The Four Essential Conversions

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, C, on Luke 9:28-36 February 10, 2013

Luke 9:28-36

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Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

The Point of Power

I make several assumptions as I stand up here on Sundays.  I assume that we are here because we know ourselves, at some level, as disciples of Jesus and we want to become better disciples.

I also assume that we give a lot of our time and attention on Sundays to listening to the gospels for that very reason; because they teach us who Jesus is and what he wants from us.  We get to see the original disciples in action and we find ourselves in that story along with them – both in their failures and in their success as disciples.

I also assume that we believe, at some level, that our lives really are more blessed, more meaningful, more significant when we grow as disciples of Jesus.

Well, if you are with me in these assumptions, this text is for us, so we will look at it together in the quest to be better, more faithful disciples of Jesus.

This text recounts two stories; the one we call the Transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, followed by the story of the healing of the boy with the demon.  I believe they are best told together.  But this text begins,

“Now about eight days after these sayings…”

which clearly shows that we are jumping into the middle of a story already in progress.  “Eight days after…” what “sayings”?  After the sayings like,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

And those sayings were after Jesus had sent his disciples out in ministry, on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to heal illness and to confront evil, and after they returned having had success.

So from successful ministry, to sayings about suffering and cross-bearing, to an odd, uncanny mountain top experience, and finally to a situation down in the lowlands where they failed to cure a boy of the evil spirit that was damaging him.

What could Luke have been trying to teach us about discipleship with these stories that culminate in this Transfiguration story followed by a discipleship failure story?

Jesus is not at all content to leave his disciples in the condition in which he finds them.  He keeps challenging them and encouraging them, teaching them – and even letting them fail – so that they will grow.  They need to begin with the four basic conversions. Each growth-step requires another conversion.

Conversion 1:  from Ego-centrism to Others

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Conversion number one is the conversion from the me-only, ego-centric world to the world of me-and-others.   From the infant who is only aware of himself,  to the toddler in the family, to the child at school, to the adult in the world.

In this conversion, we begin to understand the purpose for which we were put in this world: We are not here on this planet for ourselves alone.  The self-obsessed life is not worth living.  In fact it is fundamentally meaning-less.  I am connected to the other people on this planet in a web of responsibility and reciprocity.

Everything Jesus did helped to teach his disciples to experience the conversion from self-centeredness to openness to others.  From his first call, “Follow me” to his healings, parables, miracles, exorcisms, all of it was oriented to others – especially to others who had been marginalized or despised.  The disciples went out on that mission trip: they were learning this.

The question that confronts each of us is: have I experienced the conversion from my own self-centered default position, to an open embrace of others?  How would that conversion be seen in my life?

Conversion 2:  self-justification  to  humility

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Conversion two is from self-justification to humility.  It is the awareness that that I’m not always right, nor always in the right.  I’m not always right means I wake up to the truth that my opinions are not always correct, my facts are not always straight, I have a vested interests that I’m often protecting, consciously or not, power interests, privileges for myself and my family; the people in my group.  So, sometimes the only “facts” I’m willing to look at are those that serve my and our special interests.

But, I’m not always right, and the proof that I’m not is what you hear when you ask people who are holding the other end of the stick in each case.  I need to be converted from self-justifications to humility.

Neither am I always “in the right.” Regardless of my constant stream of self-justifications and excuses, sometimes I do wrong.  Sometimes innocently, as in unintended consequences, sometimes deliberately, I do things that if someone else did the same, I would say were wrong.  I violate my own standards; I’m not always in the right.

This is the conversion that drops the rhetoric of self-justification in favor of the rhetoric of responsibility, and apology, and if need be, of reparations.

Jesus taught his disciples who wanted to take the places at his the right and left in the kingdom that the first would be last and the last, first.  And he called them out when they got it wrong: when they wanted to shun children or foreign women or when they simply failed to trust God.

On the mount of transfiguration, Peter gets it wrong and has to be corrected.  Down below, they all fail to have enough faith to confront the demon who is possessing the boy.

The question the gospels confront me with is: Have I experienced the conversion from self-justification to humility?  How would that be visible in my life?

Conversion 3: the broken heart

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Conversion three involves awareness of suffering: other people suffer just as I do.  Other people feel just as much if not more cold, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, fear, anxiety, pain and suffering.

