Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Transfiguration and Spiritual Experience

A Sermon Preached at St Matthew's Riverdale.  
Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21 Matt 17:1-9 
"…but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty."
          Despite widespread rationalism and skepticism, our culture has not been able to suppress the desire for experience of God.  From the "spiritual-but-not-religious" trends of Buddhism, shamanism, and neo-paganism on the one hand, to the world wide explosion of experiential forms of charismatic Christianity on the other,  people are no longer willing simply to have an intellectual belief in God, they want to experience him. 
          In many ways this is good news for traditional Christianity and in other ways it's not such good news.  It doesn't seem like good news when I consider one friend in particular who lost his faith after a prolonged search for an encounter with God.  Not that he never had his experience.  He did.  He began his journey as the student president of a evangelical Bible school.  I don't know what it was, but he incrementally began to negate bits and pieces of the Bible until he had stripped away all inherited forms of faith.  A few years down the road his insatiable drive to get behind and beyond all the forms of religion finally led him to an ashram in India where he spent an intensive week in meditation.  He described to me the experience of light that began to illuminate his body and all of the things around him, and which lasted for a few days.  He had finally found what he was looking for, he had finally had an experience of God that lifted him out of his troubles, gave him peace of mind, and that put an end to his search.  From that point on, he told me, he was satisfied.  He no longer needed religion, he could get on with his life, and dedicate his time to a busy career. 
          On the positive side, there is a desire amongst many Christians to reintegrate an experience of God with their traditional faith.  Sensing the smallness of what passes for Christianity these days, the artificial oppositions between, say, head and heart, new and old, contemplation and action, evangelism and social justice, repentance and joy, the spiritual and the institutional, Protestant and Catholic, and on and on, … these Christians refuse all simple reductions and search for something more holistic.  What, after all, do we mean when we use the word "catholic" in the creed?  Well, it literally means "according to the whole."  If we are sensitive to God's Spirit, we know that the truth about God must be more complex and rich than any one-sided reduction, it must bring harmony to all these apparent oppositions, it must incorporate the whole of our lives, the whole of our bodies, hearts, and minds.  It must encompass the largest quasars and the smallest quarks, the most mundane and the most transcendent details of our lives.  It must be capable of enchanting people of all times and places.  My own life is certainly not that comprehensive, but I long for something that is, for some One who can fit all the pieces of the world together.  And I hope that in experiencing Him, I can catch a glimpse of that comprehensive whole. 
          We know from our readings today that that kind of experience is indeed available.  Peter, James, and John are taken up the Mount of Transfiguration and given a glimpse, with the eyes of their hearts, of the divine nature of Christ himself.  The Eyewitnesses are clear that the light of Christ was no physical light.  This Light, said John, was the "light of men who shines in the darkness."  The "Light from Light" the Creed talks about.  That is, the Son of God who is the perfect radiance of the Father.  He is the Light of God.  So if his Light was not a physical light, it means that they saw with a different sort of eye, a new spiritual eye.  Not an eye, mind you, that they could simply open at will.  No, Christ had to give them new eyes.  No doubt he gave back to many blind people their physical eyesight, but now he gives to the disciples spiritual eyesight.  This spiritual sense they received when the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the cloud. 
          This is the same cloud that blocked the Israelites from view when they were being followed by the Egyptians in the wilderness, the same cloud that also shone as a pillar of fire to light the way as the Israelites were led through the desert, the same cloud that descended on Mt Sinai when Moses received the law, and that infused his face with light so that when he came down from Sinai it shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil.  Why did he cover his face with a veil?  So that the people wouldn't be "overcome by fear" like Jesus' disciples were.  Staring into the Light of God is like staring at the sun…it hurts the spiritual retinas.  And yet there comes a time when the protective veil needs to be lifted, a time when we are old enough to use SPF 15 rather than 60, a time when we can come out from under the umbrella and play on the beach.  Yes, there's a risk of sunburn.  But Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that when the veil is lifted, we will begin to reflect the Lord's glory and be "transfigured" into his likeness. 
          "Transfigured" is the word Paul uses.  We participate in all the events of Christ's life.  Just as the Son of God is born in time so, we are born again; as he is crucified for our sins, so we are crucified to our sins; as he is buried in the tomb, so we are buried in the waters of baptism; as he is raised to life, so will we on the last day; and as he ascended to the Father, so we will meet him in the clouds at his second coming.  These are all deep mystical truths, and yet sometimes it is overlooked that we too are being transfigured with Christ. 
          This is a well-worn theme in the Russian church.  One of their most popular saints, Seraphim of Sarov, is associated with transfiguration.  Born in the 18th century, Seraphim offered a prophetic witness to the church of his time, whose love for Christ had grown cold.  Known for his joyful demeanor--he fought hard against gloomy dejection--Seraphim lived in the woods, prayed ceaselessly, and recited the four Gospels daily.  One day robbers came upon his hermitage.  One bio says that "Although he was physically very strong and was holding an axe at the time, St. Seraphim did not resist them. In answer to their threats and their demands for money, he lay his axe down on the ground, crossed his arms on his chest and obediently gave himself up to them. They began to beat him on the head with the handle of his own axe" until he was unconscious, partially crippling his back. "When, after some time, the robbers were caught and brought to justice, the holy monk interceded on their behalf before the judge"[1], got them off the hook, and when they returned to make amends, he said he would make amends in their place by wearing a heavy iron cross on his hunched back for the rest of his life.  Thousands of people flocked to Seraphim's cell for spiritual guidance, and he had many disciples.  One of them, Motovilov, relates his conversation with Seraphim one snowy winter day while they were out in the forest:
"I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?"
Father Seraphim replied: "I have already told you … that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?"
"I want to understand it well," I said.
Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?"
I replied: "I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain."
Father Seraphim said: "Don't be alarmed…! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am."[2]
          Transfiguration, writes St Paul, is what the Holy Spirit is affecting beneath the veil of our flesh.  It's something we're not always fully aware of.  But according to St Seraphim, transfiguration is the result of acquiring the Holy Spirit.  How did he think this happened?  By reading Scripture for one thing: "The reading of the word of God" Seraphim said "should be performed in solitude, in order that the whole mind of the reader might be plunged into the truths of the Holy Scripture, and that from this he might receive warmth…"  It is no coincidence that after St Peter mentions his experience of the Transfiguration, he moves into a discussion of the character of Scripture: "For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."  Despite the apparent oppositions in the Bible--between Old and New Testament, God's judgment and mercy, his freedom and our freedom, pacifism and holy war, Paul and James--there is a Spirit of wholeness behind the veil that holds together the rich and complex body of truths within the Bible.  And by engaging the Bible over time the veil begins to lift, we start to see Light, and we ourselves slowly become light.  With the eyes that the Holy Spirit gives us we begin to catch a glimpse of the God who created this complex world, the God who expresses his infinite character through the rich and mysterious complexities in creation and in the Bible. 
          How else do we acquire the Holy Spirit?  Regular prayer.  "God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts." said Seraphim.  He continues, "Hence, if we feel in our hearts the cold which comes from the devil—for the devil is cold—let us call on the Lord. He will come to warm our hearts with perfect love, not only for Him but also for our neighbor, and the cold of him who hates the good will flee before the heat of His countenance."  We ought to always be calling upon Jesus to warm our hearts and give us love for him and for our neighbor, even for the most difficult neighbor.  And that is why God has called us into a church, since it's in the context of a fellowship of people who you wouldn't normally hang out with that you are trained in patience and love.  So, if you want to experience God, pray regularly and often, both alone and in church. 

