Who Tells You Who Your Are?

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs, on Matthew 16:13-20


I first read this question in William Sloane Coffin, Jr’s book, Letters to a Young Doubter, about ten years ago, early in my discernment process. It was one of those instances when you encounter something that hits you at just the right time, with just the right balance of challenge and comfort to be formative. It wasn’t until much later (this past week, actually,) that I discovered that Coffin didn’t just toss that question out one time for his book: It was his signature question.

Coffin, who died in 2006, was a passionate social and political activist, senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, and Yale University Chaplain. He asked this question in various contexts on a regular basis. Whether he was talking about politics, religion or education, this was invariably the basis of whatever he had to say.

“Who tells you who you are?”

In many ways it’s a rhetorical question, isn’t it? When a person of deep faith and authority looks you in the eye and asks you that question, you know what the answer should be—but the process of answering can be a journey in itself, and it may not be a comfortable one.

How you ponder in the silence after the question mark; the answer you ultimately give can have a profound effect on your life going forward; on your very identity.

“Who tells you who you are?” is another way of asking a bleaker question:

“Who are you—really?”

It’s not a coincidence that Coffin’s words echo Jesus’ questions in today’s gospel. This passage is foundational in many ways.

Both Matthew and Mark record this episode, wherein Jesus asks the disciples about his identity, but Matthew expands on Mark’s original—and earlier–depiction of Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ pointed question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” In Mark’s Gospel, Simon’s response is simply, “You are the Christ.” But in Matthew’s version, Simon blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” This is serious Christology and Matthew needs to spell it out: Jesus is the Anointed One spoken of by the prophets, directly connected to God as God’s son. In other words, Matthew’s project as encapsulated in the words of Simon Peter is to establish Jesus’ identity.

And what happens next?

In Jesus’ response to Simon, Matthew again expands on Mark. Whereas Mark writes only that Jesus says to speak of his identity to no one, Matthew augments this with a statement that is pure ecclesiology—a foundational declaration of both Simon’s and the church’s identity: “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church…” Much of the argument for Apostolic Succession was built on these words; Peter was the first authority of the Church for “binding and loosing”—that is, for the establishing and teaching of doctrine. This passage is of specific interest to the Roman Catholic Church; Peter’s keys to the kingdom are a papal symbol. Of course, there are other households of the Christian faith who have argued since the Protestant Reformation that papal authority is not the only Christian authority. Nevertheless, the point made here about the establishment of the authority and identity of the Body of Christ, even as it ends up being interpreted in different ways, can be traced to this statement in Matthew.

But doctrinal Christology and ecclesiology aside, this passage is rich with still more to ponder about identity. Let’s think a little more about Peter. For all that he is given the keys of the Kingdom, we (as so often happens) find ourselves wondering about God’s choice of a standard bearer for the Church. Peter is extraordinarily prone to stick his size 10 fisherman’s foot in his mouth and will do so again in just two verses when he tries to rebuke Jesus for foretelling his crucifixion. And in response to this rebuke Jesus will call Peter Satan and a hindrance; an inauspicious beginning for the Rock of the Church…

So what are we to think of this? What does Jesus see in this impetuous disciple? Pastor and preacher Jin S. Kim says that what distinguishes Peter in his confession of Jesus as Messiah isn’t so much his righteousness or his rightness but his testimony; his willingness to articulate how he experiences Jesus and God in that moment. “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, Jesus says, “How do you understand and experience me, my teaching and my witness in the world?”

Peter’s response in that moment of clarity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” serves, then, not just to identify Jesus, but it also becomes a statement of Peter’s identity as well.


This is the kind of thing that makes many Episcopalians feel a little squirmy. Testimony, for us, is best left in the courtroom. But we are invited here to seriously consider how we experience Jesus and God in our lives. That testimony, even if we don’t stand on the street corner and shout it to the world, and only whisper it to ourselves, reveals a lot about who we are and who we are called to be. Our identity.

“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Peter’s testimony regarding Jesus’ identity is rooted in his understanding of the God who calls him into relationship and discipleship. In that moment of clarity, he knows who tells him who he is: It is Jesus, Messiah, the son of the Living God who calls him Peter, the rock of the Body of Christ.

That has got to be a humbling realization. To be confronted with the fact of his identity in God—to know that all the other things that he thought defined who he is are peanuts by comparison—nothing. He is not defined by his occupation, his status, his looks, his possessions. Not by his successes, and thank God not by his failures or regrets either.

