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Religious experience — Transfiguration

Ordinary Sunday 6: 14th February, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 9:28-36

One Sunday Evening a few years ago, I was staying with a group of pilgrims in London. I happened to look out of the hotel window and noticed a long queue of people — not an unusual sight in London, but this queue was unusual because it was a queue to get into a church! It was in fact, all unbeknown to me, the world famous HTB, Holy Trinity Brompton, where Alpha, the introductory course to Christian belief that has spread all over the world, had its beginnings.

Since we had no other plans that night, and since this was, to say the least, an unusual sight, we decided to join the queue. When we finally got into the church, we were ushered up into the balcony because the nave was full. From that vantage point we witnessed what came to be known as the 'Toronto Blessing' because it had its beginnings among a group of people that met in the airport lounge in Toronto. People were falling on the floor, some were grunting and making animal noises; others were laughing loudly. I'm a bit ashamed to say, that some of us laughed too — but certainly, in my case it was not under the promptings of the Spirit!

People often look for God in the spectacular and sensational. In fact, for some Christians, the more sensational, the greater the evidence that God is at work! What we witnessed at HTB was a phase or wave of the Charismatic movement that seems now to have passed. But it certainly provided those involved with a great deal of emotional excitement.

Last year, by way of contrast, I visited Walsingham in East Anglia, where there is a famous Anglican shrine to our Lady. There the worship, as here at St Peter's, was accompanied by rich ceremonial and superb music. The participants, I would have to say, were much more reserved than their fellow Anglicans at HTB. Nevertheless, on chatting with many of them, they too testified to a 'feel-good' factor in their worship. Indeed I was profoundly moved myself, and there is nothing wrong with deeply felt emotion in worship. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were not times in our worship when we are overwhelmed with the majesty and love of God. It's not emotion that is the problem. It is 'emotionalism', the manipulation of people's responses so that they behave in ways that are induced by preachers, evangelists or healers.

Religious experience has its place but it also has its dangers. Whether our worship preference is Pentecostal, 'Toronto Blessing' style, or 'Anglo-Catholic Walsingham' style, or any other style, we need to guard against the danger that in pursuing God's presence, we are actually pursuing the thrill of God's presence, the 'liver shivers'.

It has been suggested that a good test for someone who undergoes the 'Toronto Experience' and falls down on the floor, allegedly under the constraint of the Spirit of God, is to see what happens when they get to their feet again. That's when the real test of the experience can be seen. What do they do then? Are they prepared to, as it were, 'roll up their shirt sleeves', and get stuck into a life of loving service to others. If not, perhaps they were simply looking for an adrenalin fix.

And what happens to the Walsingham types amongst us, when the incense has wafted away and the last note of music has died down? Does the whole experience enhance the normal means of grace in the preaching of the Word and in the celebration of the sacraments — or does it, in some way, displace them?

These are the kinds of questions that one imagines the transfigured Lord might have asked a person who claims to have had some Mountain top experience. Peter, you remember, was so enthralled with the awesome experience on the Mount of transfiguration, where our Lord's body was metamorphosed (the precise nature of the experience remains a mystery. Was it a subjective vision or was it an objective appearance, akin to the resurrection appearances of Jesus? There can be no certain answer to these questions). The Gospels tell us that our Lord's face shone like the sun and his clothes were whiter than any 'Omo' laundry powder could whiten them!

Little wonder that Peter blurted out, 'Master, it is good for us to be here; let us build three shelters here. One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. We'll be happy to stay on the mountain with you and bask in your glory'. A thick cloud immediately enveloped them, cutting off further conversation. Jesus and the disciples still had further work to do down on the plains where people live. They couldn't stay on the mountain top. Glory had to be found in the garbage and messiness of our common life.

There is no point in listening to sermons and participating in the Mass unless these means of grace begin, through our openness to the Spirit's action, to transfigure our disfigured personalities, changing us from glory to glory. And our transfigured lives must be expressed in changed behaviour and in compassionate actions.

You have got to come down to the plain.

To be excited about God is no bad thing. But it actually means learning to treasure those rather 'boring' means of grace — another unexciting sermon; and literally eating the Supper that God has provided for our health and spiritual nourishment. It has been said that 'you don't live life in big moments. You live life in the utterly mundane. If God doesn't rule your mundane, then he doesn't rule your life. The character of life is set in 10,000 little moments, not big moments'. We need to discover the awe in the ordinary.

In the days of floppy discs I would have been glad to have known of this prayer by Ann Specks. She prayed it as soon as she arrived at the Office in the morning. With some minor modification it could be useful for those of you who work in Offices:

Lord, bless my computer today. Keep far away any line fluctuations and power surges. Help me to be a good steward of my hard disk. Send your angels to organize my floppies. May my printer be a messenger of your word. Remind me of what I forget, and help me to forgive those who pay no attention to deadlines. Lord, computers are surely ways to teach you patience: give me the grace to learn. Amen

There is a rather prosaic character to Christian living. And it's not just Office workers who must discover the awe in the ordinary. It's those who stay at home and look after little children. Poor old Brother Lawrence, a monastery cook is well known for his prayer:

Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I've no time to be a saint by doing lovely things and watching late with Thee, or dreaming in the dawn light or storming heaven's gates. Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

To be sure we need times of Retreat on the mountain top. Jesus ministry was punctuated by times of retreat and rest — a period of deliberate reflection and rest with his apostles from the demands of ministry. This rhythm of practical ministry and rest, refreshment and reflection seems to run through the story. Ministry and retreat — its a crucial balance. But we can't stay on the mountain top. We have to come down on the plain and discover the awe in the ordinary.

Joseph Armitage Robinson's famous hymn on the transfiguration sums up succinctly all that I have been saying:

How good, Lord, to be here!
Your glory fills the night;
Your face and garments, like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.

How good, Lord, to be here!
Yet we may not remain;
But since you bid us leave the mount
Come with us to the plain. [1]


Notes:

[1] Together in Song, No. 234


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