Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
September 7, 2008
TRANSFIGURATION, THEOSIS AND TRANSFORMATION
Texts: II Peter 1:3-4; II Corinthians 3:18; and Matthew 17:1-9
We have a yearning to be more than we are – and for the world to be more. This yearning is from God. It is the hope of transformation. On the personal level it is the “new being,” the “new personhood.” On the cosmic level it is the “new creation.” We get a glimpse of it in today’s text, what we call the Transfiguration.
I was praying with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey on August 6. August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and worship centered on today’s gospel. It is a minor feast day in the Western Church, but it is one of the major feast days in the Eastern Church, the Orthodox Church – Greek, Russian, Coptic, to name a few of its branches. It is also called the Feast of Metamorphosis. You’ll see why.
The Christian life is about transformation. I was going to use the word “change”, but after hearing the word “change” 42,000 times during the last two weeks of political conventions I ditched it. The Christian life is about transformation, becoming who God made us to be, and the world itself being transformed. It is a becoming, and it is also an awakening to our true self created in the divine image. In the second century Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” What God offers is transformation. It’s a stirring thought. The great French paleontologist and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote:
We have had too much talk about sheep.
I want to see the lions come out!1
In today’s text Jesus takes three disciples, Peter, James and John to the top of Mt. Tabor to pray. (Later, on the night of his arrest, he will take these same three into the Garden of Gethsemene to pray.)
Suddenly his body changed – literally “metamorphosized.” His face shone like the sun and his clothes were as white as gleaming light. Two figures appeared and began to talk with Jesus. Moses and Elijah. (How did the disciples know it was Moses? They hadn’t yet seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. In icon art Moses is depicted holding a book. Elijah is an old man with long hair.) Moses and Elijah, represent in Hebrew tradition the Law and the Prophets, the heart of God’s revelation to the Hebrew people.
It was a glorious vision of the divine realm come to dwell in our earthly realm, eternity and time, spirit and matter become transformedly one. Peter wanted to stay there forever:
Lord, it is good that we are here. If you want I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.
We can identify. There are those moments when we feel at one with God and life itself, when we transcend our small self and experience the beauty, the vastness, the love and truth of God, and we want it to last forever.
But it was not over. The Transfiguration was not just a visual revelation, it was also an auditory one. A bright cloud overshadowed them, and a Voice said, as at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Then added, “Listen to him.” Hear and obey him. He is my revelation you have in front of you. Follow him.
The disciples fell to the ground in fear. Icon art captures the moment: Peter on the left leaning back on his left hand, his right hand shielding his eyes; John in the middle, his whole body turned away from Christ; James thrown completely backward, on his back, his hand covering his face.
And Jesus said the words we need every day: “Rise, and do not be afraid.” As we wake, and work, and face what life brings: “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
Then they opened their eyes, and peered through their fingers and saw: Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus was there with them alone.
The Eastern Church, as I’ve said, has made the Transfiguration a major feast day. And for them it’s not just about what happened to Jesus, but what happens to us as well. The world is being transfigured!
The Eastern Church calls it theosis, divinization, or deification. It’s about our participation in the divine, our partaking of the divine life and being changed. The language seems strange to us. Deification? Divinization? Theosis for “such a worm as I?!”
Athanasius in the fourth century captured the sense of it in a famous sentence: “God became human that we might become divine.”2
A central passage for Eastern Christianity is II Peter 1:3-4. It is as important as John 3:16.
Paul came close to this vision when he wrote:
Then he added the important words: “For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, caught the vision of theosis as he read early church writings and experienced it as God “warmed” his heart. He called it “Christian perfection”, and by that he meant the perfection of love, God’s love pervading our minds and hearts, our being. His brother Charles put it into the words of the hymn we sing today:
Finish, then Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee.
Changed from glory into glory.
Till in heaven we take our place
Till we cast our crowns before Thee
Lost in wonder, love and praise.
Thomas Hopko, Orthodox theologian and dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York City, writes that there is today too much talk, or too much easy talk, about theosis or deification. He cites Simeon the New Theologian (c. 1000 CE.) on the matter: “What is it to be deified? It’s to love with the love which he has loved us, and to prove it by the enemy and the co-crucifixion that we endure with him – that’s deification.”3
Perhaps that’s what Jesus was trying to say coming down the Mount of Transfiguration when he said to the disciples: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” It takes cross and resurrection to comprehend deification! That is, the depth of God’s love and the power of God’s Spirit.
Why is this talk of theosis important to me – and why should it be important to us? Let me offer some beginning thoughts.
1) For a world and a church that sets the bar too low for what humanity is and can become, this raises the bar. The phrase “we’re only human” no longer applies.
Transfiguration is not only about Jesus, it is about us: Who we are as those created in the divine image and who we can become filled with God.
Thomas Merton had a famous epiphany, a vision where he saw the world transfigured. Here are his famous words.
In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to each other, even though we were total strangers....I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate....If only people could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.4
2)Theosis, divinization, sanctification, holiness, whatever we call it, “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” In his massive new work, A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor re-narrates the rise of secularism in the Western World. One great shift has happened in our conception of the self. The modern secular self is what he calls the “bounded self.” (He described the ancient and medieval self as “the porous self,” open to be invaded or influenced by spirits, good and evil.) All we have is what we have inside us. All we can draw upon is our human capacities. He calls it “exclusive humanism”, meaning the human left exclusively to its own capacities.
But what if there is a divine resource, deep within us or far beyond us here among us? What if we can partake of the divine nature? Would we want to give up that chance?
3) Let us not give up on what the Spirit of God can do. We all have tried to muster our best human capacities and draw up God’s capacities. Sometimes with success, sometimes with failure. I wrote this summer these words with its note of human weakness and despair:
None of us live the life we want.
We need the help of God.
Sometimes God comes through in time.
Other times not.
But I later answered myself, today I answer myself:
But God is never through with us. There is always the possibility of transformation, when the power of the divine and our human power come together, when God’s will and our deep willingness merge and we become more, graced. Spiritual growth is not dependent on age, gender, or I.Q. or circumstance of life, only on our openness to the divine.
Dare we hope for this?
One of my favorite stories from the desert fathers and mothers is this one:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can , I say my little office [keep my little rule], I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man [Abba Joseph] stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”5
1As cited in Arnie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Kropf, 1999), p.150.
2On the Incarnation, p. 54.
3As cited by Thomas Hopko, “What Do the Orthodox Want From Monks Today?” Monkscript (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2002), p. 64.
4Thomas Merton, Conjectures Of A Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p.157-8.
5 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).
6Joseph of Panephysis, 7, Sayings, p.103. Cited by Roberta Bondi, To Pray and To Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p.7.