|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Exodus 34:29-35||Psalm 99||2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2||Luke 9:28-43|
By Bruce G. Epperly
Transfiguration Sunday joins mysticism and mission, both of which are necessary for a holistic, life-giving faith. In some quarters, mysticism has a bad name: old school evangelicals worry that any experience of God unmediated by scripture or orthodoxy takes us away from Jesus; old school liberals see mysticism and contemplation as temptations to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Moreover, old school liberalism is suspicious of non-rational experiences, despite the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and all the great religions of the world had their origins in mystical and paranormal experiences.
I recall a humorous, but sad, lament from a seminary student: “I have a truly personal relationship with Jesus. I feel him as close as my best friend. I believe that Jesus is constantly giving me guidance and insight. But, if I told the church and ministry committee that ‘he walks with me and talks with me’ like the song says, I’m not sure they would ordain me.” This student was being transfigured through her relationship with Jesus, but had to “veil” her face (self), like Moses, to respond to the fears of her denomination’s ministerial authorization commission!
Moses goes to the mountaintop to encounter the God of the Hebraic people. The God of wind and mountain is far from tame – in fact, God is wild and untamed, showing up in the most surprising places and among the most surprising people. The spiritual intensity Moses feels is so great in God’s presence that Moses shines from the inside out and outside in. His cells mirror his spirit, and both are glowing. In the interdependence of body, mind, and spirit, what transforms any part of human experience transforms the totality.
Whether or not God was present literally on the mountaintop is beside the point, although I suspect that an omnipresent God can manifest more fully in certain places to reveal divine guidance and wisdom. Moses is not naval gazing on the mountaintop; he is receiving the statutes that will define the Hebrews as a people. His mystical encounter leads to a mission that will transform this ragtag group of people into a nation; it will give them a vision and identity; a standard by which to live.
Psalm 99 describes Moses’ mountaintop experience and portrays God as awesome and glorious. The words of the Psalmist serve as a forerunner of Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy in which he describes the Holy One as mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating. God’s grandeur overwhelms the mortal’s experience. Yet, the Psalmist sees God as more than an impersonal energy: God also moves through history in the quest for justice. Divine energy is biased toward Shalom, wholeness that embraces persons and communities.
The insightful preacher would do well to amend the passage from 2 Corinthians, passing over verses 12-16 due to their implicit anti-Judaism. God’s light shines everywhere, even among those who turn away from God. The coming of Christ does not nullify the revelation to the Jewish people; in fact, it uplifts Judaism as part of stream of revelation embracing Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and Christians throughout history. Divine fullness in Jesus is continuous with divine revelation in patriarchal, prophetic, and wisdom worlds of the Hebraic tradition. God’s Spirit gives us freedom and creativity; it does not pen us into the strait jacket of doctrinal orthodoxy. Liberating revelation empowers us to vital and energetic ministries, trusting God to give us the power and inspiration we need to be God’s partners in healing the world.
Jesus and followers have a mystical experience as well. Jesus is transformed, perhaps revealing for a moment the energy of the universe flowing through him – he becomes a “being of light” and enters into dialogue with two other “dazzling figures,” Moses and Elijah. Where Moses and Elijah have come from remains a mystery, but something happens on the mountaintop that transforms Jesus and his followers. Jesus’ followers want to build some permanent structures on the mountain. They want to bask in glory forever, and who wouldn’t? They don’t want their spiritual honeymoon to end; they don’t want to get back to the messiness of day-to-day discipleship. But, Jesus leads them down the mountain, first, to confront a child, most likely suffering from severe epilepsy (described in the ancient world as the sacred disease), and then to head to Jerusalem to confront the powers that be.
Mysticism, life-changing moments of transcendence, inspire and empower us to mission. Jesus responds to an incurable illness by confronting the spirit of disease with the power of God’s love. We need not consign this story to the irrelevance of an outmoded world view or supernaturalistic understanding of divine causation. Jesus’ power in this story is portrayed as extraordinary but also congruent with the dynamic laws of nature. Jesus speaks to the offending spirit, sending it away from the boy it had been occupying. Jesus’ prayers transform the cells of his body and the energies of his spirit, invoking the movement toward healing already present within him.1
A fully-alive spirituality must embrace all the seasons of life. It must be large enough to include life’s messiness as well as life’s celebrations. Epiphany invites persons and congregations to spiritual transfiguration, but the spirituality of epiphany guides us through life’s challenges, transfiguring and healing them.
1 For more on a “naturalistic” interpretation of Jesus’ healings, see my Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).