Every now and then, we get glimpses of God; if our eyes are open, we will see them. And that connects us to the disciples of Jesus' time. They, too, saw glimpses of God. Jesus told parables as glimpses of the kingdom, of God's desires for the world. He himself was a glimpse of God's character and mercy. Paul writes about how we see in "a mirror darkly" now; we have these unclear glimpses of God's triumph, glimpses which will be clearer in the full presence of God. The story of the Transfiguration strikes me as an example of these glimpses. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain with him, and he is transfigured before them, and alongside him stand Elijah and Moses. These two were the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, and because of the odd nature surrounding their deaths, they were understood to be precursors of the promised Messiah. This is a huge moment, a holy moment, a purest of the pure glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. And then, it's over. They head down the mountain and return to the ministry they had been doing.
We may be tempted to think that there is a separation between earth and heaven, that the kingdom of God is something beyond us, only available when we die. But Jesus is constantly offering examples of seeing that kingdom in the here and now. There is this constant inbreaking of the heavenly realm in earthly reality.
Have you had a glimpse of heaven? I had my own, in a small way, this past week.
We have been talking about an outreach ministry to Oglethorpe University for some time. And as talk has turned to capital improvements, some of us have imagined a coffee shop hangout spot in the courtyard breezeway, right across the street from the campus.
This past week, I was on Emory's campus, when I ran into a friend of mine, Chip, with whom I went to school back in 4th or 5th grade. He's an independent pastor and his ministry has intrigued me for some time. It's called "Bread," and it's similar to the kind of thoughts we've had here about a hangout spot for college students. It's a small yellow house, just across the street from the parking deck for Emory Hospital. I dropped in the middle of a book study. Chip has been meeting with some students for much of the year, reading C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters. Lewis' book is a satire, a series of letters written from one demon to another, revealing something about the nature of evil, and, therefore, the nature of goodness.
As I walked in, they offered me some black beans and rice as well as some coffee. I sat and listened to the discussion, and as I did, I took in the atmosphere. Above a large couch, one wall was covered in writing. It said, "What do they want from us? To join a cult? To vote Republican? To give them money?"
Nearby, it said, "Talk is cheap. Hospitality is our sermon." Elsewhere it talked about the ministry, how it really was a free place to drink coffee, how there were no strings attached, and that all are welcome. It also noted some offerings, such as the book group and some work trips.
One of the students raised a question about a sentence in the book. Chip started on an explanation that wove gang violence, Star Wars, and a couple of other cultural references in there. "Marthame?" He turned to me. "Do you have any thoughts on that?"
I noted how it reminded me of the Samaritan Woman at the well, asking Jesus for the wrong kind of water. I was impressed with my spur of the moment Biblical and theological insight. The student looked at Chip. "What's the story of the Samaritan woman?"
Here was a ministry where young people were reading theological texts of profound insight, and these were folk for whom the stories of Scripture were unknown. At that moment, the heavens might well have split open with Elijah bearing black beans and Moses pouring espresso. I got an amazing glimpse of the kingdom of God, reaching and touching people that most churches never will.
But here's the question: what's the right reaction to these glimpses? In the Mark text, Peter wants to hang onto the moment, stay forever. He wants to build huts. He never, ever wants to leave. "If this is heaven," he might have reasoned, "Why go anywhere else?"
But the moment passes, and Jesus heads back down the mountain, moving on with the disciples to continue this ministry.
Do you know these glimpses I'm talking about? It could be a moment of listening to a favorite album, or reading a gripping book, a film that captures your imagination, a conversation with a friend that looks as close to holiness as you can imagine. If we're anything like Peter, our reaction is probably to hang on tight, to put the album or song on infinite repeat, to watch the DVD extras and even listen to the director's commentary, to stay up late to read a few more pages, to spend as much time as possible with this person with whom moments are near divine.
One of my favorite musicians is Sufjan Stevens, a man who creates simple music of incredible beauty. I remember the first time I heard him, I immediately went out in search of everything he had ever recorded. I listened to the music over and over again. I read anything I could find on the web about him. I was, in a sense, like Peter, trying to build my little tent to stay as long as possible.
My reaction these days is a little different, though unfulfilled. When I hear his music, I want so desperately to create music like his. But I can't. I can play, I can even compose a little bit. But I can't come close to his subtlety and brilliance.
And yet, somehow, that's very close to what I think the right reaction is. When we have these glimpses of the kingdom, when we touch that moment of holiness, the right reaction is to head back down the mountain and continue to work to create that kingdom we have glimpsed.
Here's my challenge to any readers who might be out there: what one thing can you do this week to help create the kingdom? Maybe we won't write a great album or create an immortal work of art. But perhaps we could do something small, like offering a word of kindness in a heated moment, or being generous in the face of a world which tempts us to hoard.
I'd love to hear what you do.