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Realize Christ

Sermon – 2/06/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

The lectionary text for this last Sunday before the season of Lent, which begins next Sunday, is related to the story that Michael Kennedy read to us from the gospel of Matthew -- the transfiguration.  It is found in the second letter of Peter, at the end of the first chapter, verses 16 through 21: 

2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. 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. 20First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.


I want to share a second text with you this morning, this comes from the Reverend Dr. Friedrich Doyle Kirshner, little known Disciples scholar from earlier in the 20th century, who became president of Christian Theological Seminary.  It just so happened that earlier this week Dick Busic and I and Dennis Lindsey were at a conference -- the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion (which sounds a lot more high-falutin' than it is!) -- it's just a fancy name for a bunch of ministers that get together once a year to discuss theology!  We take turns presenting papers and Doug Hornecker from Washington presented a paper on Dr. Kirshner, and I was particularly struck in that paper by this quote from his book in 1912 entitled Christian Baptism:

"To be a Christian, therefore, is fundamentally to realize Christ.  It is to fashion out of the stubborn and rebellious elements in our natural endowment the pure and spotless features of the divine life"

I'm going to bring these two together but first I want to begin with a paradox.  And the paradox is this:  this letter from 2 Peter claims to have been written by Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus, former fisherman from Galilee.  But a majority of New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in the conclusion that the letter was not written by Simon Peter, an analysis that I agree with 100% and yet also I affirm the fundamental truth of this letter as part of the gospel.

Now, if you understand that paradox of how truth can be something quite different and much greater than 'fact', then you'll understand the essence of all scripture and the power of the holy spirit to transform lives.  So let me explain.

Why do scholars think that this was written by someone other than Simon Peter?  Well, first of all, the language is that of a highly educated Greek, not a Hebrew fisherman from Galilee.  Very poetic in its style, as we see in this passage.  The form is that of a farewell address, a speech someone gives at the end of their life, and we know from other ancient texts from this period that this was a very common practice, a way of speaking in the name of someone after they were dead, as a way of saying 'this is what I think' someone would have said had they had the chance.  Third, it refers to to the letters of Paul towards the end of the letter as if Paul were already being read as scripture in the church -- something that would not have happened until several decades after Paul's life.  Fourth, the issues addressed in this letter were the concerns of the church of the late first century and early second.  And lastly, it refers in chapter 3 to the death of "our ancestors", meaning the first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus and were with him.  

Now for these and other reasons then, the scholars conclude that it was not written by Simon Peter the fisherman but rather most likely comes from someone in the community once headed by Peter, who knew Peter, or the memory of that crusty old fisherman from Galilee was still very much alive, and hence who could write in his name.

Now that does not mean that this letter is simply a collection of his teachings remembered by this community and now recorded.  We could only wish that we had such a wonderful gift.  Rather, to read such a text as this is to hear the voice of the second or perhaps third generation after Jesus relayed to us as their witness of how they experienced the risen Christ as the revelation of God.  And that is precisely what gives this text so much power.  So just hold on to that notion because I'm going to come back to it a little later.

I want to say something more about the problem to which the letter is addressed.  We read in the very next verse, the beginning of chapter 2, that 'false prophets also arose among the people just as there will be false teachers among you'.  Evidently these so called "false teachers" referred to the teaching of this author and presumably other leaders of the church as 'cleverly devised myths' as we read in verse 16.  

Now think with me for a moment about the myths of the Roman and Greek culture.  We learned some of those as children, stories about Zeus or Apollos or Hermes, Mars, and the like.  And then compare those stories to some of the claims of Christianity -- of the virgin birth, of the many miracles, resurrection from the dead, the promise of a second coming.  And you can see how it would be easy for one to say the story about Jesus is just like the story about Zeus or Apollos or any of the other Gods of our culture.

