commandments, and, of course, judgment, if we fail to obey. With such a perspective, God is essentially seen as a lawgiver. Many hold the view: God created human beings to behave; we screwed up, so we’re judged, forced to pay the price – a price we cannot afford to pay because who is “rich” enough in virtue to make up for Adam’s fall, so Jesus comes along, pays the price instead, and, even though we’re now forgiven, with his help we can follow the law, because God only cares about whether or not we follow the law.
Such a view, which I’ve intentionally made to sound simplistic and foolish (which I think it is), is produced by the moralizing part of us, ruled by an image of God as Lawgiver. When we do this we reduce the function of religious faith to morals, to ethics; it’s called moralizing. This tendency is old and deep and it’s all over the church and it shapes external views of Christianity. During the Enlightenment, when Reason tried to reign and anything mystical or supernatural was deemed “unreasonable,” philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said most of Christianity should be rejected because it wasn’t rational. The only rational purpose religion served was to teach and reinforce morality. Religion was purely functional. Religion serves society by making us moral, making sure that we all behave. Kant reduced religion to ethics and helped to turn faith into an ethical code, a law, and in many ways the Church is still suffering from his error. I consider this to be an extremely serious issue because it hinders us from really hearing the gospel. (One day, when I find the time, I want to write a book on this.)
Yes, ethics, morals matter. Of course they do. Rules matter. How we behave matters. But to suggest that this is the good news of the Christian gospel, that Jesus died on the cross to appease an angry Judge-Father and now expects you to behave because any moment he’s going to lash out at you in anger, to suggest that you’re only loved if you behave in a certain way, is a gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the height and depth and reach of God’s grace! It cheapens the gospel.
This brings us back to the text. Words such as “Listen to him” can easily be heard as one more command, one more rule, one more thing to do, one more standard to try to live up to. Heard through the filter of the moralizing ear that’s what we think it means, and so we get to work and soon we’re judging ourselves for our behavior, whether we’re listening or not listening.
But, no one listens all the time – right? Right? No one listens all the time. You might hear someone talking, but that doesn’t mean you’re really listening.
Now, of course, “Listen to him” is a command. There’s no way around this. It’s an imperative. But who is offering the command? Whose voice is speaking from the cloud that engulfs Peter, James, and John? Luke says, “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Other early versions of Luke’s Gospel read, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him!” It’s this latter reading that echoes the divine voice that we heard coming from the heavens as Jesus came up out of the waters of his baptism, “This is my son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Voice speaking to the disciples refers to the object of his love, the Beloved. If Jesus hears these words as the Beloved, if love is being directed toward him, then the source of the Voice must know something about love; for the Voice is love itself. So, yes, we hear a command, but it’s voiced in love, by the one who is love. Yes, it’s a command. But when we remember that the Voice is love, then the command is something else – and this is the something else that I didn’t hear in Loder’s charge to me 23 years ago – the command heard in love becomes something more, it’s really an invitation, an invitation to enter into the mystery and glory and love of God!
To listen to him is to listen in, to listen in on God’s deep conversation with humanity since the beginning of time; to listen to him is to listen in on God’s deep desire for the world and our lives within it. When we listen to him we are included in that conversation. When we listen to him we are brought into a knowledge of God’s deep desire for mercy and justice, for wholeness and healing, for love. The command becomes an invitation: you and me are now welcomed to share – share! share! – in the very life of God, brought into the presence of God to receive a glimpse of God’s glory and radiance shining through Jesus. We are drawn, like Moses and Elijah, into a deep relationship with the Source of all being and goodness and light and given insights and wisdom and knowledge that we could never obtain on our own, things reason cannot handle or fathom, experiences that are new and therefore disorienting and thereby reorienting. Peter, James, and John are terrified by this revelation; they talk nonsense because their frame of reference and meaning could not comprehend what they were experiencing. Instead, their reality was being reframed by a larger reality, as they came to see the story of their lives as participating in a much larger story of divine salvation that reached back to Moses and forward toward what was about to happen on a cross in Jerusalem and beyond, even to a future held by the light of glory. They are commanded to listen to him and thus invited into the very life shared between Jesus and God. This is relational language. When we listen to someone we are pulled into that person’s life; when we’re listening to Christ we’re pulled into that relationship, the divine-human relationship, and that is what matters above all else. When that happens reality is reframed and reality reframed is what it means to be transfigured. That’s what Love does, it transfigures our lives. This is what the gospel is all about. This is a good news with power that shakes the foundations of the world and reorients our lives.