This conversion is awareness.  Everyone of us is completely aware of our own suffering and the suffering of those we love. This conversion involves an awakening to the fact that we are not alone; everyone suffers.

This is where the pain of the world breaks our hearts. It also involves acknowledging how my life and lifestyle may contribute to the suffering of others, and that my purpose here on this planet must involve working to alleviate or at least minimize the suffering of others.

The fact that the disciples of Jesus went out on the mission trip and healed people as Jesus had taught showed that at least at some level they too cared for the sufferings of others.

The  question the gospel confronts me with is: Has my heart been broken by the pain of the world, the suffering of the hungry, the lonely, the excluded and the victims of oppression?  How does my life give evidence of that broken-heartedness?

Conversion 4:  I’m not in charge of the world

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The final conversion we will look at today is from control to admitting need.  This happens when we conclude that we do not run the world, we are not in charge.  This is where we admit that we need redeeming; we need help; we need God.  We are not God: but God is God.

The point of the Transfiguration story is that it is God who is at work in life and ministry of Jesus.  Lest we get confused and think we are telling a human story, this scene reminds us that we are telling the story of God at work in the world.

Failure in the Valley

But the text does not end on the mountain, it ends with the scene below.  The disciples have started well; they have not turned away from the possessed boy in fear or disgust.  They have reached out to help, showing that they care, but they are unsuccessful.  Why?

The whole story brings up more questions than it answers.  The one sure take-away is to notice what Luke draws our attention to: Jesus’ evaluation. His analysis is that the failure is a failure of faith.  Luke allows the harshness and severity of this moment to stand; the words of Jesus and the action in the scene are both jagged and painful:

Jesus answered,

“You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Clearly, Luke is using this vignette to speak to us, the readers, not just to those gathered that day.  Evil is destructive and damaging; we can see the poor boy having this seizure and we hate what it’s doing to him..

And this is exactly how all evil is – including all of those natural states that we need to be converted from.  They are all destructive: self-obsession, self-justifications, hard-heartedness and arrogant presumption are poison to our own souls and toxic to our world.

All of them stem from the same disease: self is in the center; God is pushed out to the margins, others are pushed away, the pain of others is ignored, and the self seeks to sing “I did it my way” at every opportunity.  The chief demon, the fundamental evil has always been the quest to “be like God,” as the Adam and Eve story shows.

Down the Path of Discipleship

But though our reading today ends with a failure of faith, it is only a slice of the entire gospel story.  Jesus is pushing the disciples into new territory, further down the path of discipleship.

In the text today, we see God’s power on display in two dramatic forms: one on the mountain and the other down below.   We see what the point of all that power is: not to build religious shrines far above the heads of the masses.  Rather, God’s power at work in Jesus is always towards people in need.  The direction of attention is from up to down, not the reverse.

But the evil confronting people of faith, even those who want to be converted in each area, is strong.  Sometimes the power of evil is too strong for our faith.  We, like the disciples of Jesus simply feel overwhelmed; we cannot cast it out.

Hope after Failure

But that the power and destructiveness of evil is not the last word.  These are stories of hope because these stories show God’s power at work in the world in effective, redemptive ways.  Sure the disciples fail this time, as they will again on Good Friday.  But even that is not the end of the story.

These stories are foreshadowings of the source of our hope: the passion and resurrection ahead.  Jesus is going to suffer in a full-fledged embrace of humanity in all its sinfulness.  But God will raise him from the dead, powerfully working out his purpose, defeating evil with finality.

In the mean time, the disciples feel the sting of the rebuke, but know that the journey is still in progress.  What about us?

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Invitation to a Lenten Journey

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  We will once again be reminded of our frail mortality.  Indeed, some who received the ashes last year are no longer with us.  We will begin the season of lengthening daylight, the season of Lent, a distinct episode in our journey of discipleship.

The challenge before us this Lent is to take up these four conversions that God wants us to experience, and to allow his power to work in us.

This is a call to use the upcoming season of Lent to renew our commitment to being disciples of Jesus in deeper and more profoundly converted ways.  It is a season of faith-development so that we can be more effectively engaged in the practical confrontation of evil’s destructive force.  It is a season to experience the power of God in new ways.

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