- A few years back, when I was serving a church in Ohio, I audited a course on Celtic Christianity at a seminary not far my church. It was a fascinating class on a number of levels, but the one thing that stuck with me more than anything else was the Celtic concept of “thin places.”
A thin place refers to a place or moment where the reality of heaven becomes apparent to us in our own reality here on earth. In other words, it’s a place or a moment where we become keenly aware of God’s presence in our lives.
The Celtic Christians didn’t believe in a God who was somewhere far away, in the sweet by and by. Instead they believed the promise Jesus made to his disciples that, “I’ll be with you always to the end of the age.”
And so even though we may not always have eyes to see him, the Celtic Christians held deeply to the belief that Jesus was imminently and intimately close to us at all times.
Thin places occur when the membrane between heaven and earth grows thin, and the light of Christ shines through.
When we encounter a thin place, it’s like we’re able to peel back the page of our reality and perceive the Christ who is with us every day.
Thin places can occur anywhere at any time. Certainly here in worship, and I’ll talk more about that in a minute, but not exclusively.
You may stumble upon a thin place tomorrow morning when you’re walking the dog. It may be you’ve walked that route near your home 1000 times before, but now suddenly you have an awareness that you’re not alone; Christ is right there with you, just like he’s been there with you 999 times before.
Or it may be when you’re putting your children or grandchildren to bed tonight. You’ve done it a zillion times before, and not without some headaches from time to time. But as you’re saying your prayers together this night you’ll have this overwhelming comprehension that the God you’re praying to is right here in the room with you.
Thin places are singular moments that occur within the course of our ordinary, everyday lives. Moments when we become keenly aware of Christ’s abiding presence with us. They remind us that he’s present with us in every moment of life; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
From the most humdrum moments that can seem so ordinary and dull to the moments of tragedy and doubt that we’d just as soon not have, to all those moments of sheer pleasure and joy. Thin places strengthen our faith in Christ’s promise that, “Lo, I’ll be with you always to the end of the age.”
One of the reasons thin places exist, I believe, is so God can strengthen our faith as we journey through this life.
Certainly we’ve all experienced times of spiritual dryness; times when we get in the doldrums over of the monotonous routine life can be sometimes. And other times, we may have run upon the shoals of full-fledged spiritual crisis; a trauma or tragedy that shakes the very foundations of our faith.
And so God provides us with thin places as a means of nourishing us and sustaining our faith. Thin places don’t necessarily remove the spiritual dryness, or solve the crisis of faith. But they do remind us that, no matter how much to the contrary it may seem, Christ is in fact present with us every moment of every day.
And I would propose to you that at one level, the Transfiguration served as a thin place for Peter, James, and John. It was a moment in which the membrane between heaven and earth dissolved, and they were able to see the fullness of Christ in all his glory. It was a glory that had been veiled up to now, and it would be even more veiled in the days ahead as he made his way to the cross. But in the Transfiguration, Christ gave a thin place to strengthen them and sustain their faith.
If we zoom out a bit from this particular story in the gospel, we can see how the Transfiguration fits in with the rest of the story. And see that it occurs at a very pivotal moment.
Just a few verses before, Jesus has told his disciples that he’s going to have to suffer and die on the cross. And what’s more, he tells them that they’re going to have to take up their cross and follow him.
And if you remember Matthew’s version of the story, Peter didn’t react to well to Jesus’ words about the cross. In fact, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. He told him he was out of his mind to be talking that way. And in turn, Jesus rebuked Peter and told him, “Get behind me Satan!”
So that’s the scene on the front side of the Transfiguration. A scene in which Peter and Jesus are at odds with each other. A scene of tension, foreboding and death.
And then right after the Transfiguration, Jesus again predicts his death, and tells his disciples about the cost of discipleship. And then a couple chapters later he begins his journey to Jerusalem and finally to the cross.
And so from this zoomed-out perspective, we see that the Transfiguration is a singular bright spot in an otherwise dark and ominous narrative.
It’s a “light shining in the darkness.” It’s a moment that Peter, James and John can look to when the glory of Christ is hard to see.
So when Jesus seems weak and vulnerable, when he’s being ridiculed by the Jews and spat on by the Romans. Or when he’s being denied by Peter three times, abandoned by the disciples, and finally dying on the cross …
Despite all that darkness – despite all the fear, and the shame, and the doubt the disciples are experiencing in those moments – this thin place of the Transfiguration will be etched in their memory. A reminder to them that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, this is still the Son of God. The one who casts out demons, forgives sins, and resurrects the dead.
The Transfiguration was Christ’s gift to his disciples to sustain them in those moments when life gets really dark.
I told you earlier that I would come back to talking about worship as a thin place. And in particular I want to focus on the two main parts of our worship: The Word and the Sacrament; in particular the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Because every time we gather around Christ’s Word and Sacrament, he reveals himself to us just as he revealed himself to Peter, James & John in the Transfiguration. His glory is revealed to us through the Gospel and through the body and blood given for us in the bread and wine we receive.
In worship, we have the opportunity to peel back the page a little ways and glimpse the heavenly reality that surrounds us every day; the reality of Christ’s presence with us at all times and in all places.
These two things – the Word and Sacrament of our worship – are what our heavenly Father points to and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
As he places himself in our hands, and speaks his words of grace and forgiveness in our ears, by faith we perceive the Christ who is with us always to the end of the age.
The glorious Christ who was with Peter, James & John at the Transfiguration is present with us in all the moments of our life even the most dark.
In this “thin place” that is worship, the light of Christ shines out of the darkness that creeps into our life from time to time. It is a light given to us for the same reason the Transfiguration was given to Peter, James, and John: To show us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and to strengthen us for the road ahead.