August 7, 2016
Americans love conspiracy theories.
Think of rumors about a CIA conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Or that some think the Holocaust never took place. Claims of the government causing 9/11. The popularity of the television show The X-Files and Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. Even the most recent conspiracy - that the killings in Orlando did not actually take place at all – it was a big orchestrated hoax. All revolve around the belief that powerful people or organizations are secretly manipulating historical events. It’s the Illuminati!
Most of this is crazy-talk, but still we find ourselves drawn to it. There is something within us that tries to make sense of tragic or shocking events, and very often we try to pin blame on a mysterious group of people conspiring to do us harm.
We’re Americans, so we think of ourselves as common men and women — you know, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union” — distrustful and even disdainful of powerful elites. When something goes wrong, we look for a conspiracy theory to reveal the secrets of the powerful to everyday folks. Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post, makes the point that nothing ever happens by accident in the world of conspiracy theories. Instead, “the hidden hand of the puppeteer is everywhere.” We are all merely pawns in a big fat conspiracy!
Of course, it’s one thing to see a hidden hand in the assassination of JFK. It’s another thing to see a hidden hand in the story of the transfiguration. In today’s passage from Luke, we catch sight of something really strange happening, a paranormal something that is way off the charts. If you’re Peter, James and John, you can’t make up this stuff. More weird than catching a boatload of fish on the left side than the right side of the boat. God is orchestrating a shocking event — one that terrifies but also glorifies.
It’s a divine conspiracy, you could say. Collusion. Collaboration. This is worse than not only believing in what happened at Fatima in 1917 when some 30,000 people saw the miracle of the sun – oh, I forgot – that was UFO’s. Not sure which is harder to believe – that the Blessed Lady could perform a miracle or that a UFO appeared. I think I will go with the miracle and the 30,000 witnesses.
Anyway, back to the text. The story begins with Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. Suddenly, God changes the appearance of Jesus’ face, and makes his clothes dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear in glory, and they speak of Jesus’ departure — which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Then a cloud comes and overshadows them all, and the disciples are terrified. The voice of God thunders, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And as quickly as the stunning spectacle starts, it ends. Jesus is found alone, and the disciples remain stuck in bewildered silence. (Poor God; He’s been trying to get us to listen to Him for many millennia. Anyway….)
We can call this a conspiracy because it involves a powerful force no less than the Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. God intervenes in human affairs and manipulates a historical event, turning a mountaintop prayer retreat into an awe-inspiring announcement that Jesus is God’s Chosen One, his Messiah, his Beloved Son. Look at the story, and you can see that the hidden hand of God is everywhere. I don’t believe the Illuminati was in existence quite yet.
But there’s a problem. The word “conspiracy” carries a ton of heavy, negative baggage these days. Yet, the word is really the right word in this case. The word “conspire” literally means “breathing together.” When powerful people plan together secretly, they are “breathing together” — you can just picture them huddling together and plotting away in some undisclosed location. In the same way, when God works with us to advance his will, we “breathe together” with God. God’s ruah — the Hebrew word meaning breath, spirit or wind — fills us with life, inspiration and power, and it gives us the ability to push God’s plan into the world. God does not do God’s work alone.
Think of Jesus on the mountaintop, breathing together with God.
Moses and Elijah, breathing together with God.
Peter, James and John — confused by what they are seeing, are beginning to breathe together with God, but it’s more like a gasping than smooth, easy breathing.
Whenever people breathe together with God, they become part of a divine “conspiracy.”
So what does it mean for us to be breathing with God today? We are invited into the Lord’s conspiracy, and challenged to be part of a network of cells operating all over the world. Within these cells, we breathe with one another, but more importantly we breathe with God. We allow God’s breath — God’s ruah — to fill us with life, to inspire us, and to give us the power to push his divine agenda. Instead of ISIS, we have ruah.
To get a grasp of the specifics of God’s plan, we have to go back to that original meeting on the mountaintop. There, the conspiracy is hatched, and the plan begins to unfold.
Prayer. At the beginning, Jesus is praying. There is no better way to begin the process of breathing with God than to follow Jesus in this practice. Prayer settles us down and opens us up — it allows us to shed our ambitions and to immerse ourselves in the desires of the Lord. Prayer doesn’t so much change God’s mind as it changes our hearts — it makes us much more likely to be co-conspirators with the Lord.
As you all have heard me say on more than one occasion in my previous sermons, prayer was never meant to be a way to manipulate God into doing what we want God to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God; we pray to change ourselves. We are always looking for God to rescue us from our problems, but God doesn’t always rescue. Sometimes; but not always. If God did, surely Jesus would have been rescued, for no one deserved it more. No, God doesn’t rescue us from every problem or suffering. Rather, God walks with us in the darkness. He helps us thru our problems and needs. Though, all said, keep in mind that God does, of course, sometimes answer our prayers as we desire. Jesus made this clear as well. But, do well to go into prayer knowing full well that the end result is not always going to be exactly as we would like. This kind of happen with the three Apostles we are speaking of today.
