Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Lent 2. Transfiguration
March 13, 2010, 8:50 am
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Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 28th February 2010

Last Sunday- the first Sunday in Lent- the Gospel reading was about the Temptation of our Lord in the desert. This Sunday- the second in Lent- we hear about his Transfiguration on the mountain. Each of these stories is to be found, in one form or another, in each of the first three Gospels, and there are similarities and contrasts between the stories themselves.

As to the similarities, in each case Jesus withdraws to a lonely place- the desert or the mountain- and in each case there is what we might call a “supernatural” manifestation, concerning his identity as “Son of God”. But the contrasts are important. In the desert, the devil tested or “tempted” Jesus with the words “If you are the Son of God.” On the mountain, the Father’s voice is heard, “This is my Son.” In the first case, Jesus is entirely alone, and the story must have reached the disciples from his own lips. In the second case, Jesus took care to have three witnesses with him (not to mention the heavenly witnesses, Moses and Elijah).

This year, we hear Luke’s version of the story, but, as I have suggested before, both Luke and Matthew build upon the account found in Mark, which is itself based upon the testimony of Peter. This is very important here, because Peter was one of the three witnesses named in the story. There can be no doubt that Peter is the authority behind this account. In fact, the only other clear reference to the episode comes in the second Letter of Peter, where he writes,

“We saw his majesty for ourselves. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, This is my Son, the Beloved: he enjoys my favour. We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.” [2 Pet 1.17-18].

In Peter’s Tradition, the episode comes at the central turning-point of Christ’s public ministry, midway between the Baptism and Temptation on the one side, and the Passion (beginning with the Agony in Gethsemane, also witnessed by Peter, James and John) on the other. It comes very soon after Peter has recognised Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God”, and Jesus has begun to warn his followers of his approaching death. In Luke, today, we are actually told the Moses and Elijah spoke of “his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Although the three witnesses said nothing about it at the time, it was clearly a tremendous experience which left its mark at least on Peter.

We know that the second witness, James, was the first of the Apostles to be put to death for Jesus, and he left no writings. His brother John, however, the last of the Apostles to die, did write a Gospel, and I think it may be interesting to see if this event left any trace on his witness. At first sight, it looks as if it is absent- John does not describe the Transfiguration, any more than he describes the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. But when we read St John’s Gospel, we find constant references to “light” and to “glory”. For instance, at the beginning of his Gospel, after calling Christ “a light that shines in the dark, a light the darkness could not overpower,” he says, “He lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father.” [Jn 1.5, 14]. After various other references to Christ as “the light of the world,” John tells how in Jerusalem Jesus cried out, “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Father, glorify your name!” A voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [Jn 12.23, 28]. And at the Last Supper, John reports Jesus saying, “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you.” [Jn 17.1]. In the light of the Transfiguration, John came to see the whole of Jesus’s life, and especially his sufferings, as a manifestation of God’s glory. God’s glory is in fact his infinite love, his self-giving, which reached its fulfilment on the Cross.

The Church presents this story to us at this stage in our Lenten pilgrimage so that we can compare and contrast worldly glory- offered to Jesus by the Tempter- with the true glory that comes from loving service to others, to the point of suffering and death. “If you bow down and worship me,” says the Tempter, “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” “If you come with me on the Way of the Cross,” says the Saviour, “I will give you the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Let the final word come from St Paul, in the Epistle:

“For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which he can subdue the whole universe.” [Phil 3.20]

Today is the sixty-first birthday of our dear Fr James. He is still on his way of the Cross, and we do not know how long he will have to continue in it. But we pray for him today, and pray that God, in his own time, will receive him into our heavenly homeland, to share in the glory of the saints.


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