When I was in Turkey a year and a half ago, we went to the temple of Augustus in Ankara on our very first day, our very first stop.  And Dominic Crossan said to us 'If you are going to talk about the religion of the Romans and the Greeks as myth, then you must talk about the religion of Christianity as myth.  If you're going to talk about the religion of Christianity as a faith, as a theology, then you must talk about the religion of the Romans and the Greeks as a faith and a theology'.  He didn't care which terms you used as long as you used the same terms.  Because the moment you refer to our tradition as a faith, as a theology, but their tradition as myth and story, it's a way of saying that their tradition is not really important, that you can't take that seriously.  

The point is that in Paul's time those stories were taken very seriously.  Those myths that we learn as being somehow not true were considered as being the fundamental truth about the reality of the world in which they lived.  And you have to understand that if you're going to understand the context in which Paul traveled and spoke and wrote.

Therefore the charge against this author and other leaders of the church who this author is defending is not that they made all of this up -- the story about Jesus.  But rather that the story about Jesus was no different than those other stories, those other myths of other Gods.  So why limit oneself to simply one revelation of God through Jesus?  Why even limit oneself to one God, when there's so many from which one can choose?

To put it into terms that I so often hear at the Interfaith services here on the 11th of every month -- "all faiths are the same, we're simply going on different paths up the same mountain".  And I do not believe that.  Never have.  And still don't, after three and a half years of experiencing those worship services.  It's not that we are journeying up the same mountain.  There are significant differences in our faiths.  Our faith is not the same as that of Judaism, our closest relative.  Certainly is not the same as that of polytheistic religions like Hinduism.  It may be that we are all climbing up a mountain together, but I do not experience it as the same mountain.  You see the difference.  That is not why I support the Interfaith services.  But instead it's precisely because of those significant differences and understanding and learning to appreciate those differences I think this endeavor is important.

When we make that analogy that we're all climbing up the same mountain I think what it says is that it doesn't matter what you believe.  I don't believe that.  It makes great difference what you believe.  And that's not to say one tradition is better or worse than the other, but what we believe does matter in very real and concrete ways.  Now if you want to know more about that, it just so happens I also wrote a paper at that theological conference this week on the theology of interfaith worship, and we'll have copies of that available in the office fairly soon.

In the context, then, of the late first century (and you have to keep in mind, the author of 2 Peter is not writing to us in our context) writing to that context in the late first or early second century, when the church is still in that process of defining itself and sharpening its message of the one God revealed through Jesus Christ, in contrast not to the Jewish faith but in contrast to the other traditions, of the other myths of Roman and Greek mythology.  The author of 2 Peter backs up his claim to the truth not by appealing so much to the Gospels or Paul or any human authority, but interestingly enough by recalling this story of the transfiguration.  And remember that story -- Jesus takes Peter and James and John up with him on the mountain to pray, where he is transfigured and becomes dazzling white and there appears with him Moses and Elijah.  And Peter wants to build the three booths to memorialize the occasion.  And then they hear that voice coming out of the clouds and they cower in fear.  

In my early days of preaching I subscribed to a number of journals and publications on the art of preaching, tips on texts and so forth.  I was new -- I didn't know what I was doing, so I read all that I could.  I've long since given up on all of that and only have one subscription left and I hardly ever look at it anymore, so this is all my own stuff, don't blame anyone else J.  But I remember reading this one particular journal on this particular passage, or on the Matthew story of the transfiguration, and it had some helpful tips on how to help people to experience the reality of the story.  And this is what it said:  "first, rent a dry-ice fog machine".  The kind you get at discos.  "Secondly, secure three slide projectors and three pictures -- one of Jesus, one of Moses, and one of Elijah".  Of course, we would all recognize them, right?  And then "Third, put up a large sheet on the stage" (because a screen wouldn't be big enough) -- you get where this is going.  And then "Fourth, recruit a lay leader -- someone with a deep booming voice".  And then it said "as you begin to tell the story of the transfiguration, turn on the slide projectors and turn on the fog machine in sufficient time that the fog thickens behind the communion table" (must have been a Disciple church), "then the voice of the lay reader booms out of the cloud saying 'This is my beloved son'. . . " -- I don't know why it always has to be a low male voice, but of course it does, you know, just like God J.  And then finally it says "Turn off the fog machine", this we are told is "very important".  You don't want to leave your parishioners in the fog after all, because they may be in fog enough with your preaching J.