Who tells you who you are, Peter? Grace. Grace tells me.

That’s the kind of thing that can knock you to your knees.

Peter’s testimony was a moment of connection and realization, and it would define him until his martyrdom years later. But it was only the beginning of a long and bumpy road, much like that of the Church, which has encountered its share of both glory and shame. But God keeps finding ways to bring us back to the signature question of who—and whose—we truly are.

I recently saw a picture on social media. It was a photo of a young man in Charlottesville during the chaos of that Saturday three weeks ago. In the picture, this young white man stood alone and shirtless on a street corner. A documentary filmmaker had observed him crying out for help as he tore off his white polo shirt, which is part of the uniform of one of the White Supremacist groups. He didn’t want anyone to hurt him, he said. He said he hadn’t really meant it—that he was just doing it for fun.

The filmmaker, C.J. Hunt, made an outstanding point about this young man as he walked away and faded into the crowd. He wrote of the privilege of being able to disappear—to be able to shed one’s identity in order to be safe. Hunt noted that people of color don’t share that privilege. I found this argument to be both compelling and convicting.

But I also saw something else as I looked at that picture of that young man, and I have to say it was a challenging realization. Because in that simple image I experienced a different moment of clarity from what Mr. Hunt had so eloquently observed.

I saw in that young man in that instant—if only an instant—the naked vulnerability of each and every human being in the eyes of a God who loves and calls them. I saw the face of a scared young man as though he has just heard someone ask, “Who tells you who you are?” and who has just been confronted with the answer. And it scares the heck out of him.

Because when you realize the identity of who it is who calls you, it can transform you, and that can be scary.

I don’t know if that’s what happened to the young man in the picture. Sadly and realistically I doubt it, because life is complicated and painful, and it doesn’t always provide us with neat little stories packaged with happy endings. But for a second there was a vision—maybe a little like the corona of Monday’s eclipse—a vision of the arc of history bending through these troubled days. Bending us toward discipleship. Bending the Church closer to the Beloved Community. Bending the universe, by grace, toward justice, reconciliation, and hope.

Who tells you who you are? Who tells the Church who we are? And how will we respond?

Uncomfortable Mirrors

Musings on the experience of reading the Bible

I find the Bible a tough read, even the good bits. So there I’ve said it. To say this makes me feel bad, especially when I am insisting that my community engages with The Bible Challenge, a 360-day reading program encompassing the entire Bible. But I will get back to why this is also important, later.

The truth is I feel guilty about the Bible and my attitude towards it. How can I feel this way towards something I also believe to be an inspired vehicle for God’s communication? Donald Winnicott is one of my psychoanalytic heroes. He was that rare man, a psychoanalyst and also a pediatrician. This gave him a unique aspect

Donald Winnicott is one of my psychoanalytic heroes. He was that rare man, a psychoanalyst and also a pediatrician. This gave him a unique aspect on early infant development.

Winnicott believed that the emergence of guilt marked an important milestone in human infant development. Guilt, he explained, was the development of the realization of having damaged what is also most loved. Remorse, repentance, sorrow, and a capacity for healing through the process of reparation are all dependent on a capacity for guilt.

For so-called modern Christians, previous generational emphasis on punishment makes a healthy acceptance of guilt more difficult. Thus, mainline Christians like Episcopalians tend nowadays to deemphasize the importance of guilt. According to our therapeutic deism guilt and punishment no longer matter to the God of love, gentle in all his ways.

So much religion equates guilt with the dire fate of Penny Pingleton in John Water’s 1988 musical Hairspray. Penny’s mother Prudence has a real old time religion approach to the raising of her daughter: 

Penny Pingleton, you know you are punished. From now on you’re wearing a giant P on your blouse every day to school so that the whole world knows that Penny Pingleton is permanently, positively, punished.

Our attempt to get away from the image of ourselves permanently wearing a giant P has led us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because the problem is that abolishing guilt is as spiritually damaging as responding to it with threats of punishment. By eradicating guilt we’ve tried to communicate an image of God as never wanting us to feel bad. The God of therapeutic deism – our contemporary heresy, is a God who is all understanding and non-judgmental. No matter how we are attracted to this self-projection onto God, this is not the Christian vision of God.

