February 11: Transfiguration Sunday
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9
Many of you are probably familiar with the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion, often referred to as his Damascus Road Experience. You can read about it in Acts 9.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. As he and some traveling companions are nearing the city of Damascus for the purpose of rounding up and imprisoning as many Christ-followers as they can find, he’s blinded by a bright light emanating from the sky, causing him to fall to the ground. A voice, also coming from above and all around, speaks to him. Paul quickly discovers that this voice belongs to none other than Jesus Christ who is very much alive and living in his glorified state. Jesus informs Paul that his persecution of Christ-followers is tantamount to persecuting Christ himself. After receiving instructions from Jesus about what to do next, Paul’s sight is restored, and his ministry and life suddenly goes in a whole new direction. For the remainder of his life and beyond, Paul will be the most important and influential Christ-follower throughout Christendom.
So, what did Paul do that made him so important and influential? Two things, really. First, he travelled extensively throughout the Roman Empire preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, planting churches, and equipping people to lead those churches.
And second, over the course of his ministry, he had a lot of written correspondence with various congregations and church leaders. Some, if not most, of his letters were forever lost, but a few of them survived. Those surviving letters comprise a significant portion of the New Testament. The books we know as Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, and the letters to Timothy, are a few of Paul’s letters which are now considered sacred Scripture.
The reason Paul’s letters have been so vital all these centuries is because they contain foundational truths about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the nature of church, and salvation. Taken together, his letters are the primary theological textbook of Christianity. Everything we know and believe about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation is based on the writings of Paul.
It would be fair to wonder how did Paul come to know the foundational theological truths upon which was built the Church of Jesus Christ? At the time of his conversion, it would be at least another 15-20 years before the first of the four Gospels were written, so he didn’t have those as a source of information. So, what were his resources?
Well, from what I can tell, his source material falls into three categories. First, Paul had his own Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. As a Pharisee, Paul was a biblical scholar. He’d studied the Hebrew Scriptures his whole life and was thoroughly knowledgeable with what it contained. We know that it was a primary source for him because he often referenced it in his letters.
A second source was the Holy Spirit. If we take Paul at his word, then we know for a fact that the Holy Spirit played a vital role in Paul’s theological education. In his letter to the Galatians, he describes how he came to know the truth of Jesus Christ even though he hadn’t had a face-to-face in the flesh encounter with the Lord such as the original Twelve had. He writes, “Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). In this statement, Paul acknowledges that his message of salvation [through Jesus Christ] isn’t based on instructions he received from other people, but on what was given to him by Jesus Christ himself. And even though he didn’t specifically reference the Holy Spirit in this statement, it’s safe to say he was implying that he was taught by the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of of the risen Christ.
The third source is other people. On the surface, this might seem to contradict what he said in Galatians 1:11-12. So, maybe another way of saying it is that his primary source was the Holy Spirit, not people. But the fact is he was influenced in his teaching and leading by the various groups of people with whom he had regular contact. He had contact with those who knew Jesus personally, such as the original group of Apostles, people like Peter, James, John; as well as who personally knew Jesus but weren’t part of that original group of Twelve, such as Jesus’ brothers and sisters. And, of course, Paul had contact with those who didn’t personally known Jesus but had been taught by those who did.
In the book Galatians, a few verses after his statement about receiving revelation directly from Jesus Christ, he provides a general timeline of his immediate post-conversion travels. Based on what he writes, I think it’s safe to say that in those early years of his new faith in Christ, he had lots of contact with church leaders. Galatians 1:16b-18 says (and I hear this as reference to what happened after his initial few days in Damascus), “I didn’t immediately consult with any human being. I didn’t go up to Jerusalem to see the men who were apostles before me either, but I went away into Arabia and I returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.”
It was probably during his time in Arabia that he received his divine revelations about the gospel—when Jesus gave him the theological foundation for his future teachings and writings.
But notice where he went after being in Arabia. He returned to Damascus. And who was in Damascus? Church leaders, including, most likely, Ananias, the man to whom Paul was sent on the day of his conversion to receive his sight back. And according to v. 18, how long was he in Damascus? Three years. Three years of learning and growing in the faith. Three years of taking what he’d been taught by the Holy Spirit and laying it alongside what those church leaders taught. My guess is that in the process, both Paul and those church leaders (as well as all the Christians in Damascus) grew in their faith as they all incorporated the spiritual truths that were being given to them.