The Voice that spoke from the cloud continues to speak to us; it continues to summon us to listen. In the church we often use listening language when we’re trying to discern God’s call in our lives. Many have difficulty discerning God’s call or vocation in their lives. But maybe turning the phrase around might help us here; what if first we are simply called to listen? Listen to the Voice of Love speak and then discern your vocation. Listen to the Voice and then figure out how to act, what to do. Augustine (354-430) once said, “Love and do what you want.” Vocation, then, doesn’t come by trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do with our lives; vocation comes from listening to the One who has given us life. One of the wisest voices of our time, Parker J. Palmer, writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening.” The word vocation itself is rooted in the Latin for voice. “Vocation,” Palmer writes, “does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen….”
If our first calling is to listen, then how do we do that? It’s been said that listening is a skill, something we cultivate. Listening is a skill, like all skills the more we practice them the better we are at using them. We can train ourselves to have better listening skills. Listening is an art, particularly the art of listening for what’s being said and what isn’t being said, listening for what’s behind the words of a conversation. It’s not surprising that truly listening is in short supply these days. It requires time. Listening is hard work. It can be exhausting. It also requires considerable energy and love and even courage.
Why courage? Because at least two other things are required: silence and surrender. Luke says, “When the voice had spoke, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent…” (Luke 9:36). In order to really listen it’s important for us to be silent. How can you listen if you’re talking? The talking can be the audible kind done with our mouths or the ongoing internal chatter that fills our inner brains most of the time that never seems to quit. It’s tough to listen to someone when there are competing conversations going on in our heads. Cultivating silence has always been a spiritual discipline, essential to the life of faith. This requires courage because we might not be happy with what we discover in the silence. What’s true for human relationships is true for divine-human relationships. Interior silence is required; how else are you going to hear the still small voice of Love?
To listen requires a kind of surrendering. Listening means you’re open to what the other is saying, you have relinquished your control of what is said, you give up your privileged position and yield to what the other has to say. Instead of hearing what you want to hear or what you think someone is saying, you really listen. This, too, requires a form of courage. We might not like what we’re hearing or we might disagree with it. But, more than anything else, especially when we’re hearing the voice of Love, when we open ourselves and surrender to the other, we just might be changed and our reality transfigured. This is why men and women, each for their own reasons, have problems with surrendering because we hear this from the viewpoint of the ego which equates surrender as weakness or defeat (particularly in men) or as submission to power, leaving one exposed to exploitation or abuse (particularly in women). We have to be careful here with surrender language, but if we don’t use it we miss out on the gospel and what Christians for centuries have told us, that, “surrender is an indispensable gateway to life, genuine freedom, and deep humanity.” Without surrendering to the one who is Love, how can words such as these be heard as good news? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life – surrender their life – for my sake they will save it” (Luke 8:23-24). These words come in Luke just prior to his account of the Transfiguration.
When we listen to him, it means we are not listening to our egos or what others expect from us or the cacophony of voices in our heads or on television or the crowd; we are yielding, surrendering to him, surrendering to Love.
Silence and surrender. Two good disciplines for disciples to follow through Lent and beyond. In these forty days of Lent may we have the courage to welcome more silence, both within and without, and listen to him more profoundly, surrendering our lives into his arms, arms that will carry us where we need to go. We are invited by Love to listen, to listen to him who is love, and in our love for him, we listen.
For example, see Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), among other works.
Here I hold to C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) idea that our goal is not goodness, but wholeness. See also James Hollis, Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves (New York: Gotham Books, 2008), 234-235. The biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg makes a similar point, "Christian life is ultimately not about believing or about being good. Rather, it is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation." Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperOne, 1995), 2-3.
For a discussion on Loder and transfiguration, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 192, 194-196.
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 2000), 4-5.
David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos, 2011), 157. I’m grateful for Dr. Benner’s entire discussion of the centrality of surrender in the Christian life (156-168).