Print This Post

Sermon – “Witnesses” – March 2, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9

In First Corinthians Paul writes “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?” This spirit which uniquely comprehends the self is not the mind. The spirit is like wind or breath– it carries, it is felt, it comes and goes, it is enlivening, and it is invisible. It is more like energy than substance, yet in the form of breath brings something vital within.

It may be an odd way to think about an inner reality, but whatʼs mysterious in our nature, or complicated about our seeking to understand ourselves, or both, make this metaphor of moving air enter the language by which Paul seeks to make sense. Paul thinks that the spirit, being a kind of current capable of flowing into things and transporting things, is the guarantee of inner knowledge. It plumbs the depths, and its penetration assures direct readings of the reality of those qualities hidden within.

This access right to whatʼs really going on inside is what makes gut feelings, or first hunches, or intuitions, so compelling. What we experience is that the message from them is not manufactured by comparison and reflection, or influenced by memory or imagination, but comes to us spontaneously and simply. Whatever the durability of love at first sight– and sometimes it holds up for a lifetime–it has this self-authenticating aspect of immediacy.

Another way to think about it is as firsthand knowledge. Our comprehension of it is not owed to explanation, which always involves additional perspective. Our experience is that we engage it directly, and our belief about it is that we have seen it for what it is.

This unreflective, immediate kind of knowledge can be best. Many simple, repetitive tasks succeed when people perform them automatically, letting the inner know- how, of which one is unselfconscious, guide what happens. In basketball there is always potential to choke at the free-throw line, simply because the shot taken there is not part of the rhythm of the game. Too much awareness of the variables may interfere with the practiced touch. In that situation itʼs better to shoot with the body than with the mind.

The experienced, practiced person learns to trust this inner self. We rely upon it. One reason people are tempted to distract themselves when they are driving, by doing crazy things like texting, is that their unconscious selves drive so well so much of the time.

Iʼve already mentioned love as something which people feel is real because they apprehend it in their inner being as a simple fact. People may have reason to question whether to act on feelings they discover within themselves, but people donʼt question the feelings themselves. Those are accepted as real and inevitable. Thatʼs simply the nature of inner experience.

Religion has much of its power from experiences of this kind. Based on beliefs which canʼt conclusively be proved, trusting practices and principles which rely on the reality of invisible things, and confidently discounting contrary evidence, having a God would not be so common as it is if people werenʼt, in their inmost being, finding themselves in the presence of events or apprehensions of which religion alone makes sense.

This integrity of consciousness and inner conviction, this firsthand experience of the reality of God, and the claim upon one which God makes, is regarded as unanswerable. People have been burnt at the stake because they were asked to choose between this unquestioned insight and somebody elseʼs preferred perspective, and they couldnʼt deny the truth of what had been revealed to them.

The author of the Second Letter of Peter understands the self-authenticating quality of religious experience. Just as Paul refers in his correspondence to mystical experiences to support the authority he has to advise and admonish, so the author of this letter claims a mystical vision to under gird the special character of his own discipleship and trustworthiness as a teacher. In Second Peter– and this is part of the traditional ascription of this epistle to the disciple Peter– the validating encounter with holiness is the one recorded in Matthewʼs gospel which we now know as the Transfiguration.

The word “Transfiguration” means a “change of face.” The perception of the witnessing disciples is that Jesusʼ face becomes luminous, and that his whole appearance dazzles. Eventually a bright cloud envelopes everything. Out of the cloud a voice endorses Jesus as Godʼs son, and then everything about the event ends suddenly. Normal perceptions resume, and Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain where this has taken place.

In the gospel account Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything about the vision until after the resurrection. That suggests a relationship between the vision and the resurrection, and that is partly explained in the give-and-take between Jesus and the disciples afterward. The place of Elijah and his identification with John the Baptist is clarified, and the execution of John is explained as a prelude to the execution of Jesus. The heavenly origin of these dramas which take place on earth is evident in what the disciples have just witnessed, and possibly the restriction on saying anything before the resurrection acknowledges that nobody knows how to think about visionary experiences in a vacuum. Unless there is some way to connect them with other convincing events, they tend to be treated like dreams, as eruptions into consciousness of important-seeming sights which then vanish without being integrated into the rest of oneʼs experience.

Some of us have heard that a visionary episode is part of experiencing God and feel insecure because nothing like that seems to have happened to us. Others of us have had weird things happen to us but weʼve never managed to tie them into anything sensible at all, including religion, so they just linger in some little-visited part of our memories. If thatʼs the case then itʼs likely that we still arenʼt sure what to make of them, or whether our recollection of what happened is reliable.

Once anyone with an experience of dislocation or illumination would have looked to religion to provide a context for it. If they were practicing believers they might find a way to incorporate their private experience into the broader life of the church. If they were skeptics- – and this would have been the case more a century or so ago, that religion was still a dominant explanatory model but many people werenʼt sure how to think about it– they still understood visions of this sort as “religious experiences.” In fact, even now, when traditional institutions of all kinds are being discounted, including the church, people continue to have this happen in their lives and they understand that itʼs spiritual, and they apprehend that it may have to do with a larger reality than the one they usually experience.

What happens, often, is that people have this direct-seeming, firsthand experience of what feels like a greater reality. They wonʼt be able to tell themselves it is an illusion, so its distinct character from ordinary experience increases the sense that it must mean something. It seems like it is trying to tell them something, and something important. And then, just as in the gospel, it is gone– it goes from being a vivid, if puzzling, experience, to a fading, and not very clear recollection.

The disappointing thing about this is that visions always end up having to be interpreted, not in the world of transcendent illumination, but here, in this ordinary world. It is when they are over that whatever in them seemed important is given some meaning, either directly by the person whoʼs gone through them, or with the help of a counselor or somebody else with whom it is shared. This is the pattern from scripture: Moses on the mountaintop or Isaiah in the Temple or Jesus at the Transfiguration all afterwards find a way to relate it to real things that have happened, or other things they expect really to happen. This is what the apostle Paul insists be done with the charismatic experiences within his churches–their intensity is evident, but their usefulness waits upon someone interpreting meaning to everyone else– and what will it be? It will always be the same thing that God tells us in other ways–be prayerful, patient, brave, generous, humble.

In Matthewʼs gospel this religious experience of the disciples becomes a literary echo of Godʼs affirmation of Jesus at his baptism, and the occasion for more teaching about John the Baptist and the coming crucifixion and resurrection. Does it change the behavior of the disciples privileged to witness it? No. They are no more confident before the crucifixion or comprehending after the resurrection than the others.

What religious experience means is that we spend almost all our time in a world the limits of which seem set, but there is more that we donʼt suspect. Whether it is special favor or simply random slipping aside the veil which makes people have such visions is something only they can guess. In the long run, they remind all of us that what seem like the routine habits of religion-the moral scruples, the rituals, the assumptions abut reality which come from faith–do indeed belong, not only to culture or custom, nor answer only the needs of order or identity, but correspond to a realm unimaginably large, and meanings unfathomably profound.

To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon” button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting recent sermons.