Today’s Gospel reading is another instance of Jesus revealing the truth of himself to human beings. Up on the mountain, Jesus revealed his divine nature to Peter, James, and John by allowing that aspect of himself to become visible to the naked eye. What they saw was light which emanated outwardly from within Jesus through his skin and clothing. Peter, James, and John saw it and believed the truth about who Jesus was. In Scripture, light represents a number of things, but for our purposes this morning, it represents the truth of Jesus (that he’s the divine Son of God) as well as the means by which that truth is revealed.
Here’s a question: did Jesus reveal this important truth about himself to each of those three disciples individually, or when they were together as a small group? They were together when they were shown that truth of Jesus. And without doubt, when they returned to the rest of the group, their three-fold witness to what they were shown on the mountain strengthened them all.
After Paul’s initial period of intense learning the truth about Jesus from the Holy Spirit, what was the context of the next three years of his life, a period of time in which his understanding of Jesus Christ and his atoning death and resurrection were affirmed and strengthened? Was he holed up in a log cabin all by himself, or did his faith and knowledge of the truth of Jesus develop in relationship with other believers? He was with other believers.
I suspect there’s something important here for us to know, but also for us to adopt in our own faith development. It seems to me that the gaining and growing in the knowledge of the truth of Jesus Christ most often happens in relationship with others, and less often through private revelation. Our very best learning and growing in faith happens when we’re with others—others who are on that same journey with us. Sure, God speaks to us individually. Certainly, it’s important to have a personal prayer and worship life. But it’s when we’re leaning into our faith with others that it really moves forward.
This reality has a number of applications, beginning with the fact that being an active part of the community of faith is paramount in one’s faith development. How can one grow in Christ while remaining apart from the body of Christ? I know that we live in a culture that places a high value on rugged individualism, but in the economy of God’s kingdom, there really is no such thing as a Christian in isolation, that is, when it’s done on purpose.
Connecting with the community of faith can happen in different ways. Each of them are important; each contribute to the overall experience; and utilizing all of them will have the greatest impact. Regularly participating in corporate worship. Joining in on various social events, most of which are intended to foster friendships and relationships among the members of the church family. Active participation in classes, life groups, Bible studies, and other offerings specifically designed to help us mature in our faith and practice. Participating in service projects and on mission teams, helping serve at a funeral lunch, serving on a ministry team or administrative committee, being a Sunday morning usher or greeter or liturgist. All of these things I’ve mentioned are ways that we participate in the community of faith. And it’s when we intentionally connect with others and seek to live out our faith in the context of relationship that we experience the power of the gospel.
One important aspect of the gospel message is that you’re not alone. To invite Christ into your life is to know that God is always with you, and within you. At the very least, you can know that you’ve got God with you. But the real power of God with us is felt in the context of the community of faith. That could be the experience of being surrounded by others during corporate worship or when the other people in your life group pray over you after you share about a personal struggle with them.
During my three years of taking seminary classes, Caroline and I participated in three different churches. Hands down, my best experience, where I grew the most, and what I actually remember the most of, was the church we first attended. I can give you two reasons for this. First, our very first Sunday there—and this was a very large church—some people about our same age took notice of us, came over and talked with us, and 1) invited us to come back again the following week, and 2) invited us to join their Sunday school class. We did both. I can tell you that being a part of that Sunday school class was the major difference between my experience of that church and the other two. While we were there, I felt very connected to that church, and maybe in a way that I’ve rarely felt since then. Probably because in that setting I was on “equal footing” with the other class members. It was being a part of that small group that really made me feel connected to that church.
Friends, the glorious light of Jesus Christ which Peter, James, and John saw with their eyes while on the mountain still shines today. The truth of Jesus, the truth of the gospel, is still shining forth. Jesus himself is the Light, and he still breaks through the darkness which convinces us that we don’t need or want the support of Christian community; that’s we’re doing OK on our own; that our faith is a private matter and is of no concern to others. May the light of Christ break through wherever it needs to,in each of our lives that we would know the truth that the abundant life he came to give us happens in relationship. And may that light shine through US, the community of faith, and as means of revealing to all the truth of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.