The crucial role of guilt in spiritual development

As Winnicott explained, feeling guilt arises when the infant reaches the developmental stage of connecting up its damaging, aggressive feelings with its loving, protective feelings. It discovers that the mother who frustrates it and provokes hatred is the same mother it desperately seeks to preserve through its power to love. The growing child thus learns about accountability and the predominance of love over hate.

I feel guilty about finding the Bible a tough read because at the edge of my conscious awareness I fear my attitude damages my relationship with the God I deeply love. I’ve been taught that this makes me bad, and punishment is what awaits bad boys and girls.

I want a nice God, a God who is forgiving but gentle with it. So when I turn to the pages of the Bible I am confronted with a not nice God. I find there a God who does not easily fit with my expectations and this leaves me feeling guilty – after all, it’s not meant to be this way, surely I must have misunderstood.

Maybe this explains my attraction to traditions that sit lightly to Bible reading outside of the weekly liturgy. The fact is that reading the Bible is the fastest way to really challenge one’s own self-projection onto God. Throughout the pages of the Bible God simply refuses to act according to our expectations and play nice.

Those of us at St Martin’s, who have been persevering with The Bible Challenge, will on Monday arrive at day 93. Along the way, we have waded through some pretty tedious and gruesome stuff. Recently in the Bible, the book of Joshua’s depiction of Israel’s genocide of the Canaanites as God’s chosen instrument gives way to the same storylines, now retold through the lens of the book of Judges. If we detect Judges retelling the Joshua story let’s not be too hasty and skip over. If we do we will miss noting that the two books tell two different versions of the same story of the settlement of the Promised Land. Joshua presents it as a blitzkrieg campaign during which no quarter is given to the poor old Canaanites. However, Judges presents it as a long process of gradual infiltration with the Israelites winning some and losing some. The end result is a picture of assimilation, with Canaanites living cheek by jowl with Israelites.

The book of Joshua’s unremitting chronicle of slaughter, worthy of a Viking Saga or from the Game of Thrones gives way to a more complex picture in which the tensions of fidelity to the old ways and assimilation into newfangled ones – an age-old story, forms the central narrative. It’s interesting to note that modern archaeology tends to confirm the Judges version.

Here is an interesting thing about the Bible. When we read through the lens of modern expectations of reading either descriptive truth or even reliable history, we get bogged down at the level of the words on the page. Read as descriptive truth or somewhat vague yet reliable history the words describe events that outrage our modern expectations of a loving God, gentle in all his ways. Yet, if we raise our eyes from the words on the page and pay attention to the directional flow of the narrative, e.g. take-in the story flow from Joshua to Judges, we begin to catch a glimpse of the shape of the forest above the tree line, a forest stretching towards the horizon.

If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice it’s because the Judeo-Christian epic bends it in that direction.

It’s something of an overstatement, but not much of one to say that the consistent directional narrative of the Bible concerns the keeping of promises. The repeating plot line is one of the covenant -the reciprocity of promise keeping. The ups and downs in the relationship between God and the Chosen People chronicle the repetitive cycles of remembering and forgetting promises. Things go well when the people remember their promise to worship the Lord. Things go badly when they forget God and stray into worshiping other gods. All the while the long epic of the relationship is moving towards greater inclusion under laws of justice and mercy, thus bending the arc of the universe towards justice.

Hypothesis put to the test

The hardening of the Jews against receiving the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah was one of the deep pains of the Apostle Paul’s life. Romans, chapter 11 brings his exploration begun in chapter 9 of the fate of the Jews in a post-Jesus world to a climax.

I ask then, has God rejected his people? Hell no! ….For the promises of God are irrevocable.

Paul arrives at a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion that: 

God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Paul’s confidence in the mercy and love of God rests on his refusal to accept that God can be unfaithful, for God keeps promises whether or not we keep our end of the covenantal bargain. We may not like the results, and Paul choked on Jewish rejection of Jesus, he could not conceive of God going back on his promise to Israel. Although God desires that we keep our promises also, the point is not so much to be faithful in return but to trust that no matter what we do, God is always trustworthy. Wanting desperately for some clarity on who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor, Paul has to settle for living in the tension of contradiction.

We read in Matthew 15 of Jesus dispute with the Pharisees about ritual practice. The Pharisees seem to be taking the position that performing the purification rituals rendered one spiritually clean. Jesus contends that these are simply external practices that at best confirm the internal state of purity. It’s not what we eat or drink that defiles us, but the words and actions the emanate from an impure heart.

