"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

So “Transfiguration”: Jesus takes a handpicked group of his friends up the mountain and this remarkable event happens. Our Epistle this morning also refers to this event, “For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

The supernatural and glorified change in appearance of Jesus is itself a witness to who Jesus was and is - even if the disciples didn’t quite join the dots at the time - and the writer of 2 Peter is at great pains to talk of his personal witness to Jesus’ majesty. In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. The Transfiguration not only supports the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (as in his Baptism), but the statement "listen to him", identifies him as the messenger and mouth-piece of God. This is enhanced by the presence of Elijah and Moses, because it shows to the apostles that Jesus is the voice of God above all others. Jesus surpasses and supersedes all the key religious leaders who have gone before and their teaching! The early church fathers came to see this event as a prefiguring of the resurrection, both for Jesus and his followers; his followers now as then. We too will be transfigured.

Now, depending on who you are at this point, maybe it’s about your maturity in the faith, maybe it’s about your concentration span, maybe it’s about over-familiarity with the story, or whatever, but I guess you’re falling into one of two camps. One group will be the “Oh, he’s doing theology. I like theology.” camp and the other group will be in the “Oh, he’s doing theology. My brain hurts.” camp.

As you get to know me better you’ll no doubt hear me say this over and over: what is the point of this Gospel passage? Why are we being invited to consider it today? It strikes me that the Gospel story - any Gospel story - has to have the power to challenge us and to move us. There needs to be a relevance to who we are and where we are now otherwise it remains merely an interesting piece of ancient religious writing. (Or maybe not so interesting!)

So, let’s change gear.

Does the name Marion Morrison mean anything to anyone here? Or Reg Dwight? The clue is that they’re not on this week’s prayer list. One or two nods but mainly blank looks. A bit like most of my classes up at the Knowledge College.

Let’s try another approach: just a show of hands – how many of you made a new year’s resolution? I won’t ask you what it was, I don’t believe in the Ministry of Public Humiliation. Keep your hands up if you kept them. Thank you. We’re approaching Lent: can we have another show of hands from anyone intending to make some sort of Lenten vow – again, I don’t need to know what it is. You may not even have got as far as planning this year’s yet. It’s only a couple a weeks away, though, so maybe it deserves some thought now.

Hold those thoughts for a moment.

When I was thinking about this morning I was mulling ideas over with my wife. “Transfiguration.” It’s not an everyday word is it? It is a specifically religious word and for a while we thought that was the main reason it’s not in everyday use. About an hour later we were in Boots where she redeemed some of her points. “Redeemed”. Well, that word’s made it into everyday use. We hear people talking about having their crosses to bear; about their baptisms of fire; about nests of vipers – back to my classes again; casting the first stone; lambs to the slaughter and forbidden fruit. “Don’t touch that, it’s mine. Its sacred.”; “This old thing? It’s been in the wardrobe for ages. I’ve resurrected it.” “I had a real epiphany there.” and so on. But there’s not much use of the words “Transfigure” or “Transfiguration” in everyday language. Five house points to anyone who can give me a credible everyday example over coffee.

My first thought about the meaning of the word “Transfigure” was that it’s a fancier way of saying “Transform”: It is clear from the passage that Jesus was, indeed, transformed: there was an obvious change, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Why? Because he had a religious experience and in words reminiscent of those at his baptism we hear God’s words, This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

That’s why I asked the questions I did at the start. The two names I mentioned: Marion Morrison anyone? John Wayne. Reg Dwight? Elton John: two of countless examples of people transforming themselves. Our popular culture seems obsessed with this idea. Talent competitions are an example. We have Susan Boyle transformed from an awkward, anonymous lady into an international recording phenomenon. More recently the X Factor transformed prison officer Sam Bailey into its latest singing sensation. We have home and garden make-overs, Gok Wan showing dowdy ladies how to dress well and regain their confidence and before him we had Trinny and Suzannah doing much the same. Does anyone remember “10 Years Younger”? The names change, but the obsession remains the same. And here we are between New Year and Lent, having (possibly) given up on one set of self-improving promises that were due to transform us only to take up a second.

I wonder if anyone here has tried to re-invent themselves. It’s more easily done during some big life change that has an element of geographic movement: leaving home to go to college, changing jobs, moving house, starting at a new school, changing churches and so on. Sometimes that physical movement of place is the impetus for change. Occasionally as a teacher I see youngsters who are desperate for change but who have backed themselves into a corner. Without the geographic change they are locked into a cycle of self-defeating behaviour because of the expectations of those around them – others won’t let them change. If you have the reputation of being the class clown, or the year group’s gobby girl it’s really hard to transform and in all areas of life the more close-knit the community, the more difficult transformation is.

And yet transformation is a part of the Christian life: through the power of the Holy Spirit we are being transformed from what we once were into what we shall one day be. It is a work in progress. We are works in progress. As 2 Corinthians tells us, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.

The problem here is that we can’t see the wood for the trees: it’s like being a parent or grandparent who sees the children daily and because of that doesn’t notice the subtle changes that take place. It takes the visit of a family friend or other relative who hasn’t seen them for a while to say, “Haven’t they changed?”

I remember as a teenager being fed a genre of Christian writing with lurid titles like “From Witchcraft to Christ” and “The Cross and the Switchblade” which told dramatic tales of transformation as people made a Christian commitment. I’m not doubting the truth of those testimonies but they were so far removed from my own uneventful upbringing that they were hard to identify with and yet the Holy Spirit was still at work in my life. I was just too close to the wood to see the trees. So, slowly but surely, attitudes and behaviours changed. I know I’ll never know the answer to this but I sometimes wonder how very different from the current me the old me would have been at this stage in my life had I not made a Christian commitment. I suspect not very. As I try to analyse my own life and as I look at the lives of other Christians I have known for a long time I am increasingly convinced that there aren’t that many of us who need the radical transformation of the Holy Spirit so beloved of those 1970s authors. What the Holy Spirit does, though, is to take the essential us, the essential you and me and works with that God-given material to challenge and effect incremental transformations that we may not even notice. The fact that we don’t notice that transformation mustn’t be taken as a sign that it isn’t happening.

Perhaps every once in a while we should surprise our friends here, maybe during the Peace, by affirming what we admire and value about their spirituality and Christian witness. We are a work in progress. We are being transformed by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit but it’s not going to be accomplished this side of the grave so let’s not look for or expect perfection.

We do need to be clear, though: there is nothing we can do that will merit the grace of God as Ephesians reminds us. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—   not because of works, lest any man should boast.  My Lutheran friends used to argue with me about this because I would always quote St. James at this point, So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Good deeds or not good deeds to help accomplish transformation? Well, both really. We can’t earn God’s grace by our behaviour, which is what many in modern society assume, but our behaviour should reflect obedient discipleship. In the end God knows our motives. We do things because they are the right things to do and that is also part of our transformation.

Just one minor point to finish on: Jesus chose to take friends with him. They were to witness the event and talk of it to others. Let’s not be afraid to do the same. Talk to others of the Transfiguration of Jesus and the Theology bit behind that – Jesus as the link between the human and the divine and the prefiguring of the resurrection but let’s not forget to talk about what God is doing in our own lives – our own little transformations by the Holy Spirit: and if we can’t recognise it in ourselves let’s make more of a point of affirming it in each other. Sometimes it’s the personal rather than the profoundly theological that grabs others.



1 comment:

  1. "incremental transformations" - very good and very true.