Appearance. Suddenly, Christ’s appearance changes. His face is transformed, and his clothes become dazzling white. As a sign of his intimacy with God, the face of Jesus becomes radiant — Matthew says it “shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). Jesus shines like Moses coming down off Mount Sinai, with a face so bright that the people are afraid to come near him (Exodus 34:29-30). Have you ever wondered if the appearance of Jesus in His transfiguration is His natural appearance that He merely subdued while He walked on earth? I think so.
Once you start breathing with God, your appearance is going to change. This was true for Moses. It was true for Jesus. And it’s true for you. When you are in a divine conspiracy, you look, sound, and act like a different person. You offer your enemies a smile. You speak the truth to your neighbors. You live in love, as Christ loved you. You act in ways that are kind and tenderhearted, forgiving others as Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:25-32). You begin to live a transfigured life, a life that is transformed by true intimacy with God. This isn’t the stuff of the Illuminati. This is real!
Discipline and self-denial. Next, Moses and Elijah appear, and talk about God’s plan for Jesus — in particular, they speak of Christ’s departure, “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem”. This is a difficult topic, since it involves Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, but it is an essential one, since it contains the most important events in God’s divine conspiracy. Jesus was resolute; he set his face toward the cross. Through his death on the cross, Jesus brings us forgiveness of our sins, and through his resurrection on Easter morning gives us the gift of new life. Sort of like a modern day suicide bomber, but only Jesus and for life, not death! Our life in exchange of His.
Moses, Elijah and Jesus are “conspiring” together — breathing together — about this world-changing plan, and although Peter wants to build three dwellings to capture the glory of the moment, Jesus knows that the divine conspiracy cannot be arrested on the mountaintop. It has to move relentlessly toward the cross.
Jesus also made the point that if we’re going to follow him, to “breathe” with him as it were, it’s going to mean self-denial; it’s going to mean the death of selfish desire and the birth of godly desire. His discussion of the seed falling into the ground is also apropos here (John 12:24).
Finally, Followship. If you’re a witness to what Peter, James and John, were witness to, you can’t be the same. You’ve got to follow and get on board, or forever give it up.
Think about it. As Peter is speaking, God’s voice thunders out of the cloud, clarifying the identity of Jesus. “This is my Son,” says the Lord God Almighty, “my Chosen; listen to him!” God is making the stiletto-sharp point that Jesus is his unique son and his chosen servant, the one through whom God is workingout his conspiracy of salvation. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life — the Savior who has come to reconcile the world to God.
Too often today, we downplay the uniqueness of Jesus, seeing him as just one of many wise and compassionate spiritual leaders who have had a positive impact on the world. We fall into the trap of “truthiness” — a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert. Truthiness refers to something known intuitively, instinctively or “from the gut,” without regard to evidence, logic or intellectual examination. Truthiness is found in a sweet and sentimental understanding of Jesus, one that perceives him as kind, gentle, meek and mild. This grasp is intuitive and instinctive, and it has some merit to it — but it ignores a piece of crucial evidence.
All joking aside now, look at the transfiguration. Examine it. Breathe it in - deeply. This event reveals that Jesus is an exalted Lord, Chosen One of God, a messianic King with power to change the course of history. King of kings and Lord of lords — that’s the truth about Jesus, not the truthiness.
Once you’ve seen this side of Jesus, you’ve got to pick up your cross and follow, or get out of the way. He is a man on a mission, and he’s not going to hang back and sing “Kumbayah” with a bunch of stragglers.
When the voice of God stops speaking, Jesus is suddenly left alone with his disciples. Luke tells us that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen”. No surprise there. The disciples had been stunned by this experience, hit hard by an unfiltered blast of the power of their divine Master. It took them some time to recover from the shock of being drawn into a divine conspiracy.
For you, however, the end of the story is different. You know what it means to breathe with God. You’ve had time to get used to the fact that Jesus is Lord. You are beginning to understand the significance of his suffering, death and resurrection. You know that God’s conspiracy has begun, and that it continues to impact human lives and change the course of history.
Take a deep breath now, for only one question remains for you to answer: “Are you breathing with God?”
Let us pray.
Father God, we often times like to place the notion of a conspiracy taking place rather than believe in various happenings in the world – we even are so cynical in these times that we discount miracles as they take place.
Father, we ask You to help us breathe with You and sense Your presence in some modern transfiguration that will literally transform us, not into a conspiracy, but into a living embodiment of You.
Each day help us to find quality time to sit in prayer; not only for the needs of our own as we see them, but to also find Your will in our lives and to be given the strength to live it in Your way.
Father, we ask that as we breathe with You that You help us to look, sound and act like different people. Help us to be conspirators in divine action toward peace and love throughout our communities and the world.
Father, we ask that You help us in discipline and self-denial so that we can learn to sacrifice for You, just as Your son did for us. In time, discipline and self-denial will help us to be less selfish and more in tune to Your breathing and thus we begin breathing together as one.
Father, we ask that You help us to be in fellowship, not just with You, but with our fellow mankind. Too often we are separated by belief, race and faith and so much more. We must learn that this shouldn’t become a wall segregating us from each other, because You created us all to be one. It is in this life that we should be one cell of love.
Lastly, Father, send Your son’s merciful heart to touch our hearts, so that each day we move closer to the creature creation You created us to be. As this transforms us, we will feel peace and transfiguration within our lives and souls and become much happier in our walk of life – living and breathing in You. We ask all this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.