Transforming Power

Sunday March 3, 2019 was when many Christian churches celebrated Transfiguration Sunday. The transfiguration narrative illustrates Jesus on a mountain top with Peter, James and John in order to pray. In the midst of prayer, the disciples have a vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah in conversation. The glory of the trio and perhaps the oxygen levels on the mountain compel Peter to find a way to make the experience last and “build booths” or shelters for themselves that they can remain high up and removed on the mountaintop. This is not to be. At the conclusion of the dazzling and glowing experience, the text illustrates Jesus commanding them to keep the glory quiet. Then he and the disciples come down the mountain to engage community and contribute to strengthening and healing individuals. Power is not conserved but dispersed. 

Power is a serious issue for the church. It Is not just our Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist brothers and sisters who struggle with this. It is all of us. Whenever an institution seeks to mediate the divine, there are issues of power. Satan may be a convenient scapegoat, for some of us, when things go wrong. But that is not tenable for all of us. The real dilemma is how does the church steward its power as it guides, instructs and affects the lives of people? 

Before we can answer that question, I think we, in the church, must examine our definition of power. Our definition of power is, of course, derived from how we imagine God. We, in the church, use words like “Almighty”, “Sovereign Lord” and “All-Powerful” when describing God. These descriptors imply a certain kind of power that is coercive and autocratic. It’s a marvel that we still use these political words when our own political arrangement is intentionally distinct from autocracy and lordship. These descriptors imply a God who is in charge and often secretly so as we struggle to understand the outcomes of violence, discrimination and neglect. When these descriptors of autocracy and secrecy are applied to God and spoken again and again through worship and prayer, they can have a profound effect upon our psyche. By default, these descriptors become tolerant ways for the church to work on God’s behalf. We in the church have been infected by concepts of power that are not biblical nor communal. It affects our behavior and destroys our best practices. 

The Bible is the primary way that we Christians declare to know anything about God. The Bible, itself, is often cheaply quoted on matters of God’s power. Perhaps you have heard it said that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and vengeful. You may also have heard that the God of the New Testament is loving and redemptive. This is a gross simplification. 

* Across the board, the more biblical representation of God’s power is as relational, not dictatorial. Through the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, God is responsive to God’s people. When people struggle with understanding and perception, God leans in through kings and prophets who, in their own imperfect way, bridge the gap. There is learning for everyone, people, prophet, leader and God. 

* The more biblical representation of God’s power is as persuasive rather than coercive. God provides leadership that helps people move forward step by step. Gospel accounts reveal a divine attentiveness that “checks in” with the people’s experience in order to guide and instruct. 

The biblical witness is replete with frustration and anger to be sure. But mostly there is attentive love that courts people to their most robust future in community. 

What would it be if the church allowed their understanding of God’s power to be transfigured? What would it be if we were no longer the gatekeepers for an autocratic and despotic understanding of God? 

What would it be if we became the stewards of and shepherds for a God who longs to be in relationship and to persuade us to our best selves and lives? This God, imagined from the authority of our texts, is not interested in building shelters on a mountain top. This is the God who says, “Oh! So you are inspired are you? We’ll let’s get busy among all the people in indiscriminate ways. There are so many opportunities for healing and redemption in the world. Let’s start at the base our mountain top experience.” 

The work of religious folk is not to “do church” but to practice theology in mind and in their daily living. May we welcome a theological transfiguration of outmoded understandings of God so that we may better conduct the very important business of being God’s church.

 

Eleanor Hewett