Experiencing the Holy Through Lenses of Transcendence and Immanence

Year A: Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18, and 2 Peter 1:16-21

Transfiguration Sermon to Pohick February 22, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

“Do you know Jesus Christ? Have you accepted him as your Lord and Savior? Are you born again? Do you believe the Word of God is inerrant?”

If we’re Cradle Episcopalians, or former Roman Catholics, mainline Protestant or agnostic, then this rather personal, romantic line of questioning about how we experience the Holy might make us squirm. We might become a bit defensive, even critical.

On the other hand, if you come from an Evangelical or non-denominational background, questions about practicing the liturgical, sacramental life seem a bit stilted and rigid. You might become suspicious when you hear:

“Have you completed your rites of initiation yet, and has the Bishop laid hands on you? Have you memorized your catechism, or the rubrics in the book of common prayer?”

According to Rudolph Otto’s book “The Idea of the Holy,” our experience of the Holy lies between the two extremes of “closeness” and “beyond-ness.” The Immanent, intimate God draws near to us and attracts us into relationship. The Transcendent, Holy Other God calls us to be awe-filled and fascinated by God’s mystery, beauty, and apart-ness.

What if fully experiencing the Holy calls us to stand between the two extremes? Isn’t it like being pulled between two irresistible magnets? We are deeply, intimately attracted to the Lord, yet we pull back in reverential fear before His divine presence.

A balanced image of God matters. How we see and experience God affects our spirituality and lives. Perhaps we can examine our lenses and adjust our vision.

Like getting used to bifocals, it’s a hard balance to find. Yet it seems to be the balance we see and experience through Jesus’ Transfiguration scene.

Up to this point, the synoptic Gospels have painted Jesus as God among us: loving Brother, the embodied presence of God in daily life. Through the lense of Immanence, the disciples see Jesus as friend, teacher, healer, and travel buddy. The disciples are learning and practicing the virtues of personal growth, prayer, freedom, grace, love, compassion, fulfillment, confrontation and authenticity. With emphasis on Immanence, God is with us, right here, right now.

As the Transfiguration reveals Jesus’ Divinity, the disciples begin to learn how life can reflect God’s Transcendence as well. Virtues that characterize a Transcendent theology include responsibility, obedience, justice, discipline, long-suffering, sacrifice, denial, good works, patience and humility. Emphasizing Transcendence, God is Holy Other; we see him from a distance, exalted.

At the scene of the Transfiguration, the disciples experience both Immanence and Transcendence. They have just followed their tired, sweaty friend up the steep incline of Mt. Tabor, and suddenly Jesus changes form before their very eyes. Matthew says:

“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

And if there was any lingering question that the Human Jesus is also the Divine fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, two of Israel’s most revered prophets show up beside Jesus to confirm it: Moses and Elijah.

The disciples recognize Moses, who long ago stood on a mountain experiencing God in a blazing bush and in a cloud, and who reflected the glory of the Lord on his face. They also see the prophet Elijah, who heralded the eschatological coming of the Son of Man, when all would be robed in white, radiating God’s Glory.

Even as Moses and Elijah reflect and radiate glory, Matthew notes that only in Jesus does the glory of the Lord shine from within, coming directly out from him. This is different from the glory of Moses, whose face shone because he looked on God’s face and reflected God’s glory as a mirror would.

As Divine as Jesus now appears, Peter is still intimately attracted to Him, though now with trepidation. Peter eagerly offers to build tents for all three holy men, so they can bask in the mountaintop experience of their religious heroes a while.

God apparently wants to be sure the disciples realize Jesus’ glory is not like the prophets’. Repeating what He said at Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Why does God suggest Jesus’ glory is different from Moses’ and Elijah’s? Why does Jesus insist the disciples leave this holy mountaintop experience for the valley of human pain and suffering?

Because Jesus isn’t any ordinary prophet: His glory is the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hopes. His beloved-ness is deeply rooted in the Passion He is about to undergo for the salvation of the world. Jesus will clearly reveal the very heart of God when He suffers with deep compassion for us, and when He is Risen, victorious. Until then, they cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of this vision.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples:

“Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

To fully experience and appropriate the life of Jesus Christ, our vision must be balanced. Jesus reveals both humanity and divinity. We experience the fullness of God’s Glory through both suffering and death and resurrection. We clearly see nor fully embrace the grace and joy of Resurrection, until we have embraced the pain of sin and suffering, the Cross.

Our image of God truly does affect how we live out our faith. I am reminded of a daughter who refused to remove her dying mother from a ventilator. The mother’s physician requested the chaplain to help with her struggle. As I listened, I realized her image of God was tying was skewing her choices. She said, “Mother needs to stay on the ventilator to complete her penance and finish her redemptive suffering.” She believed it is our own suffering and death that redeem our sinfulness. When asked what Christ accomplished by dying on the cross, she said, “Like Jesus, we need to embrace punishment for our sins, so we can be forgiven.” An overly transcendent theology taught her we must earn our distant, disapproving Father’s forgiveness and eternal life. It was heartbreaking. I shared with her the grace of Jesus suffering for and with us.

Surely our truest experience of the Holy is found somewhere in the middle, between the Immanent God and the Transcendent God. We find that balance as we re-experience the Passion of Christ.

In the Paschal Mystery, we can unite ourselves with Christ and appropriate our ongoing process of transformation: from suffering and death to eternal life.

Remember: eternal life is not some distant destination. The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near; our experience of eternal life can begin now. As we consider an image of God as both very near and very holy, perhaps we’ll have glimpses.

Do you ever sense your vision is off kilter? Now is a good time to adjust your lenses. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, when we focus on Christ’s Passion and ministry of reconciliation. This Lent, let’s pay attention to our image of God.

Too much emphasis on Transcendence encourages sin-focused spirituality. If you tend to dwell on the mountain with a distant, demanding image of God, try following Jesus into the valley of humanity and embracing His Immanence. The Kiki Coderre Prayer group practices the intimacy of silent prayer and scripture meditation. Or alone, simply surrender and listen to Jesus calling you His Beloved. Try addressing a justice issue. A private confession with a wise priest could help you adjust over-scrupulousness, and receive God’s grace.

In contrast, too much Immanence encourages people to forget sin and deny suffering. If you are so sure of the presence, love and acceptance of God that you forget about the reality of sin, or deny the possibility of hardening your heart if you don’t get the answer you seek from prayer, you may benefit from a trip up the mountain. Try attending worship regularly. Pay attention to the meaning of liturgy, sacraments, music and the Otherness of God. Make a private confession.

Our Lenten theme is “Reconciliation and How We Experience It.” Our five-week Wednesday night program will help us re-adjust our lenses and rediscover a balanced image of God as both Transcendent and Immanent.

As the Transfiguration suggests, to fully experience and appropriate the Holy is to stand between the two extremes. Let the magnetism of our Lord Jesus Christ attract you irresistibly, both to His Intimacy and his Otherness. Amen