The Path of Transfiguration
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, Sunday, August 6, 2023
In my reading this week I came across a wonderful quote perfect for a sermon today on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. It is by Marcus Borg a Protestant biblical scholar with an academic perspective most Orthodox would avoid. No, I do not agree with everything he says, but in his teaching lie hidden treasures. It is possible to completely love people with whom you completely (or partially) disagree. If you actually believe that the Holy Spirit is everywhere, filling everything, truth reveals itself wherever you look.
Here is the quote. It is a bit lengthy and worth a good listen.
"Jesus uses...invitational and provocative forms of speech - aphorisms and parables - to subvert conventional ways of seeing and living, and to invite his hearers to an alternative way of life."
Let's stop for a moment. "An alternative way of life" is not the way we are living. It is something quite different. But what then?
I think a major problem with American Christianity is that we tend to believe that Jesus confirms our particular way of thinking. He does not. Our familiarity with scripture has desensitized us to the very radical Gospel he preached. In this way we excuse our very unchristian lives turning the Faith into a consumer religion catering to our largely unexamined religious and political opinions and immature beliefs. The Lord explicitly rebukes this perspective saying, "My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts." That goes for everyone I think.
"Jesus was not primarily a teacher of information (what to believe) or morals (how to behave), which is what Christianity has often been reduced to, "but a teacher of a way or path of transformation."
Now Borg begins to spell out what he means.
"A way of transformation from what to what?" he asks. "From a life in the world of conventional wisdom to a life centered in God." Then Borg continues into provocative territory (which you know that I love). "He (Jesus) directly attacked the central values of his social world's conventional wisdom: family, wealth, honor, purity, and religiosity. All were sanctified by tradition, and their importance was part of the taken-for-granted world..." (sound familiar?)
Here is the bottom line for Borg. It is a transformation from what he calls "secondhand religion" to "firsthand religion". From what we have heard or been conditioned to believe to what we experience as we embark upon a Spirit-directed life. From a religion of the mind to a faith rooted in the Spirit. From knowledge to wisdom. From myself, my ego, my desires to a life free from all those constraints, that is to a way of life lived entirely for others.
Another cogent quote came to me from another source, "It is possible to be completely immersed in tradition and be far from God." I have seen that and it is very unpleasant. For some the Gospel is read as a license to hate and for others it is an invitation to love. Same book, completely different message. Perspective matters. Which path is the right one? I vote for the latter. The question for us is which path shall we choose?
I agree with Borg that the Gospel reveals the path of transformation. The path of transfiguration revealed by Christ, lived by Christ, transmitted to us by Christ. We cannot experience transfiguration without repenting of the sinful and selfish conventional beliefs and opinions to which we stubbornly cling and adopting the way of life Jesus shows us, letting go rather than holding on to conventional ways of thinking. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he must sell everything and give to the poor, he did not merely mean his possessions, but also his most cherished thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. In other words, everything.
We must be willing to enter a new way of life, leaving behind everything that binds us to this fallen world. When we do, we will find ourselves turned upside down and inside out, walking where we have never been before. I often say to people that if we do not recognize where we are, it is quite possible that God is leading us somewhere we have never been. St. Gregory of Nyssa calls it "the divine darkness". We will awaken into the mystery of heaven here and now as we become more and more fully alive in Christ.
We will know we are there when our hearts are both filled with inexplicable joy and with sorrow at the suffering all around us. When we come to the place where we, as Simone Weil says so beautifully, are willing to give our lives not only for those we love, but for the most despised among us, we will have finally begun to understand what Jesus was getting at from the very beginning.