Note that when Jesus is in the Jewish heartland this is the kind of disputation he is confronted by – wrangling over rules. Contrastingly, he then travels among the gentiles and here he encounters another kind of disputation with a woman Matthew archaically refers to as a Canaanite woman.

Now, the Canaanites had long since departed the historical scene by Jesus’ time. From our reading of Joshua and Judges we are immediately alert to the way Matthew wants to project the historical tension between Israelite and Canaanite into the current context of Jew and Gentile with a new twist in mind.

At first, Jesus rejects the woman’s claims on him reciting that God’s promises are exclusive to Israel only. Seemingly for us, he uses the very offensive Jewish metaphors of giving the children’s (read Jews) food to the dogs (read gentiles). It’s her response that startles him and maybe we catch a glimpse of Jesus learning on the job. She takes his line of reasoning and pushes it in a new direction. She boldly asks, do not the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table? Is this a new insight for Jesus, being confronted by the expansion of God’s promises? Whether or not, we see the application of his earlier teaching to his disciples on the nature of spiritual acceptability. God is not only faithful to his promises but he desires to extend them to new, hitherto unacceptable and excluded groups.

The text is always written by the authors for those of the generation who first read what is written.

Why read the Bible, especially the early books of the Torah? In them, we read page after page of the violent practices of tribal exclusion. We read about an image of God that we vehemently protest is not our image of God. But me think we protesteth too much. As current events swirl around us, the surfacing of tribal memories assail us. Animosities we thought long since transcended raise their ugly heads again. White tribalism, racism, and anti-Semitism dare to speak their names once again upon the civic stage.

The text is always written by the authors for those of the generation who first read what is written. There are three contextual aspects to keep in mind as we read Scripture. The first is the context described in the text itself. The second is the context within which the text is actually written. The third is our contemporary context readers. Scripture is written for the writers and their context. The story’s setting is a fiction constructed to confront the generation who author and first read the text. Whatever mythological events described, and whatever the authors of the text intended to convey, as contemporary readers we have our own context. How does the text inform us about ourselves and our unacknowledged projections into God?

Context 1. The books of Joshua and Judges describe the conquest of the Promised Land, now shrouded in the mists of time. Primitive tribal nomads, as a rule, do not write down their experience. At best, they record their experience in oral stories, repeated by word of mouth. All generations project themselves onto the blank canvas presented by God. So we should not be surprised that Moses and Joshua’s God is remarkably like them.

Context 2. Scholarship now indicates that the books of Joshua and Judges were written down during the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 during the prolonged experience of captivity in Babylon and Persia. Joshua and Judges make their appeal to a captive people who are struggling to hold onto their identity after the destruction of nation and Temple. The message is, don’t lose faith, do to not forget their glorious past. God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness are incisions that cut to the heart of the experience of captivity. The books encourage a people at the darkest point to remember how in the past God has blessed them. This is a call to turn away from disobedience and return to God as their ancestors did.

Context 3. As we read the history of the Israelites and their struggles with God, let’s not be too hasty to rush to judgment. Do we not see more of ourselves in these pages than we might care to admit? Are we not a people with genocide in our history? Does not our history of the institution of slavery continue to disturb and disrupt the security of our identity as a people? As the greatest military superpower, is there not a deep contradiction between how we see ourselves and the perception other nations have of us?

The text is often an uncomfortable mirror.

Reading Joshua and Judges provides us with a larger context that aids our introspection so that better prepared and forewarned, our own primitive Israelite likeness, lurking just beyond sight, will not so easily ambush the unwary.

A Complex Matter of Chosen-ness; Romans 9-11

Some look at things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?


So Geroge Bernard Shaw opined. I was put in mind of his words when I faced up to one of Paul’s most controversial sections; Romans chapters 9-11, three excerpts from which comprise the New Testament readings for the Sundays August 6-20th. Romans 9-11 are somewhat controversial because in them Paul gropes around his core dilemma – the place of the Jews in a post-Jesus world.

In the shadow of the Holocaust, Christians rightly should be wary of reading Paul, or any of the canonical writers for that matter through the later lens of anti-Semitism. I say later lens because while anti-Semitism casts a long and very dark shadow across the fabric of Western Civilization, it’s not an attitude found in the New Testament. Perhaps with the possible exception of Luke, the New Testament writers were all Jews doing what Jews had always done and continue to do – namely, engage in fierce internal disputations with one another. For this reason, it’s all the more ex-cru(x)-ciating [1]  when we find the history of anti-Semitic sentiment inflamed by a most heinous misuse of New Testament texts as justifying a later widespread attitude of persecution towards the Jews.


