February 10, 2013

On being transformed

Passage: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.


Theologian W. Paul Jones wrote: “What one sees depends on where one sets up one’s shop.  Mine is at the entrance of an empty tomb.”

The potency of the human imagination to affect life is remarkable; how we see our life unfolding has direct impact on what we experience. This is why we write objectives, set goals, craft mission and vision statements.  It is now six weeks into 2013; behavioural theorists tell us that it takes about six weeks to establish a new habit (or break an old one).  Did you resolve to make some changes in 2013?  How are you doing with them?

The imagination is indeed a potent faculty that each human possesses. The caution is that what one sees via this imagination is one faculty among others; life isn’t merely the outcome of human’s ability to imagine.  It is one thing to imagine a sleeker thinner me at the beginning of 2013; it requires the cooperation of other human faculties for this to be actual.  There is a big difference between imagination and actual transformation.

This is why I like the sentence of W. Paul Jones; it implies much more than simply the exercise of human imagination. “What one sees depends on where one sets up one’s shop.  Mine is at the entrance of an empty tomb.”

1.  Something dreadful has happened between Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the second. NT Wright describes this mood change in the second letter.  “We find ourselves like people revisiting a house the morning after a cheerful, boisterous family gathering, and discovering that atmosphere sombre, leaden and gloomy.  Something has gone terribly wrong. ... But his (Paul’s) tone of voice, even his style of writing, indicates, before so much as mentions what has happened, that in the comparatively short interval between the letters—a year or two at most—something has happened which has changed him, and that he and the Corinthians have been through something that has changed their relationship.”

What precisely that situation was remains uncertain, though many hypotheses have been offered.  Two things can be said on a general level. The first is that Paul suffered enormously at Ephesus, in ways that the story in Acts only hints at.  The riot (Acts 19) was probably only the surface noise; the story was recorded by Luke to indicate that the magistrate decided there was no reason for the riot, but it hides the deepest things Paul actually underwent.  Paul does not say what happened, but he tells the Corinthians the effect it had on him: he was so utterly overwhelmed, beyond any capacity to cope, that he “despaired of life itself”.  He felt that*9 he “had received the sentence of death” in himself (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).  This language sounds close to what we call a nervous breakdown, and certainly indicates severe depression.  Paul went through severe physically suffering, imprisonment and quite possibly torture and deprivation of food or sleep.  The second cause of his despair is the steep decline in his relationship with the Corinthian church itself.  (The exact cause of this deterioration of relationship is unclear; many hypothesis).

In both of these things the anchor that Paul has held on to, of which he will write in this letter, is the resurrection.  For Paul the resurrection isn’t just about the future; what matters is the continuity between future Christian hope and present Christian experience.  In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of discovering in the powerful resurrection of Jesus and the promised resurrection for all his people the secret of facing suffering and pain here and now.  “9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (1:9)

This is the context of our reading from 2 Corinthians; it is the framing for the picture that Paul’s paints of life for the believer.  “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”  The Spirit by anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection gives resurrection life in the present.  The believer is being transformed “seeing the glory of the Lord’; we are in relationship with a risen Saviour through whom we are transformed.  The risen Christ is the power to transform life here now and now!

W. Paul Jones comment is very perceptive: “What one sees depends on where one sets up one’s shop.  Mine is at the entrance of an empty tomb.”

2. I am interested in the subject of leadership development; I recently came across a website of a leadership development practitioner who focussed his work on helping ministers with their leadership skills.  The website’s tagline read, “engaging the Neuroleader in you.” I was intrigued to know what was meant by neuroleadership.  The introductory material explained that it was an innovative and fresh approach to leadership that supports biblical leadership principles with the latest discoveries in neuroscience on how our brains work.

There are benefits that accrue in life in the help offered in such self understanding.  The angles of vision supplied by the disciplines of say sociology, psychology, physiology, and neurology (plus others) have produced tools and technologies the have enhanced human achievement in a variety of fields.  Many of you will know of the four quadrant understanding of human personality made popular by the Myers-Briggs personality test.  This work spawned a whole series of similar tests for self-understanding based on this four-quadrant idea. The promise of participating in such tests was always some measure of self-improvement.  Some might even say that if I were to take the challenge and “engage the neuroleader in me” it could have a transformative affect.

What I find is that each of these angles of vision on the human situation is limited in scope; limited by the parameters of the field of study.  This is not to be negative but simply to state what is obvious.  The strength of specialization is also its challenge. Somewhat like how the plumber and the electrician each view the house on which they are both working; you want the specialization of each and at the same time know that a house isn’t organized for its wiring nor its plumbing sake.  (The house is much more than a tap or a switch, though you want both of these working)

I am struck by the gospel that offers total human transformation. “And all of us, ... seeing the glory of the Lord ... are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  As a believer should I not them be engaged in the means of this transformation; engaged in becoming the human that Jesus sees me becoming?  It can be exciting to engage in a project of developing leadership skill.  But to participate in God’s transformation project in me is of an exponential order of magnitude; it is to engage in God’s great purposes to set all things to right.

