I love everything about the story. I love that it begins by telling us that Jesus went away to pray. I love that. The idea of Jesus needing to cultivate his prayer life, of Jesus needing quiet time, inspires me to do the same. In fact, this transformation or transfiguration had to take place in a quiet place – it couldn’t happen amid the noise and distractions of regular life. We can be spiritual in the noise, obviously, but it’s virtually impossible to really focus on God when you’re distracted – even for Jesus!
I love that Jesus had this profound transformative spiritual experience, or possibly we could call it a mystical experience. He was said to be enveloped or enfolded in dazzling light, or a cloud. Mystical experiences are like that – ineffable, inexplicable, they lose everything in translation. But of course he had a mystical experience – he’s Jesus after all! He’s directly connected to God in a profound way.
Now for the best part! We turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 3 and we hear Paul say that WE ARE TOO!
We are directly connected to God in a profound way too! Not just Jesus. It’s not just for the spiritual superstars (whoever they might be) but profound transformative spiritual experiences (or maybe even mystical experiences) are for you!
Do you know what Paul says is stopping most people from these incredible experiences? The bible, the rules, the church, the handcuffs the institution has shackled on people over the centuries trying to codify and domesticate the indescribable and inexplicable.
In other words, churches have worked really hard to suck all the spirituality out of church. We didn’t do it on purpose. We thought we were protecting something precious – (like God needs our protection). We thought we were ensuring that people didn’t go off with half-baked ideas that might be dangerous – and that’s true, but it came at the cost of telling people what their experience was supposed to be instead of inviting them to climb the metaphorical mountain, hit their knees in prayer, and let the Spirit do its thing in its own way.
In other words, the church has done a fabulous job of passing on from generation to generation a second-hand experience of God, Christ, and Spirit when we should have been saying “here’s what happened to those folks, and here’s how it can happen for you too! Let us help you have a first-hand transformative spiritual experience that blows your mind and changes your life!” That’s what Paul is inviting us into in this passage. And I hope you feel that that’s what we’re trying to invite you into at Faith United too.
Maybe I ought to take a step back and talk about why we’d even want to have this kind of experience. I like the “what’s at stake?” question. What’s at stake in having, or not having, these profound spiritual or mystical experiences? What do we think is going on here?
Jesus was enveloped in light. Paul refers to Moses who after a first-hand God encounter had to wear a veil because his face glowed so much. Now, that may be pure hyperbole or it might be fact but either way it communicates that first-hand God-experiences change you! Then Paul talks about how our religious practice too often gets in our way and becomes like a veil over our eyes, and what we need to do is turn our focus back to God (we used to call that repenting) and God will remove the veil and we will be transformed just like Jesus was.
2 Corinthians 3:16-18 – “Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are – face to face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiselled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of God’s face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
What fascinates me is the veil image, because I think it gets to the heart of what’s at stake in all this. Think about a veil. You can see through it but not clearly. Something about the veil distorts reality, not completely, not ridiculously like you’re looking at a field with the veil and a garbage dump without it, but distorted nonetheless.
Here’s the million dollar question I want you to ponder. Which side of the veil is reality and which is the illusion? Which view is altered and which view is the really real?
If you listen to those who oppose organized religion and think God is just a mental construct you might think that the ordinary, everyday world of the non-religious types is real. Karl Marx infamously said that “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The actual quote is a little more complicated than that but the message is still clear – religion or spirituality creates or supports a false reality. It drugs people like opium, says Marx.
Many who are critical of people of faith say that we are living in a dream world where we talk to an imaginary friend who does whatever we ask and has a long beard and lives in the clouds. Besides being decidedly ignorant in their understanding of what I might actually believe about anything, their point is that the big bad world is the really real thing and religion is something humans have created to make the big bad world feel better – that religion outfits us with rose-coloured glasses. I think it’s the opposite.
Religion speaks of love in what appears to be a harsh and mean world.
Religion promises that you are never alone while the world seems to show that it’s me against everybody.
Religion says to help the other guy while the world says look out for number one.
Religion says there’s Something More than just this – the world says this is all there is, deal with it.
Which one sounds more real and true to you?
The non-religious say the world is what it is and religion puts a veil over people’s eyes so they don’t have to deal with reality. Again, I think it’s the opposite.
So I go back to my question: Which side of the veil is reality and which is the illusion? Because if you actually understand what religions (and I mean all religions, not just the one we were born into and practice) if you understand what religions are saying you’d know that it is only through spiritual transformation that one can actually encounter the “real” world.
It is, in fact, what passes for the real world that is wearing the veil. It is the ordinary, everyday, big, bad world that is the illusion and we are all participants in that illusion. All of us, that is, except those who have learned to see what’s really real. Religion doesn’t put rose-coloured glasses on us; it cleans the grungy window that we view the world through which we mistakenly thought was clear.
