Transformation toward a practical Christianity

This is Transfiguration Sunday. We start with the story of God lifting his prophet Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Out Psalm reminds us “[t]he heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.” From Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth, we learn “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” And in today’s Gospel lesson, the anonymous author of Mark we hear how Jesus was transfigured before Peter and James and John. Each of these readings points us toward the start of Lent next Wednesday on Ash Wednesday.

But what about us here today? Don’t we get to be transfigured? Where’s your transfiguration? Where’s my transfiguration? There’s a reason this story falls just before the start of Lent, the Lent that leads to Good Friday and on through Holy Saturday to the unbridled joy of Easter. Lent offers us the chance to sage our own personal transfiguration of the spirit.

This Lent offers us our opportunity to transform our spiritual life. And I don’t mean in some grandiose, ‘Come to Jesus’ kind of way. Too often, outlandish displays of personal faith are revealed as shallow efforts at boosting an ego or papering over a festering spiritual wound. No, I mean the kind of spiritual change that grows slowly from deep roots, a kind of transfiguration of the spirit that shines forth in our daily life.

The Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-13

Awhile back, Jane Shaw served as Dean of Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco. Today she is The Rev. Professor Jane Shaw and serves as the Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Back in 2002, Dean Shaw published a series of meditations for Lent titled “A Practical Christianity.” On Sundays in Lent, we will be considering her ideas on how we can develop our own authentic practical understanding of how to be a Christian. Much of what I will be preaching this Lent is drawn from her ideas and arguments.

These days, if you ask a Protestant pastor or Roman Catholic priest what it takes to become a Christian, it is likely they will present you with a list of theological beliefs which must be accepted to – in their view – become a Christian. This emphasis on what we believe is a very Protestant principle – beliefs have become so central to many Protestant churches that the slightest difference in theology can leads to a split amongst believers. This is how so many small Protestant churches devolved from mainline churches. Differences in theological beliefs also prompted the split between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches and the split between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches.

As Dean Shaw writes, we live in “a post-Protestant age in which “right” belied has taken precedence…We also live in a post-Enlightenment world. The rise of science and the Enlightenment pressed the faithful to ask whether they could logically believe in x or y doctrine (miracles, prophecy, the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the creation account in Genesis) or not.”[1] In turn this shifted the discussion away from the realm of spiritual or personal transformation and into the forum of logic and reason. One of the hallmarks of the Scientific Method is to understand that a hypothesis – or idea or belief – cannot be empirically true if it can be shown to be false in even one case. That is a wonderful standard to employ in medicine and rocket science and when designing airplanes or automobiles. When our life of health is on the line, we want to be safe. But is that rational, logical, scientific approach what we want in our spiritual life? I think not.

In fact, I think it is downright arrogant to pretend we can apply logic or reason or science into understanding our spiritual life.

Beyond that, as Dean Shaw notes, focusing too much on what we believe, along with a demand that some beliefs are so important they are non-negotiable truths, makes it very difficult for many who are examining Christianity for the first time. Overemphasizing what we believe can also make life very difficult for some who have long thought they were already living a Christian life.

“But this is not how it was for the earliest Christians,” Dean Shaw tells us. “They converted to faith because Christianity transformed their lives.” She tells us “For the earliest converts to Christianity, the question before they were baptized and joined the Christian community was not so much ‘What do you believe’ as ‘How as your life been transformed?’”[2]

How as your life been transformed! Not do you believe in the Virgin birth or the Trinity or same-sex marriage. But: How as your life been transformed? This is the authentic question asked by early Christians which echoes down through the ages to us in 21st century San Francisco. How as your life been transformed?

And words were not enough of an answer to gain baptism. In those days, the period of preparation could last up to three years as a candidate for baptism’s sponsors watched for signs of transformation in the candidate’s daily life. What they looked for is how becoming a Christian changed a candidate’s life. Did the candidate feed the poor? Did they care for the sick? Did they honor widows? Have they done good works? Simply put, if following the Christ didn’t change your life, then you couldn’t become a Christian.

In the first centuries after Christ died, Christian’s doing good works drew people to follow Jesus. During the first few centuries after Jesus, a series of plagues or epidemics washed across the Roman Empire. Each time, the wealthy and government officials fled the cities and left the sick to fend for themselves. Some families would literally throw a sick person out into the street in a desperate attempt to avoid death. And then, Christians would come by and carry the sick and dying away to be cared for by members of their church.

We can discuss dogma and debate fine points of theology with tenacity and skill but not bring a single one of us closer to living a Christian life. It was different in the early church. Then, theology derived from the Eucharist, that time when we who are many become one people through one bread and one cup. “Our teaching is consonant with what we do in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist establishes what we teach,” Irenaeus explained in the second century.

Dean Shaw suggests we are called to bring practice and doctrine together, always using practice as our starting point.[3]

Which brings us to the starting point of Lent 2017. Since the early days of the Christian church, Lent has been seen as a time of learning, preparation, and self-examination. Dean Shaw’s book invites us to follow a similar path of those seeking to become Christians in the years after Jesus died. She suggests we look first at our self and our life; then at how we relate to God; and finally at our relationship with others. Like Jesus, who took 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism, we are called to spend the 40 days of Lent wrestling with how we can – individually and as a community – live a Christian life in practical terms.

Let me be clear: Lent is not a time of pointless hardship. “Giving up” your favorite dessert or drinking wine or candy will not help any of us make an authentic change in our life. Rather Lent offers a context for us to focus on and wrestle with the questions of what we mean when we say we are a Christian. For that is the point of Dean Shaw’s book: “to help us imagine how Christian practice can transform our lives and the world around us, and by that practice how we may come to understand more fully the central beliefs or doctrines of Christianity.”[4]

So consider this your homework: please ask yourself: how has your life been transformed by Christianity? Your answer may surprise you.

Let us pray,

Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] A Practical Christianity: Meditations for the Season of Lent, Jane Shaw, Kindle edition location 77

[2] Ibid.

[3] Op.Cit Location 110

[4] Op. Cit Location 174

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