3. We often speak about “getting to the heart of the matter”.  In this saying the heart is a metaphor for essence; the thing that gives life to rest; the core of the matter that we know if we could change we would change everything else along with it.  The Bible has been a great influence in using the word “heart” in this way.  The transformation that the Apostle speaks about touches the whole of our human existence because it is a transformation driven principally through a transformation of the heart.

Biblically speaking the heart is the centre of the human’s being; it is the spring from which the will directs action; it is the seat of the affections and the understanding; it is the focal prism of the personality.  It is the human’s heart that Jesus said was corrupted; “it from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” said our Lord (Mark 7:21).  It is this heart that Jesus comes among us to heal and restore.  Another image the Bible uses to speak of this same thing is the restoration of the image of God; the image that has been defaced and marred by sin.

How does this transformation occur? The “glory of the Lord” that Paul has in mind is the risen Jesus.  Final transformation takes place at the resurrection.  But Paul insists it begins now; our hearts transformed are being prepared for the final product.

You have heard the expression that some things are caught more than they are taught.  In the course of academic studies I always found writing challenging; someone once said to me that good writing is more caught than taught.  Some skills you can sharpen and acquire but there is an intangible piece that is “caught” in relationship with those who do it well.  A good practice is to read the work of good writers; this is one way to be in relationship with them.  I think the same is true of preaching; skills can be developed but there is a piece that is caught in relationship with mentors.

I have often reflected that there is a way this idea applies to the work of helping people in difficulty.  Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, England once said “The dreadful truth is that when people come to see their MP they have run out of better ideas.” I often think the same may be true when people call on clergy.  When people come to me seeking help, as they describe their situation, I often hear in their self-story the self-imposed barriers to making helpful change.  One of the things I would love to impart is a new picture of themselves out of which to live; but these things are more caught than taught—and they are caught in relationship.  Skill development is helpful—often, though, there is no accompanying belief structure to make use of the skill thus developed.  What such people need is to be in the company of others who share a different vision of life so they can “catch” this intangible.

The believer, says Paul, is in relationship with Jesus Christ.  There are means and mystery to this transformation that emerges from this relationship.  The means are things like worship, study, prayer, and sacrament.  While Jesus can use any means, he has promised unfailingly to meet us in these.  Hearing and heeding Jesus always takes the form of hearing and heeding the Apostles’ testimony to him written for us in the scriptures.  As we study and worship and pray, it is Christ himself who is forming us in his image.  There is mystery here as well for only Christ can do this work in us.  AS one theologian put it, to gaze by faith into the gospel is to behold Christ himself.

Do you ever watch a child when they figure out how something works and then how quickly this learning emerges in all kinds of situations?  Once a child knows how to size things visually the largest piece of dessert is easily spotted.  My grandchildren know how to work television remote controllers; so when their Papa is watching football the channel gets changed to cartoons and they race from the room to hide the remote which means a chase and lots of shrieking and laughing.

I remember clearly when the penny dropped on certain aspects of the logic of the gospel.  In the Bible, for example, when people are spoken to by God they know themselves addressed, they know who it is that is addressing them, and God provides the categories for understanding the meaning of his address.  The characteristic of God revealed in the scriptures is that he speaks.  It came as a great relief that it was not up to me to figure out God through my rational capacities; this is not to say that our minds are inactive.  It is to marvel with joy that my Saviour has come and made himself know to me; it is to preach in the confidence that he speaks to you as well.

You too will know such experience.  As you have embraced a point of Christ’s teaching in your heart it emerges in us throughout our lives; our wills, understanding, affections, and actions are shaped as the logic of the gospel forges its trajectories over our lives.  Take, for example, the story of Jesus healing a boy tormented by a demon.  Luke tells us “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.”  Jesus’ action shows us that it is God’s desire to release all who suffer such torments of mind and being.  It informs us to behave towards such people with love that is informed from knowing our Saviour’s intention for them.

4.  In December last year the results of a Forum Research poll was released.  The poll revealed that two-thirds of Canadians consider themselves spiritual while just 50% say they are religious; spiritual but not religious.  And a quarter of those who profess “no religion” still expressly believe in God.

When I think about what to make of “spiritual but not religious” I am struck by the ambiguity in the terminology.  It feels like watching a blurred picture on a movie screen. No one doubts that there actually is something on the screen; at the same time what’s there is so very unfocussed that no one can say what it is, and no one can state what is being conveyed.

In such a spiritual climate the church’s claim with Peter about Jesus—You are the Christ, the Son of the living God—is heard as narrowness and exclusive.  But doesn’t the effectiveness of a knife depend on the narrowness of its cutting edge?  Can’t the movie be seen and enjoyed only if the focus is as precise as possible

When we say with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” we are not saying that God acts only here; we are saying, rather, that God is known to act here for sure. We aren’t saying that we alone are the beneficiaries of God’s care; we are saying, rather, that we know here precisely how God cares for us and to what end. We aren’t saying we have all the answers; we are saying, rather, that here we can distinguish life’s genuine questions from pseudo-questions. We aren’t saying that God hasn’t communicated himself anywhere else; we are saying, rather, that in Jesus of Nazareth God has given us himself and illumined us concerning the truth and meaning and force of his self-giving.

I believe that as Christians engage in vibrant spiritual life in Christ—the kind of life Paul calls “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”—we witness to our world there is someone much more satisfying than “spiritual but not religious”.