Skip to content

The Last Sunday after Epiphany; Mark 9:2-9

A few times in my life I have experienced what psychologists call a gestalt; a sudden insight, a coming together of facts, and complete understanding where previously there has been only mystery, or confusion.

The first I remember was at about 6 ½ years old. For months I had been struggling with reading, and despite the best effort of teachers, my mother, and others, I simply could not read. I wasn’t a bad reader; I could not grasp the idea of reading; I had no concept of how shapes on paper could mean words – sounds in my head. And then, while riding on a bus with my mother, looking out the window at shop signs, suddenly – instantly – I could read. The shapes became words – sounds in my head! I still remember incessantly reading out everything that came into view (much to the embarrassment of my mother), and I have read voraciously since.

Another happened about 20 years later. I was a doctoral student, and I had used a well-established theory to develop a mathematical model of a complex physical and thermodynamic process; an aircraft jet engine (as part of the Concorde development project). On the computer equipment available to me then, it took 8 hours to solve the equations in order to compute about 5 seconds of real time operation of the engine. And the computation produced physically impossible results; not just wrong – impossible! For six months I had checked my computer programming, my mathematical derivation, and my own theories, over and over. I could find no error. And then one evening, after another frustrating day, on the train going home, I suddenly saw where the well-established theory I had used was wrong, and how to correct it! It was only a few more weeks work to finish my thesis.

I am not unusual. These experiences of suddenly “seeing” where previously there was only mystery happen to many people; they are very common in scientific research; they may have happened to you.

Peter, James and John have travelled with Jesus for some time. The Gospel accounts don’t give a clear sense of time, but it has been at least months, perhaps years, since Jesus gathered his little band and began his ministry in Galilee. These three have been especially close to Jesus. They have witnessed the healings, the exorcisms, the walking on water, the feeding of multitudes. They have listened to the teachings of Jesus; Peter has even dimly recognized in Jesus the awaited Messiah, but has immediately shown that he does not understand the messiahship of Jesus. They have all the facts, but they still do not understand!

And then they have one more experience. They struggle up a high mountain with Jesus, and for all we know they are still struggling with their understanding of Jesus. They have no idea why they are climbing this mountain, and they certainly have no idea of what awaits them. In Luke’s account of the event, they even go to sleep. But the events on the mountain of the Transfiguration changes the understanding of these future leaders of the Church. Speaking realistically, they don’t come down the mountain thinking of Jesus as the Logos – the eternally existing Word of God; or as the 2nd Person of a Trinity, co-equal with the Father and the Spirit and of one substance with the Father – all that comes much later; decades, even centuries later. But, Peter, James, and John no longer see Jesus as a wandering carpenter on a somewhat puzzling preaching mission given to making gloomy predictions about dying and rising. They have had a vision and heard a voice, and from that vision and voice has come a sudden, radically new understanding of their known facts about Jesus. Not unlike the sudden insight we call a gestalt!

Peter’s earlier startling insight is confirmed – Jesus is Messiah! Unlike at the baptism of Jesus, when the heavenly voice speaks to him only, this heavenly voice speaks to the three disciples – This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! Listen to him when he tells you that the Messiah is to go to Jerusalem to be killed, and to rise again; listen to him when he tells you to take up your cross if you wish to follow him!

Remember, the Gospel of Mark has no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (the so-called longer ending of Mark that has these is a later addition (as is the so-called shorter ending) and neither is from the “pen” of Mark). It is this glimpse of the transfigured, resurrected Jesus that gives these three leaders of a future Church the understanding of Jesus as the Christ who dies and rises again. This is the only experience of the Lordship of Jesus that Peter, James, and John have (in this Gospel). In Mark’s telling of the tale, this event is the source of the Good News they later proclaim – Jesus is Lord!

That has some obvious implications for us, who were not there to see the risen Christ. We cannot share the light of the Gospel unless we ourselves have seen a manifestation of the Lordship of Jesus in our lives. The Gospel is meant to be experienced, not merely read about or heard! We have to taste “the world that is not of this world” in order to tell others about it. The burning coal of God has to touch our lips, if they are to truly share the Good News of God’s work.

If our re-telling the Gospel is not rooted in our own experience of the risen Christ at work in our life, then our Christianity boils down to ethics. Our sharing of the Gospel becomes “the bland leading the bland.” Our evangelism becomes a moral cause, not an irresistible urge to share the story that has changed our life, to share what St. Paul described as the core of the Gospel – “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Separated from the kind of mysterious experience that lies at the heart of the Transfiguration, Jesus comes across not as the embodiment of the tremendous mystery of God – the Wholly Other; YAHWEH – the I AM WHO I WILL BE; instead Jesus becomes the religious equivalent of fire insurance.

My analogy of the idea of a gestalt, a sudden insight and coming together of facts, and the Transfiguration story, give us some clues to how one can have such an experience of the Lordship of Jesus. The insight of a gestalt does not come out of nowhere; it comes after weeks, months, even years of trying to make sense of facts or concepts. The Transfiguration came after weeks, months, perhaps years of the disciples walking with Jesus, watching what he did, listening to what he taught, trying to understand.

It seems to me that if we are to have an experience of the Lordship of Jesus in our lives, three things are necessary. We need to learn all the facts we can about Jesus – that’s called Bible reading, Bible study, prayer and meditation. We need to “hang out” with Jesus to see what he does, hear what he teaches – that’s called belonging to the Church and regular worship! And then, we need to wrestle intellectually and spiritually with what we learn, see, and hear.

A balance of all these is necessary. The “go it alone” mentality does not work. The idea that every person’s religious opinion is of equal value is nonsense. Spiritual growth is not just “me and my God,” or “me and my Bible,” or “me and my devotional book.” Sound teaching rooted in the apostolic faith, the stability of orthodox ritual, the traditions of the faith; these serve both as a stabilizing gyroscope and a directing compass for the journey.

And yet, balance is needed; being overly reliant on the institutional church also creates problems. Dogmatism, legalism, ritualism, and hand-me-down-ism, at the expense of personal faith, makes for a thin spirituality. And worse, the sterility caused by focussing only on the form of religion rather on its substance makes it virtually impossible to grow. We need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to blow where it will. A mature spirituality is a mystical spirituality.

The third element in the search for the experience of Christ is critical thought. It is that which allows us to take the best from the Church, without falling into its institutional traps, and allows us to measure the mysterious in our lives against tradition. Honest, searching, critical openness to the sacred and secular, in all their forms, does not weaken faith in the long run, it actually deepens it. One reason the early church triumphed over the pagan world was not only because it out-lived it and out-died it, it also out-thought it! Christ saves the mind as well as the soul – use it!1

We are made for communion with God. The awareness of that communion, in the totality of our lives, is the “great awakening” the Gospel brings. The Greek word we translate as “contemplation” (theoria) was used to describe the state of a person fully awake to all that is. To contemplate then is to be awake to the reality of Christ wherever He is; in the church, in the world, in others, in ourselves! That is the end of the journey, our great awakening to the reality of Christ. That is the insight we seek, and seek to understand.

1   The previous 3 paragraphs in this section are based on Baron Friedrich von Hugel’s The Mystical Element of Religion, as quoted in: Morton Kelsey, Transcend: A Guide to the Spiritual Quest (Crossroads 1981)

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.