Sermon: Prayer Changes Things

02.07.2016     Preaching Text: “Now eight days after these saying Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” (Luke 9:28)

You never know where you’ll find sermon material. This past week, at our monthly diaconate meeting, Lynn Bitzer passed out a quote from St. Anselm, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury.

It read as follows: “I do not seek to understand in order to believe. But I believe in order to understand.”

That immediately brought to mind the famous motto, “Faith seeking understanding.” What I hadn’t realized, until I looked it up, was that it was the very same man, Anselm, who had authored this similar paradoxical statement.

What both sayings suggest is important. Anselm was not arguing that Christians needn’t bother with understanding things (in lieu of a blind faith). Rather, his point was that faith cannot be apprehended by rational or scientific inquiry alone.

Believing comes first, then understanding. Knowledge of divine things, in other words, cannot be apprehended without an experience of the divine, the Other, the transcendent, the supernatural.

The mind can only categorize and classify information available to the apprehender. And if the apprehender has had no acquaintance with the Spirit, his or her mind necessarily will be working on an entirely different level, with a different set of “facts.”

To put it another way, there is reason and there is reason. There are facts and there are facts. What is a fact to one person may seem ridiculous to another. It all depends on our frame of reference, how we experience life.

To a hardnosed, atheistic scientist, for instance, the “facts” are what can be known through the 5 senses. Any appeal to the transcendent is by definition rejected. God for the secular scientist may be appear as but a mere projection of the human mind. As Freud famously argued, a primitive humanity needed a parental figure in order to cope with the unexplained uncertainties and mysteries of life.

To a Christian, of course, that “projection” is not a made up psychological defense, but the real God. And because the Christian believes and experiences God as real, certain understandings necessarily flow from that fact.

The overall point, then, is that the mind can be recruited to “rationally” explain any number of “realities.” And it can be used for sacred or profane purposes, or anywhere in-between.

This same principle applies to all God-given human powers. Anger, if used for sacred purposes, honors God’s demand for justice. Guilt, when applied to real and appropriate situations, honors God’s demand for truth and righteousness. Affection, when directed toward the beloved, honors sacred love.

The problem is when these same “neutral” powers are directed toward lesser goods, or even the unseemly and sinful aspects of life. It all depends, as I say, on how they’re used.

In today’s passage from Luke, we witness the “Transfiguration” of Jesus. It’s not without reason that it occurs on a mountaintop, the traditional meeting place between God and human beings. Throughout the Bible, it is here that the faithful frequently (and symbolically) go to pray.

It is in the act of prayer, for instance, that John, the author of the Book of Revelation, receives a vision of the world to come, when the heavens shall descend and envelop the world finally in the fullness of God’s goodness.

It is the same place Jesus goes, whenever possible, to be alone with God, in an effort to restore the sacred clarity of heart and mind. From this encounter, the faithful receive fresh insight into the often hidden meaning of life.

Note how Peter, James, and John respond to the very same stimuli during the Transfiguration. Because they don’t apprehend what Jesus apprehends, because they lack the intimacy Jesus has with God, their words and actions betray a blinkered mindset. They lack the vision Jesus receives, vision gained by means of close proximity to God.

Prayer, in other words, has the power to change things. It alters our perspective and changes the way we us our God-given faculties. It’s why a secularist will see the world according to one set of facts while a religionist will “know” a different set of facts. Each begins with a different starting point.

The problem with much of what passes for “reason” today, then, is not that it comes from using the mind. The mind, after all, is meant to be used. Rather, it’s that much of modern rationality lacks the hidden insights and experiences known only in God.

Christians therefore are not asked to embrace blind irrationality but to use the mind to explore and understand godly things. In essence, the mind here “serves” a different master.

Prayer is the way we humans connect with our Creator relationally, existentially. It is the very pipeline transmitting God’s wisdom, truth, love. Thus Christianity is not at its core a set of principles, ideas, ethical norms, or commands.

Rather, its focus is on living out a restored relationship with our Creator. It is only in the context of this renewed relationship, born of God’s free offer of unmerited grace, that such godly principles, ideas, ethical norms, and commands are revealed to us. They come by no other means.

When applied, in service, to this loving relationship (not unlike any healthy human relationship), they edify and strengthen. But if abstracted from that same relationship, they become mere “facts,” both stultifying and life-negating.

Thus the Christian life is essentially one of discernment. Only in active communion or oneness with the divine, the source of all that is, do we apprehend its truth. Only then are we able to determine what God would have us do and be.

It is in prayer that Jesus receives a vision, one wholly unknown and misapprehended by those around him. And it is in the service of this same vision that Jesus uses his human powers in ways that confound those around him, but which lead him ultimately to the Cross and the Resurrection beyond.

Thus Jesus’ understanding, finally, does not reflect an irrationality born of belief, but the keenest use of reason in the service of that same belief. Amen.