Now would I ever stoop to such theatrics?  All right, I confess, I couldn't find a fog machine!  How do we bring such stories like this to life?  How do we begin to comprehend something so different than our everyday experience?  If someone today started talking about seeing Moses and Elijah, let alone Jesus on the mountaintop, you know what we would do.  We can't lock them up anymore, so we'd put them on some medication.  The difficulty we have with this story is precisely because it is so surreal.  And so the best we can do is capture it in a stained glass window like we have up there.

If we try to read this literally, it comes off as a fairly tale where you have to suspend everything you know about the laws of physics, space, and time.  But if we read it as a symbol of some wonderful mountaintop experience that Jesus had with his disciples, we risk reducing the gospel to the limits of our understanding, void of any mystery and wonder.  In either case, then, the story of the transfiguration comes off as some cleverly devised myth, as the author of 2 Peter here says, in that negative sense of 'myth'.  

So I want to suggest a third option this morning that requires neither the suspension of physical laws nor the rejection of extraordinary events in the life of Jesus.  And that is to read the story of the transfiguration as more than historical fact and more than symbolic meaning.  By reading it as the very true witness to the very actual spiritual reality of our world.  And when I say 'spiritual reality' I mean that firsthand experience of the spiritual, the non-material world which I understand to be a non-physical reality that can be humanly experienced.  

Houston Smith, the author of the book on world religions, says:  "authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life".  The inexhaustible energies of the cosmos -- you see, cannot be contained by any physical reality.  They go far beyond the physical world.  And to tap into such energy is to touch the spiritual world.  Or better, to be touched by the spiritual world.  And this, says Smith, is the one common element that all religions share -- an abiding belief in the experience of the spiritual world which is not something apart from the physical but rather is embedded in it and encompasses all that we can see and touch and smell and feel and hear.  

Think of the physical world as giant circle, make it as big as you like, include the entire cosmos in that circle.  And then draw a larger circle around it -- that is the spiritual world that encompasses all else.  Where science concerns everything within that smaller circle, faith includes everything in the larger circle.  The transfiguration story speaks not of the reality of the smaller circle, and therefore cannot be confined to the limits of history and the laws of science.  Nor is it something you can catch on film or record on tape for it is part of that divine mystery which is beyond the physical and yet is ever as real as anything we can see or touch today.  

And that is precisely why the author of 2 Peter, writing perhaps 80-100 years later, can say in all truthfulness and honesty, we were eyewitnesses.  We heard the voice from heaven because we were with him on the mountain.  In other words, participation in the divine mystery on that mountaintop with Jesus did not die with Peter, James, and John, but continues to live on in the witness of those who, as Kirshner said, realized Christ.

Just as Jews celebrate the Passover by saying 'we were once in bondage in Egypt', so to we who celebrate baptism in Christ can say 'we were once on the mountaintop with Jesus'.  That is the power and the real significance of this text.  The truth that goes beyond any scientific or historical fact.  

In Matthew's telling of the story of the transfiguration, note that Jesus comes to the disciples when they are cowering in fear and touches them.  And then says 'Do not be afraid'.  And they rise and go with him back down the mountain, back into the world, so to speak.  To be touched by Jesus on the mountaintop is to be transformed in your life and your relationships.  It is to move from a rationalistic, doctrinal 'head-based' religion to a relational, compassionate, 'heart-based' faith.  To be touched by the living Christ is to know that faith is based not in believing things about Jesus, it is based in a relationship with Jesus.  To be touched by the divine mystery in Christ is to know the power and the presence of the spirit that is in all things.  To realize Christ, to be filled with the divine life so that we can also say that we were with Jesus on the mountain, that we too heard that voice, is the beginning of the Christian faith and life.  

So now I want you to open up those bibles again, to open up to 2 Peter, to that first chapter, and to share with me in reading together just two verses -- verses 17 and 18, let us read together as part of our experience:

For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Indeed, we were.


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