Here is my collection of themes from tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission:
Our text was the story of the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-43a.
Mountaintop experiences can be intimidating. I spent several years attending churches where dramatic stories of religious conversion were highly valued. One had to be careful about attending services where time was given for individual testimonies of faith. These services had a tendency to degenerate into amateur preach-offs worthy of American Idol.
These churches seemed to believe in a connection between one’s spiritual credibility and the intensity of one’s mystical experiences. Is this connection justified?
I think most of us are unable to relate to a spiritual experience as profound as the Transfiguration. The average person’s meeting with God tends to take a less dramatic form. Some of us may have “A-ha!” moments where a spiritual truth will hit home in a new way. Others of us might be able to relate to John Wesley, who felt his heart being “strangely warmed” by God’s presence. Then again, many of us have not had any mystical experience at all. Does that make us less worthy than those who see visions or hear voices?
When I look at Jesus’ disciples in this story, I feel compelled to answer in the negative. This dramatic encounter, which involves shining lights, visions of ancient heroes, and voices from the sky, is not restricted to the ultra-worthy. Nor does the disciples’ witnessing the Transfiguration seem to have turned them into saints overnight. In this passage, they fall asleep, speak without thinking, and utterly fail in their attempt to heal a sick child.
Jesus says to them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” As harsh as this statement sounds, it highlights the truth that dramatic mystical experiences are not necessarily related to real faith.
Real faith is found in our response to God’s presence in our lives (regardless of how that presence manifests itself). In the story of the Transfiguration, that response takes two forms. First, the disciples are told to listen to Jesus. In order to listen, one must pay attention. Things like prayer, meditation, the Bible, church, and the sacraments are all effective tools for helping us pay attention, but they are not the only tools God uses. What helps you pay attention to God in your life?
Second, Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and back into the real world, where a father waits with his sick child. It seems that Peter would rather stay on the mountaintop and build a monument, but Jesus is more interested in the work that needs to be done. In our community, there are scores of people who are homeless, hungry, and hurting. If we want our experiences on the mountaintop to mean anything, we must take them with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Any spirituality that doesn’t matter out on the street is a spirituality that doesn’t matter at all.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.” -Psalm 84:6-7