In the desert, you feed us, By the well, you bless us.
At your table we are renewed
Transfiguration is one of those church occasions in which we need to reflect on ourselves, rather than engage in factual inquisitions. I love the story of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus has whatever experience he has and the apostles interpret it in the light of their own experience and belief system. They are able to tell us nothing about Jesus, but everything about what happens when we are surprised by the holy.
The apostles see their historic heroes, Moses and Elijah, the leader and the prophet respectively, in Jesus. This moves them to want to honour the sacred space with a monument to mark the occasion. Moses had been commissioned by a sacred fire in the wilderness; Elijah received the divine in a whirlwind. Both were people who spoke directly to God, through natural phenomena, in the memory of Israel. It is not surprising that, as the apostles came to see Jesus in a new way, they would relate him to Moses and Elijah. In Jesus, they had found a leader and a teacher, a person close to the divine, a prophet, and maybe even the promised messiah.
If we choose to think about Jesus as the living word of God, then we remember that the Word is the same in every era; it is we who change. You will notice this as you return to places you experienced as a child and how different they seem now. The people to whom we are the closest may seem to change too. The parent, once so omniscient, becomes fallible; the strong partner experiences loss and fear. The baby we held goes off on new and sometimes terrifying adventures, from a parents’ perspective.
The relevance of this story of the transfiguration is not who Jesus is or was to those disciples, but who he is for us now. The truth that was in him remains the same, but we approach it from a different perspective. We, as the church, proclaim the hope that we find in the life and person of Jesus, but that is not monochrome; rather it is a tapestry of colour and varying weave; unfolding and incomplete. Even when we return to other points on the map of creativity, we see them differently. We read meaning and significance into the present and in the imagination and scholarship of the past.
May the light of the Holy One shine through us now, revealing the glimpse of infinite beauty revealed in and to Jesus. May we see in each other the possibility of the divine presence calling us in joy and peace. May we allow ourselves to be delighted and surprised by the unending variety of the expressions of God.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of humanity. Being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Again, in Hebrews 2, we hear an echo of this idea of Jesus as a divine being, who becomes a creature like other humans are creatures.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things. . . .
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.
My problem with kenosis as we have traditionally thought of it, is that separates the spiritual and the material, as if the divine were present only in the one. In 21st century consciousness, we have become aware of the problem of dualisms, up/down, over/under. We are aware that we share the DNA of a planet, not just a species. We know that the earth under our feet is a living organism, populated by untold numbers of other organisms from the microscopic to the gigantic. The so-called butterfly effect is simply a matter of obvious reality now.
I wonder how Jesus could possibly divest himself of the divine without simply disappearing. With many others, I experience the divine not only as an external presence, but also as the that which rushes between the atoms in the life of everything and can be seen in both the grandeur and simplicity of all that is. For our minds now, the question of the dual nature of Christ has ceased to have resonance or it is a matter of intellectual indifference. So what do we do with the idea of kenosis now?
In the temptation story, we read about Jesus divesting himself of human ambition, political power, even the authority of status. In the story of his baptism, he bows to the teaching of another. From the women whom encounters, his theology and his mission shifts. Jesus empties himself of the barriers that stand between people in relationship. For Jesus, this is also true of the Holy One. Jesus walks with confidence in the presence of his God. He seems to be free from the ordinary anxiety of being right, or judged, or needy of affirmation. With other people, Jesus is similarly free to associate, to speak, to interact, without the usual nervous hesitation most of us share.
Jesus divests himself of the bruised ego, allowing himself to be open to each experience as if it were new. Because he seems to be very little concerned about himself in these encounters. He sees others clearly, booth in our grace and in our hypocrisy.
Jesus offers us a picture of how that freedom might look. True freedom is neither harsh, nor judgemental, neither grasping, nor self concerned. Not many of us, even with a lot of spiritual direction and/or therapy will find ourselves as whole as Jesus. In our communities, however, we can begin to start thinking in wholistic terms. Instead of acting out of self interest, we can divest ourselves of institutional anxieties and ask instead what we are doing for the vulnerable, for the needy, the hungry, the refugees, and so on. We can begin to think about the earth as the first garden and choose the task of restoration. We can turn from the lure of power and privilege and adopt the kenotic quality of Jesus who counted nothing for himself and everything for the task of healing, of justice, of protection.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote about how it feels to live in the light of Christ.
The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love. (Glimpses of Grace)
Let’s think about religion and spirituality. I know what religion is. My favourite definition comes from dictinary.com:
“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
Spirituality, by contrast is not concerned with externally created observances. it tends to be more individualistic and idiosyncratic. It may have a moral component, but not necessarily.