          A warning, however: it is tempting to value the experience of God over God himself.  It is easy to use God for entertainment instead of loving him for who he is.  Is God like a friend that you only see at parties, or is he one you love to be around all the time just because?  This is why even if you have your heart strangely warmed by God, Christian spiritual writers recommend that we don't hold on to the feeling, whether physical or emotional, but move on.  Jesus is a moving target. We have to follow him where he goes.  If he has given you an experience of himself in the past, move on and continue to look for him now. 

          Also, if you value the experience of God more than God himself, then you will be open to doubts.  If you value the feeling you get from God, or the effects that come from an experience of God, if you start focusing on all of the good things that come out of such an experience, like your good deeds, or your spiritual insight, or the length of your prayers, or how many tears you cried, or the miracles that have happened to you, watch out!  Do you think you can hold on to God simply by analyzing to bits one of your experiences?  Or prove to yourself that God must still be with you based on how many good things he inspired you to do?  The more you look to yourself, the more you're going to find reason to doubt.  For one thing, the Holy Spirit works invisibly and we can't always see how he is really transfiguring us deep down.  For another thing, we all continue to sin, which seems to negate the fact that the Holy Spirit is at work at all.  Finally, there are any number of rational reasons to doubt that God has been at work--other explanations.  For example, it is very easy to find arguments against, say, the transfiguration of Seraphim.  But we aren't meant to put our faith him and his experience, nor are we meant to put our faith in ourselves, in our experiences, or in our own goodness.  The lives of the saints, the evidence of God in our own life, none of these things "prove" anything, but they should nonetheless cause us to want more of God.  If we could be altogether satisfied with God by just hearing about someone else's experience, or by thinking about our own past experience, then that wouldn't be God.  God is infinite, and we can always get more!  We should always want more!  So, just because you haven't got all of God yet, this should not cause you to doubt that he is available at all. Look away from yourself and strive to acquire more and more of the Holy Spirit every day.  

          I still remember sitting at that coffee shop when my friend told me about his spiritual experience, and how it had allowed him to walk away from the Church and move on with his life.  I could sympathize with his past desire to have a real mystical experience of God, and I did know that such experiences continue to be available to the average Christian.  So I brought up St Paul who humbly talked about his vision of God in the third person:
 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows--was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12). 
And yet for Paul this mystical experience was inseparable from weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties on behalf of those he served.  "For when I am weak, then I am strong" he says.  The same was true for Seraphim also because it was true for Christ who joined the opposites of strength and weakness together in his own life.  Immediately after he came down the Mount of Transfiguration, he headed to Jerusalem to be crucified.  The last thing I told my friend was that these experiences were indeed available to Christians, but that like Paul I would consider it a loss if my experience of God was reduced to just one of transcendent glory without the weakness that results from carrying the cross.  For on the Cross is where the opposites of strength and weakness are joined, divinity and humanity, and it is from the Cross that the brightest light streams.  May we all come to reflect that Light in our own weakness.  God, give us the eyes to see. Amen. 




[1] http://orthodoxwiki.org/Seraphim_of_Sarov
[2] http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

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