The word is very near you, on your lips, and in your heart – for one believes in the heart and is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 


Romans Chapters 9-11 reveals Paul agonizing over the fact that despite the conversion of large imagesnumbers of gentiles, his own people, the Chosen People, reject the message of the good news. Being a good Jew he draws from Moses’ words recorded in Deuteronomy 30:1-14 reminding the Israelites that: the word is very near you, on your lips, and in your heart:. Paul interprets these words to mean the word of faith, which is now Jesus. He says: for one believes in the heart and is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 

Citing Isaiah: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!, Paul is led to proclaim that: anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. His concern is not for those who have yet to hear the good news. His concern is for those who have heard the good news and still reject it.

Paul loves his nation. He is a Jew, and not just any kind of Jew, but a Pharisee of the strict observance party. He struggles here and elsewhere in his writings to make sense of what for him is the source of greatest suffering; his own people’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

In this past week, I came across one commentator saying in his commentary on Romans 10:

Will it finally work for Israel?  Will they hear something that at long last opens their hearts and their eyes to embrace what until now they have rejected?  It is, as Paul knew painfully well, hard to say or predict.  What we know for sure is the obvious answer to Paul’s rhetorical question: How can they hear unless someone preaches to them in the first place? [2]\

It’s unclear to me whether the writer’s words are describing Paul’s dilemma or affirming a contemporary supersessionist sentiment. Supersessionism is the name given to the doctrine that in Christ God has superseded the Mosaic Law; the New Covenant signed in Christ’s blood has now displaced the old dispensation of God’s convent with Israel. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that the seeds of anti-Semitism germinate well in the fertile supersessionist soil.

I cannot in any sense support the conclusions of supersessionism, which to me are not only personally repugnant but also theologically wrong. I’m a good liberal to my core. So this confession would come as no surprise to those who know me. However, my rejection of supersessionism has nothing to do with being liberal or otherwise. It has to do with being a Christian.

On Providence’s Eastside, a small lane lies between the congregations of St Martin’s Episcopal Church and the Reform Temple of Beth-El. The challenges and opportunities of Jewish Christian relations are a daily reality for me. To this end, St. Martin’s and Temple Beth-El are seeking to establish a regular Temple-Church Conversation, open to both congregations and members of the wider public. However, as a religious leader, liberal sentiment is not a robust foundation on which to stand. Instead, the ground upon which I take a stand relies on the Bible and my ability to interrogate my own Scriptural tradition. This is the basis upon which I am led to the firm conclusion that supersessionism is not simply illiberal, it’s unchristian.


 Past and future promises; a conundrum


At the heart of Paul’s struggle lie the crucial questions about God’s reliability, constancy, and fidelity. Does God’s history (past promises) matter for God’s future (pledges about what lies ahead?)[3] He refers to his own people as Israelites. Why would he use such an archaic term, no longer used in his time, if not to deliberately conjure up the loaded imagery of God’s historic promise to Israel?

Paul’s heartfelt question is that in the light of what God has done through Jesus – is God still going to remain faithful to the promises made to Israel enshrined in the Law of Moses? If the answer is no, this cuts at the foundation of Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness as promise keeper. If yes, then how come the Jews don’t respond affirmatively to God’s invitation? You see his dilemma.

Unlike the Church in the centuries that follow, actually, Paul implies no judgment on the Jews for rejecting Christ. He writes as one steeped in the Hebrew prophetic tradition in which he struggles to make theological sense of the age old repetitive themes of disobedience and restoration within the relationship between God and his chosen people. In the end, despite the pain of his people’s rejection of Christ, Paul’s affirmation of what he knows to be true about God’s faithfulness as a keeper of promises compels him to shout out his startling conclusion: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.


The word is not very far for the same Lord is Lord of All


Paul wants to dream of things that are clearly not the case and ask why not? He has an argument to make, which is not the liberal one of everything is everything and so it doesn’t matter that the Jews reject Christ. In chapters 10 – 11 he continues to painstakingly lay out his case for why the Jews should accept Christ, while the unlikeliness of this happening is increasingly dawning on him. At the end, all he can be sure of is that the word of salvation remains very near, and it’s a matter of God’s gift how Jew and now Greek access the promise of salvation.

