All Saints Sydenham

10th August 2003
The Transfiguration

Faith and Feelings


There was a young lady of Ealing
Who fastened a hook to the ceiling.
She hung there inverted
"Because", she asserted,
"It gives me a heavenly feeling!"


Every year on the 6th of August the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration.

This gives us the opportunity to consider the role which feelings should play in our faith. The gospels give us a detailed description of the feelings that Peter, James and John experienced as they witnessed the sudden and dramatic change which came over the appearance of Jesus that early morning on the mountain top.

Weíre living at a time when people attach enormous importance to the way they feel. Humans have always done things to change or modify our feelings. When we feel tired we take a rest or go to bed; when we feel hungry we have something to eat; thirsty, we get ourselves a drink, feeling hot or cold we put on or take off some of our clothes. If we didnít do such things we should quickly become seriously ill and perhaps die

Today, however, there is an enormous range of alternatives designed to alter the way we feel. Besides alcohol thereís aspirin, tranquilizers, anti-depressants and a whole range of recreations, from reading a book to the more strenuous forms of activity practised by that Young Lady of Ealing. Recently people have been turning increasingly to Recreational Drugs like Ecstasy and Recreational Sex in the attempt to alter their feelings.

The remarkable thing is how seldom such people pause to consider what they are really doing and why. If asked, they would say they are doing them "because I feel like it". In the case of life-sustaining things like food and drink and sleep thatís fair enough: we need to do them for our well-being. But nobody seriously believes such activities as reading a book or taking a dose of Ecstasy are life-saving activities Ė indeed in the case of Ecstasy it may be the very opposite.

To answer the question What shall I do now? by saying "whatever I feel like doing" isnít satisfactory. If we applied it to our work, our home, our family and our friends we should soon find that we have few friends and even less family and get the sack from work. Even more distressing, we shall discover that the very thing we did "because we felt like it" gives us less and less satisfaction the more often we indulge in it. The well-known Law of Diminishing Returns starts to kick-in and we feel even less satisfied than we were to begin with.

Letís now see how these facts about feelings apply to those experiences related to the Christian faith of Peter, James and John on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.

Why were they there? Well certainly not because they were trying to have some "religious experience". On the contrary they were there because Jesus had taken them there. The three of them had been specially chosen by Jesus to share this particular experience with him.

Jesus was quite unashamedly discriminatory about whom he chose to share his wisdom or his experiences. Sometimes it was this disciple, sometimes another. Sometimes it was just one, particularly John the Beloved Disciple; sometimes it was the Three, sometimes the Twelve and sometimes the Seventy or even more. There was no question, it seems, of his treating them all alike. We should not therefore be surprised if today he chooses to reveal himself to some people by such a "religious experience" more often than others.

Being present at the Transfiguration meant obeying Jesusí command "follow me!" up the mountain. It was very early in the morning, remember, and St Luke, who is never one to miss a human detail tells us that the three of them had fallen fast asleep as they were to do again in the Garden of Gethsemane a few weeks later. Just suppose that one of the three, instead of obeying Jesusí command to "follow me" had chosen to turn over in bed and go back to sleep. That disciple would certainly have missed the experience of the Transfiguration

Christians who say "my faith seems to do nothing for me" Ė and there are many such Ė should, before complaining about it, ask themselves the simple question, "am I doing all the things which Jesus has told me to do?" If, for example they only goes to church "when they feel like it" they will probably experience very little when they actually do go. Or if we are habitually breaking one of Godís commandments itís even less likely that going to Godís altar without the serious intention of first being reconciled to Him and our neighbour will give us any satisfaction at all. Isnít it true that most of the activities which enhance the quality of our lives only "work" when they are practised on a regular and frequent basis? The person who occasionally practises the piano between lessons or who goes to Keep Fit classes only "when they feel in the mood" is unlikely to derive much benefit from it, even less so if they ignore the advice they have been given there in their everyday lives.

What sort of experience was it that those three Apostles underwent? The word enlightenment springs to mind. Not just the fact that Jesusí appearance radiated light, but because they began to see Jesus form then onwards, as we say, in a new light. The Transfiguration was meant to prepare them for his forthcoming Passion, Death and Resurrection. He was heard by them to be talking with Moses and Elijah about these very matters.

That Enlightenment didnít take place entirely on the spot. Very far from it. Their subsequent behaviour shows only too clearly that theyíd only just begun to understand what it meant. Jesus was particularly insistent that they shouldnít talk about it to their fellow-disciples for the present. What happened during Holy Week proved that the Three of them had simply failed to connect what they had experienced on the mountain with what was to take place in Jerusalem a few weeks later. So we should not be too surprised if the process of our Enlightenment isnít a matter of understanding the whole truth about our relationship with Jesus in a fraction of a second; itís gradually coming to realise how it all "fits into place" with the pattern of our lives".

Think again of those recreations we take part in to help us feel better. The likelihood is that the first two or three times we do them they will give us little physical satisfaction; indeed if weíre badly out of training we may even feel pretty ghastly afterwards. But little by little, if we persevere, as we find that we are getting a little better at them and we shall be rewarded with the sense that for once in our lives we are doing something really worthwhile.

Often, of course, our Enlightenment Feelings will lead us to the discovery that we have been quite wrong about something , not least ourselves. Remember how Elijah felt. Sitting in the wilderness underneath the furze bush heís the perfect picture of someone who was suffering from acute depression. Why? Because he felt that he had been a complete failure and that of all the children of Israel he was the only one who had remained faithful to God and not followed the current fashion of Bowing the knee to Baal

Well he was mistaken. God was going to tell him forty days later that in fact there were no less than seven thousand others besides himself, had remained faithful. But before he was in a position to grasp that fact, God insisted that he should have a square meal. So whatever spiritual advice we are given, itís worth looking in the first place to see if there is anything wrong in our lives at the very mundane level of eating, drinking and sleeping. It may be humiliating, not to say embarrassing, to discover that what we suppose to be emotional and spiritual problems in fact stem from eating, drinking too much or too little or the wrong sort of thing. The fact is that by taking a little more care of ourselves we may increase significantly our chances of being receptive to the kind of Enlightenment which Elijah received on Mount Horeb and the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Feelings do matter But the question is Who is to be the Master of our lives: Ourselves?; Our feelings?; Or our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? matters even more.

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