Peter Schellhase

Sermon for August 6, 2017: The Feast of the Transfiguration

It was the 1960s. Society was falling apart. A generation of teenagers were being destroyed by sex, drugs, and rock ’n‘ roll. Children were disrespecting their parents. Gangs roamed the city streets. Churches were out of touch.

In those turbulent days, one man, armed only with an overhead projector, set out to give the world a new approach to life and turn young people’s lives around with a system of seven “basic life principles” drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. His week-long seminar became an unexpected hit, attracting audiences as large as tens of thousands of people.

Over the next 50 years, this man continually expanded on his system for spiritual success, collecting ideas from a wide range of sources—sociology, alternative medicine, outlandish theories—tying them all together with the unique insights that he believed were personally revealed to him by the Holy Spirit as he meditated on Scripture.

I attended some of those seminars myself and tried to apply this man’s principles for living. For a while, my family even participated in a homeschooling program related to his ministry.

But today, if you Google Bill Gothard, you will encounter testimonials from generations of people whose lives and souls have been damaged through his teachings. His “basic life principles” did not deliver on their promises. The many rules this man cooked up for his followers had little to do with the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of the apostle Peter, Bill Gothard’s teachings were a series of “cleverly constructed myths.” They promised revolutionary insight, but produced spiritual bondage.

The modern world is full of “cleverly constructed myths” that appeal to the needs that people feel—for power, stability, deliverance. Some of the more bizarre ones we call cults.

In the 1950s, L Ron Hubbard started a church based around Dianetics, a pseudotherapeutic technique he had developed. Today, Scientology is well known as an abusive and controlling cult. But people join because they are promised a way to resolve their deep-seated internal conflicts and anxiety.

People think this is an age of religious skepticism, but cults form all the time. They appeal to the needs that people feel. We are all susceptible, on some level, to the enticement of secret knowledge—the promise that there is a key to gain power over the world and over ourselves. Cults promise a hidden wisdom that—supposedly—can help us get beyond the chaos and suffering we experience in the world.

Most of us don’t find the idea of joining a cult appealing. We are pretty content with our lives as they are, or at least, we’re not unhappy enough to abandon our families and friends, sell everything and let a guru control every aspect of our lives.

But our age has other “cleverly constructed myths” that we may find much more appealing and plausible.

Researcher Christian Smith surveyed American teenagers and found that most of them held to a set of core beliefs. See if they resonate with you.

  1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
  2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
  3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
  4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
  5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Christian Smith calls this set of beliefs “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It is the default implicit religious creed of our culture. It sounds so nice. That’s what it is—a religion of nice. Its goal for daily life is to have a peaceful, easy feeling about God, other people, and yourself. It leaves well enough alone. If I’m honest, this is what I want a lot of the time.

But this religion of nice has a problem. It’s fake news. It’s no more real than L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. It’s just another story we tell ourselves to feel like we are in control.

The apostle Peter is not interested in facing martyrdom because of a “cleverly constructed myth” about universal brotherhood, or seven basic principles, or personal enlightenment.

Peter’s message isn’t a fable about lost tribes or dead space aliens. It’s not a new approach to ethical living, or even a 12-step program to overcome bad habits. Here’s what he says. I’m slightly paraphrasing the Scripture:

“We were with Jesus Christ on the holy mountain, when he was glorified by the Father, who said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’ The revelation of Jesus Christ has confirmed and fully revealed everything that Moses and the prophets wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. If you want to keep a firm grasp on this reality, pay attention to the Scriptures until Jesus comes again in power and glory.”

Peter’s message is about Jesus. It’s about who Jesus really is, the Son of God, and about what that means for us.

Why do you suppose Peter focused on Jesus’s transfiguration in this passage, and not, say, the Resurrection, when the Father vindicated his Son once and for all by raising him from the dead? Or why not Jesus’s ascension into heaven? The Transfiguration didn’t even make it into our Creed, so why is it central to Peter’s argument?

It’s easy to give short attention to this episode in the life of Christ. We can have a sort of stained-glass image of the Transfiguration story in our mind’s eye, a nice adornment to our religion along with many other beautiful stories. We acknowledge that it happened, but we don’t really see how it connects to our reality.