Shaw’s comment that some look at things as they are and ask why, while he dreams of things that never were and asks why not strikes me as going to the heart of the challenge Scripture presents. Each generation approaches Scripture from a generational context within which each of us is invited to respond to texts that refuse to behave according to our expectations.

Whether liberal or conservative, the Bible can confirm as well as confront our socially constructed sensibilities. It is true that at the level of words on the page, Biblical texts are frequently ambiguous. As we read through the Book of Joshua, the portrayal of genocide as a God sanctioned tool in the hands of the Israelites challenges us to our core as we look out on a world where once more genocide becomes a political and ethnic weapon. Genocide as God’s will affronts our sense of right action and the God whose law is love. Yet, lurking below the surface of our own cultural belief in American manifest destiny lays an appeal to the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan as our justification for the westward expansion that claimed a land we came to perceive as promised to us.

Yet, when we raise our eyes above the words on the page to pay attention to the multigenerational story we call the Judeo-Christian epic’s historical trajectory, we are confronted with a story that bends in the direction of justice and freedom for all. From our cultural and historical perspective, the claim that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice is because the Judeo-Christian epic bends it in that direction. It continually refuses to settle for the way things are and dreams of the way things could be.

Coming down from the lofty heights I want to get back to Paul. It seems to me that this is actually what Paul is trying to do. He finds himself trying to reconcile his conflict between the reality of Jewish rejection of Jesus and what he knows to be true about God’s faithfulness to past promises made to Israel.

In the Lectionary we still have one more week to go in our helicopter exploration of Romans 9-11. For me, it’s always been easier to skip over Romans 9-11 as if they’re not there. Skipping over unpalatable bits is after all our most frequently used hermeneutical tool.

Yet, as my community struggles with the challenges of working through The Bible Challenge, a 360-day program of reading the entire Bible, since Easter we’ve been daily confronted with the bewildering and often unpalatable texts of the Torah and its images of a tribal God. Currently, as we struggle through the genocidal accounts in the Book of Joshua, we are fast learning together that the Bible is not a nice book that behaves itself according to our post enlightenment expectations. Because as Paul himself finds out, God is not a God who behaves according to our expectations.

To move beyond merely looking at things as they are and settling for asking why, into dreaming of things that are still to come and asking why not, remains Scripture’s most enduring promise.

[1] My peculiar treatment of the word excruciating is to allude to the Latin for cross – crux that forms the semantic root of this word.

[2] Scott Hoezee

[3] Matt Skinner

Hidden Realities

Thin Places

Our Celtic forebears in the faith understood the importance of thin places. These were more often than not physical places of intersection between the temporal and spiritual dimensions. The Hebrew Bible identifies mountaintops as thin places, locations where a dimensional interpenetration resulted in a revelation that changed the course of development.

Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai was a transfiguration experience after which his face continued to shine so brightly with the divine energy that he had to veil himself in the presence of the people. The encounter between Moses and God resulted in the birth of a new and different kind of relationship with profound results echoing down the millennia. On Mt. Tabor, in the presence of the disciples Jesus’s appearance shone with a radiant illumination. Illumination is a metaphor for direct and unmediated human- divine encounter.

On Mt. Tabor, the disciples were witness to Jesus’ encounter images-2with Moses and Elijah. Theologically, this is an encounter that reveals the continuity of authority from the Covenant God made with Moses and the Israelites flowing into the New Covenant God makes with  Jesus and humanity. The presence of Elijah identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Through the enchanted images of the mountaintop experience, the theological identity of Jesus as the Messiah is confirmed in the presence of key human witnesses.

From a literary perspective, the Transfiguration marks the midpoint in all three synoptic Gospels. Up to this point, Jesus has been establishing his ministry in Galilee among the mixed gentile-Jewish populations of the north. The descent from Mt. Tabor marks a turning point in tone and action. Jesus now sets his face towards Jerusalem and his inevitable confrontation with institutional religion and the forces of empire.

Peak experience

The 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term peak experience to refer to experiences of transfiguration. We no longer live in a society that takes the idea of thin places very seriously. A world of enchantment in which supernatural events are encountered in the here and now is no longer part of our mindset. Instead, we have traded belief in the super natural for the certainty and predictability of the mundane. We find ourselves living in a rational world of disenchantment.

