One of my former pastors liked to say, “Religion is what happens in the wake of God.” Religion is what happens in the wake of God. God is the boat and religion is what happens after the boat passes through. God is the spiritual experience and religion is the structures that we put around that experience. We have meaningful experience and then we create rituals and language and rules and symbols to try to help us have that same experience again. We know that something real happened and it was good and so we keep trying to re-create it by doing what we were doing when the good God experience happened. And so try to say the same things and do the same things and make rules about what we can and can’t do and who can and can’t do those things. The boat came through and we’re bobbing in the waves. Religion is what happens in the wake of God.
Humans do this all the time in all kinds of ways. You listen to the same music you listened to 20 years ago because you’d love to feel young again. You make the same food on Christmas to encourage that Christmas-y feeling. Last fall on our anniversary Sam and I went to the same restaurant we went to on our first date. Good things happen to us and we try to recreate them by doing what we were doing when it happened before.
This is an important reflection for us today, as we celebrate the Transfiguration, because we are about to begin our observance of the holy season of Lent. And Lent is full of opportunities to engage with religious rituals and symbols and language. Like all structures, religious structure can be stifling or it can be empowering, depending on how you choose to approach it.
Our story for this morning is a significant moment from the life of Jesus that is told almost exactly the same way in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, although it doesn’t show up in John. And although we like to chunk the stories up so we can reflect on little pieces of them on Sunday mornings, this morning’s story of the Transfiguration is part of a larger section of the Jesus story, which will make more sense in its context. So let me tell you a little of what happens. In all three gospels the order is exactly the same.
First, Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is. And in a moment of unusual inspiration, Simon says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” This is the first time any of the disciples understands this so clearly. Jesus responds to this by renaming Simon as Peter, which means “Rock” and saying that the Church (capital-C) will be built on Peter the Rock.
Listen to what happens next. Let’s read a little from Matthew chapter 16, starting in verse 21. From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their life?”
So always in this order we have the stories of Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus’ affirmation of Peter’s role as foundation of the Church, Jesus’ explanation that he is going to suffer and die, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s rebuke, and Jesus’ assertion that followers of Jesus must say no to themselves and yes to taking up the cross to actually follow Jesus. Always in that order.
And then immediately, the story of the Transfiguration. Let’s pick back up in Matthew chapter 17 verse 1.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
The reason we needed to talk about what happened before the story of the Transfiguration is because mountaintop experiences are necessary but not sufficient. In our life of faith, mountaintop experiences are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Mountaintop experiences are necessary but not sufficient. When I tried to prepare to just preach that story, I honestly wasn’t coming up with much to say. Something great happened! Yay! And Peter immediately wants to set up some structures to commemorate it and maybe make it happen again. Religion is what happens in the wake of God.
But friends, mountaintop experiences are not the full story. They are real and they are necessary, but they are not all there is to our faith. I’m sure many of you have heard about the revival that is happening at Asbury University in Kentucky. Those kind of transcendent experiences are good. At some point we all need some kind of experience of the reality of God’s love that comes from outside ourselves, an experience we didn’t manufacture, and one we can’t control. The question is what happens next. Our experience of God is always a beginning but never an end. I urge you to be very careful of any religious system that emphasizes mountaintop experiences over everything else, or that tries to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong if you’re not on the mountaintop. That may be some kind of religious something. But it is not Christianity. The Christian life and Christian experience is not about jumping from one mountaintop to the next.
Last week I read an amazing description of what sometimes passes for Christianity in our culture. It is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I’ll put it up on the screen because I know it’s a mouthful. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the belief that there is a God who is not particularly involved in people’s lives (that’s the deism part), except to solve problems. The goal of life is contentment and feeling good about yourself (that’s the therapeutic part). Good people go to heaven when they die (that’s the moralistic part). Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: the belief that there is a God who is not particularly involved in people’s lives, except to solve problems. The goal of life is contentment and feeling good about yourself. Good people go to heaven when they die.
My dear ones, that not Christianity. But when I hear people talk about what they believe, that is often what I hear — or something really close to that, but maybe with the word Jesus in there somewhere. But that is not Christianity. That is some sick combo of the white privilege American dream plus positive psychology plus pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideology with a little tiny bit of belief in the existence of one God thrown in for good measure. But it is not a Jesus-following life of trust. The greatest temptation, as we heard when Peter rebuked Jesus, is the temptation to accomplish God’s plan for the world without any cost to ourselves. It’s the same as when Satan, the Tempter, tempted Jesus in the desert. The greatest temptation is the temptation to avoid suffering. To use our own power to protect our own comfort and safety. Now I’m not advocating suffering for its own sake, we aren’t masochists, but I am saying that sometimes the way of transformation goes through hardship. Our willingness to give something up creates room for something new to take its place.
As we approach Lent, we need to remember that Jesus was really clear that those who grasp at their own vitality and sense of self-importance will lose it. And those who are willing to give up their own comfort and safety and power for the sake of the gospel will find more fulfillment than they could have ever created for themselves.
Lent is a season of self-denial. Not because you are awful but because you’re a work in progress. As am I. As are we all. Lent is designed to help us renew our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves, through the spiritual practices of prayer, charity, and fasting. I encourage you to join us on Wednesday for our Ash Wednesday soup supper and worship service downstairs at 7 pm as we consider what kind of renewal we need in this season and what kind of structures we could put in place to empower that renewal.
Lent provides us with the religious structures that we need to help us prepare to meet Jesus not only on the mountaintop but also in the suffering. The mountaintop is good and beautiful. We all have mountaintop experiences. Be open to moments of transcendence. They aren’t just for Pentecostals. God will sometimes meet us in profound ways. After the experience is over, don’t second-guess it and question it and over-analyze it. Cling to it, trust, it and believe that it was real. But don’t try to camp out there. Don’t spend time trying to recreate it because, God is already on to the next thing. Do what this story says: After you have heard the voice of God, then get up, don’t be afraid, and follow Jesus to places where you will be called to give up your own comfort, safety, and power. We can’t stay on the mountaintop. Lent is coming. Let us make ourselves ready for renewal. Amen.