So what is Christianity? I think Jesus had no interest in creating another set of ritual practices or a theology or even a morality. I think he said that we already had all those tings that we could apply to our lives whenever we chose. What Jesus offered was the idea of deep, intentional relationship that had nothing to do with moral behaviour or belief. It remained endlessly perplexing for his followers, and continues to be so right until now.
For Christians of our era, this is a time of repentance, and by that I mean turning to a different insight. As a lifelong Anglican, I love our rituals and the possibility of the mystical wonder of life that interrupts the mundane. I just don’t think that has much to do with the particular faith that is Christ-centred.
The faith that is Christ-centred has I now think, a sense of holinesss, whole-in-us, in-relationship. That relationship usually begins with other humans. As children, we learn to trust or fear life through those early experiences. No matter how wonderful our families, however, we all enter adulthood with scars and self doubt and caution about others. Jesus teaches us to begin by letting it all go, or finding the way to let our fears about ourselves go. It begins with believing that the Spirit of the Divine, of Holiness that was present at the beginning of creation, resides still within the creation. Within us, despite our fears. Jesus has very little interest in people’s worthiness, but a lot of interest in their yearning to be whole, in their willingness to reach out, and to trust in the power of relationship to change them. The stories are there for the reading and the consideration.
About Jesus, the elders remark, “Is this a new teaching?” Well, yes and no. In the Genesis story, we read about God in relationship with the creation. In the stories of the prophets, God speaks in relationship. The stories about Jesus, speak of voices and a blessing that calls Jesus beloved. Over time, however, the Divine became entombed in codes and rituals, remembered history, a set of mutual expectations resembling that of human contracts. Quid pro quo. So the teaching of humanity in relationship with the Divine and with each other is ancient, but it is a radical teaching by the time of Jesus.
Jesus, however, simply does not deal with any of that institutional or moralistic piety. He says to get on with whatever you believe to be good and right, but in the meantime, look closely at the life that is before you and let it dominate your vision and your thoughts and then you will know how to act, how to feel. What you believe is secondary to the web of relationship into which you weave yourself.
Jesus could be quite intimidating in his refusal to debate, in his insistence that people deal with his person, not the rumours about him. How would it look for us to insist that relationship is the highest calling, that being in concert as friends is the defining characteristic of the faithful life?
It would mean we would have to discover each other, not as cardboard figures of our own creation, but with humility and a willingness to put our assumptions aside. In terms of the natural order, we would have to cease seeing the reaction as a commodity but as life with its own integrity and processes. Even in terms of the other creatures, we would have to allow that they have their own thoughts, their own constructions of reality. We do not even know how alien they are from ours, because we have always used them for our own needs.
Christian faith, not a morality, not a doctrine, not a prescribed set of rituals, but people in community doing what we need to do to realize the holiness in each other and in our world, and the Spirit of God leaping up in our hearts and the blessing of Jesus who draws us to each other and to his resurrected life.
The best description of the irresistible call of Jesus is perhaps best characterized by Dorothee Söelle who wrote the following poem, “not without you.”
he needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
What made Simon and Andrew, James and John follow him, leaving behind work and family for a relatively unknown, itinerant preacher? We will never know except to ask ourselves why we are here today. What yearning in our souls draws us from our warm covers, from our book, our coffee, our devices? What is here that calls us from our comfort?
And to what call does Jesus respond? I think it is the call from a people who are alienated, disconnected; a people who are suffering and have lost hope for a better future. Jesus shapes his call as he walks the roads of Palestine, healing and challenging, teaching and practising compassion. He himself learns as he goes and sees that this road that he has chosen will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the powers in charge of the people for whom he cares.
I am not sure that there is anything such thing as an exterior call, that the Holy One singles anyone out for a special purpose. I think it is the incarnation, the abiding spirit of God that calls through our humanity, through our psychology, through our experience, even through our relationships. For Christians, that gets shaped in following the Way of Christ, and indeed, in his personal charisma that has stood the test of millennia now. In our heart, there is an unfulfilled longing that sends tendrils out into the world and for those of us here, those tendrils connect with Jesus. But that is just the beginning. Like Jesus, we are presented with choices at every branch in the road, The choices invite us to choose compassion or hate, indifference or connection, commitment or apathy. We are free agents, able to ignore the pulling of our hearts, the deep questions of our minds, the teaching in our relationships.
The touchstone for us around our choices is of course our baptismal covenant, which for many of us must be re-thought and re-chosen from time to time. It is the map that tells us how close we are to Gethsemane, how near the cross, how willing we are not only to love Jesus, but to make his choices.
The call that Christians hear begins within our hearts, but to be fully realized, we must hear also the cry of the poor, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, move from judgement to compassion.
Here is what Marcus Borg says: We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, pre occupations – to minds and hearts centred in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism – to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, minds alive to God’s passion for justice. (Days of Awe and Wonder)