Enchantment and disenchantment are the terms that Charles Taylor uses to show the steady historical movement from a religious worldview of the Bible to that of our own secular and cynical age. The avenues leading back into an enchanted universe are now blocked off for us. No matter how hard we may wish it was not so, a pre-Enlightenment mindset of enchantment is no longer available to us.

Our modern dilemma

Unfortunately, the loss of enchantment has not rendered redundant our longing for transcendent experience. Consequently, in desperation, we cast about for experiences of transcendence that for a brief moment release us from within the prison walls of our disenchanted mindset. We have arrived in a world that Ken Wilber calls the flatland, a disenchanted world of arid rationality in which we become increasingly focused on finding ways to break out from the mind-numbing reality of post-post modernity.

Our modern quest takes on the quality of increasing desperation to find transcendence within the confines of the mundane. Our desperation makes us vulnerable to the addictions that promise us peak experience.

Our longing for the release of heightened sensory experience snares us in the addictions of modern-day life, which are many and varied. But they all share one characteristic – they compel us to misplace our hopes and dreams in substances, processes, behaviors, and technologies that promise more than they can deliver. It can take us a lifetime to discover that momentary escape is not a solution to the experience of living in flatland. Yet, increasingly we resort to the technologies of virtual or fantasy reality, substances that offer mind-altering or pain-numbing escape, and the all-pervasive patterns and behaviors of materialist self-medication.

Peter said, Lord it’s good to be here, let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – not knowing what he said. Peter’s unknowingness reveals the human longing to chase and capture peak experience. This is a failure to understand.  Peter wanted to make the experience permanent. He no sooner expressed his desire than puff it all evaporated. If we are unlucky enough to have religious peak experiences it makes living in this world even more unsatisfactory as we become consumed by the search to repeat what always remains an elusive experience.

Properly understood, the nature of peak experience opens our eyes to the bigger picture. It offers an ah-hah moment glimpsed and then gone. But a glimpse is enough to bring about realignment in the direction of finding not escapism, but satisfaction.

Descending the mountain – life on the flat(land)

The disciples and Jesus did not ascend the mountain in order to spend the rest of their days there. They ascended to encounter God and then descend down the other side. As they descended Jesus advised them to keep schtum, a popular British expression derived from the German word for silent. In effect, Jesus was telling them that it’s enough to have glimpsed the intersection of the temporal and divine dimensions lying within the secret heart of all reality. But glimpsing is the only possibility for transfiguration moments are elusive and unrepeatable.

As they came down Jesus, Peter, James, and John became instantly embroiled in heated encounter as the disciples who had remained at the bottom of the mountain had unsuccessfully tried to cast out a demon from a boy who we recognize as probably suffering from epilepsy. They must have wondered had their experience on the mountain changed anything? Apparently not, at least at the surface level of reality.

It didn’t last, it could not be repeated, and yet for Peter, John, and James, their experience at the mountaintop changed something. They now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jesus really was. This knowledge became the central organizing principle for the rest of their lives.

Confronting disenchantment

Disenchantment in the flatland must be confronted and not escaped from. within a lived encounter with a story that was expansive enough to enable them to experience the interpenetration of the spiritual and temporal dimensions. Despite the magical imagery of the enchanted world our mothers and fathers in faith experienced the divine within the heart of human reality much the same as we can. God is at the center of the future through an endless succession of present moments. In other words, God is active through history and the only moment is now.

Today, the best antidote to our profound sense of disenchantment is not to crave escape into pseudo states of re-enchantment, but to live lives motivated by curiosity, creativity, and wonder.

The words of W.B Yates seems to capture so much of our present predicament. In The Second Coming, he penned:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. 

The mount of Transfiguration offers no magic solution to the unfolding events that would lead Jesus, Peter, James, and John into the future. Yet, we can only believe that the experience on Mt. Tabor changed something that enabled them to come through the tumult of their future into the birth of a new way of experiencing the world.

We are powerless to dramatically change the way the world is. Yet there are moments of transfiguration in individual lives. When taken together these contribute to those moments of transfiguration in our common life together. For me, transfiguration is not defined so much as a peak experience, though sometimes it may be. Transfiguration lies in those moments when weimages-3 experience the ah-hah-ness of glimpsing a more expansive backdrop against which our daily lives are lived out. We come to a new appreciation of the otherwise ordinariness of life. We become encouraged or inspired to renew allegiance to that expansive story that leads us to rediscover that decency, faithfulness, and courage remain available to us.

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn, historian

I might say that to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is to participate in the reshaping of transfiguring experience.



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