The truth is, our grasp of reality falls far short. The Transfiguration is a window into what is really real. Here is Jesus, in the middle of his earthly ministry, with an ordinary human body, suddenly revealed in his true glory as God’s beloved son.

When we fail to see Jesus for who he really is, we substitute myths instead.

Maybe the myths people chase after are attempts to discover the truth about things, the reality underneath everything. To get in touch with some deeper, bigger truth about the world.

Or maybe, we prefer myths in an attempt to shield ourselves from the reality of who Jesus is. God’s immediate, personal presence can be intimidating. Look at the examples in our lessons this morning. When Moses came down from the mountain, the Israelites fled in fear because his face shone with the reflected glory of God. When Jesus appeared transfigured on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, Peter was reduced to inane babble. And when the cloud of God’s presence overshadowed the mountain—just as it did on Mount Sinai—he and the other two disciples fell on their faces terrified.

No wonder we too often choose the benevolent but distant god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Like Peter, we have very little to say for ourselves in front of this Person who envelops all being, compared with whom we are inconsequential, wavering, transient.

But just like Peter, we desperately need this encounter with the truth about Jesus, the Son of God. That’s why the church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th every year. We need the reminder.

For Peter, Jesus’s transfiguration and the voice from heaven served to confirm and illuminate everything that the Scriptures talked about. You can think of Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop as representing the witness of the Law and the Prophets. Peter says, “now the prophetic message has been more fully confirmed—now that we have seen with our eyes what Moses and the prophets were talking about—we have absolute confidence that the message we brought you about Jesus Christ is not just one religious belief among many, or one debatable interpretation of the scriptures, but the complete and absolute truth.

Thomas Aquinas points out that in the Transfiguration, all three persons of the holy Trinity are manifested. First, the Son allows the glory of his divine nature to become visible to his disciples. Next, the Holy Spirit descends in a glorious cloud, and finally the Father’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Wow, haven’t we heard that before somewhere? Of course, it is the same voice, the same words that are spoken at Jesus’s baptism. There too, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present—the Son coming up from the water, the Spirit descending as a dove, the Father’s voice speaking from heaven. Aquinas writes:

“Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Son Incarnate was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove, and the Father made Himself known in the voice; so also in the transfiguration, which is the mystery of the second regeneration, the whole Trinity appears—the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud; for just as in baptism He confers innocence, signified by the simplicity of the dove, so in the resurrection will He give His elect the clarity of glory and refreshment from all sorts of evil, which are signified by the bright cloud.” (ST III.45.4)

Aquinas is connecting the dots between the way that God revealed and glorified Jesus as His Son, and the ways that we too, through Christ, are revealed to be sons and daughters of God.

In baptism, we follow Jesus into the water. The Holy Trinity meets us there, as the words of baptism indicate. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

But then after baptism, what has changed? The person appears the same; he or she has the same personality, interests, strengths and weaknesses, personal background and so on.

Still, baptism is a promise that something is in fact not the same. The “regeneration” or “new birth” has taken place. A person who was once slave to sin is now set free by grace. Before, they were heir to Adam’s corruption. Now, God says, “this is my beloved child.” And we look forward to what Aquinas calls a “second regeneration”—the glorious resurrection of the righteous to eternal life.

Today my daughter Greta will be baptized. She is/will be wearing a lovely white dress her aunt made for her. I am reminded of Christ on the mountaintop: “his clothes became dazzling white.” In baptism, we see a glimpse of our future.

We look ahead, not simply to the child’s new identity as a Christian in this life, but to her eternal destiny in a world reborn.

In baptism, the reality of the Transfiguration becomes our reality too. The glory of Christ on the mountain is what we look forward to: the glory of humanity transfigured through union with God.

When we recognize the reality that God gives us through Jesus Christ, we don’t need seven basic life principles or therapeutic techniques. We don’t need a fake religion of superficial niceness and decency. No cleverly-constructed myths will do.

We need Jesus.

We need Jesus, foretold by the scriptures, revealed in glory on the mountain.

Peter urges his audience—and us—to hold fast to this reality. “You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Glory be to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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