Like the lady in the joke who sees her neighbour hanging out her laundry and notices that the laundry is all gray and sad looking. Week after week the lady comments to her husband about their neighbour’s shabby laundry, and how she must be a terrible housekeep, and how they must not have very much money. Then one week the laundry is dazzling white and clean and the lady remarks “oh, the neighbours must have got a new job or she finally learned how to use her washing machine” to which her husband replies, “no, I just washed our window this morning!”
Remember what Paul said: “Whenever (we) turn to face God, God removes the veil and there (we) are – face to face! (We) suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiselled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation (that old distorted false view that thinks the world is the really real) is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us!”
If you read spiritual writing and mystical writing from all the world’s enduring religions you will encounter the same kinds of words – Ultimate Reality, The Transcendent, The Real, Undifferentiated Unity, Oneness – in other words, the indescribable Mystery that we’ve named God – not the invisible friend idea of God, just God. Something More. And the character of this Ultimate Reality, this Transcendent Oneness, this Really Real, is love.
Spiritual transformations – like the one Jesus had on the mountaintop, like the one Paul is inviting us into – change us. Listen to the words we use to describe our spiritual process: awakening, awareness, revelation, rebirth.
If we’re awakening then that suggests that we’re currently asleep.
If we’re gaining awareness then that suggests that we’re currently unaware.
If something is being revealed to us then that suggests something is currently hidden from our view or consciousness.
If we’re being reborn that means we have to die to something. In the Christian church we call that resurrection.
So again, which side of the veil is reality and which is the illusion? What’s at stake here? If we’re right – and obviously I believe with all my being that we are – then what’s at stake is settling for a counterfeit, diminished, less-than life when a vibrant abundant life is possible.
Dare I say that going through life asleep is something like what we’d call Hell? And awakening is Heaven? Those who have experienced transformation, had their epiphany, awakened the true light, the Really Real, are called to help a sleeping world to awaken to the reality that there’s Something More – that they’ve mistakenly fallen for the shiny rhinestone when a sparkling diamond awaits.
The benefits to you and me in spiritual awakening and transformation are obvious. Jesus called it abundant life! The aware, the awakened, the reborn enjoy the fruits of this spiritual transformation: “things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.” (Galatians 5:22 MSG).
In other words we see the world as it really, really is – as God intends it to be – not as humans have distorted it by trying to disconnect ourselves from the sacred presence in all things because that gets in the way of our self-centredness and self-importance.
We see the indescribable beauty of nature and go weak in the knees when we see a gorgeous sunrise or sunset.
We see the hidden goodness and sacredness of people and try to draw more of that sacredness out of them.
We see the value in loving and reaching out to others who might need help and try to inspire people to join us.
If you’ve seen the movie “The Matrix” you’ll have a good visual picture of what I’m trying to describe. It’s a science fiction movie that posits that what humanity experiences as reality is actually a computer generated fiction, that we are all part of a complex computer program and that the reality is that humanity is enslaved and our bodies are hooked up to machines because our bodies generate power to run the machines.
The story goes that our hero, Neo (which means new, or renewed!), gets “awakened” by a group of people who have also been awakened. It’s a long and complicated story, but in the end Neo learns to be in the fictional world and see reality while he’s in it – he can see through the illusion to what’s really real. He has eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s not a Christian movie by any stretch but the themes are similar. The world is asleep even though it seems perfectly real, and the good guys spend their time trying to help others awaken and know the really real.
Here’s the downside. The illusion is sometimes easier. It’s easier to live a self-centred, disconnected life where you only worry about you and yours. It’s harder to tilt against the prevailing winds and try to speak awakening to people who are happy sleeping.
So why would we do it? Why would we disturb the status quo if it seems to be working for people? Because it’s an illusion. It’s a counterfeit. There is a far more abundant life available. There is a far more glorious way to experience the world. It’s called reality. It’s about experiencing the Really Real, the Transcendent, the Sacred. It’s about embracing that Something More that people feel in their bones must be there but they’re not sure how to get at it.
We know the answer. You get at it by climbing the mountain (metaphorically). You get at it by letting down your guard, daring to accept that what you think is real is actually a distorted illusion, opening yourself (or turning) to God (or Spirit, or the Sacred, or your Higher Power, or the More, or whatever name you want to give it), and letting the light, or cloud, or whatever, transform you.
And your veil will be lifted. And you will see the world and the people in it as they really are – blessed, sacred, lovely, a treasure. And you will know that religion is not the opiate of the masses but the clear-eyed understanding and experience of Ultimate Reality. Religion is our best ham-fisted attempt at trying to organize the unorganizable and help others make this journey of awakening.
One last thing. That profound, mountaintop, transformative spiritual experience doesn’t just happen once for all time. It happens once and then over and over again – every time you focus on God – ever deepening. Paul described it; “Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of God’s face. And so we are transfigured much like (Jesus was), our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
– our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like Jesus.
And the best thing about this transformation that Jesus shows us, that Paul invites us to, and that we are seeking to experience for ourselves, is that it’s available for everyone. Everyone! No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or whatever – awakening to the Really Real is waiting. Really!