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

The Transfiguration
August 6, 2012, 8:08 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton 6th August 2012

Mark’s Gospel is preoccupied with two questions. Who is the Messiah? Answer: Jesus. What is the Messiah? Answer: the one who achieves God’s purposes through suffering and death. Mark is very hard on the disciples, as they were during Christ’s earthly ministry. They doubt, they misunderstand, they lack faith. Sometimes they are even “Satan”, the adversary. Mark is traditionally associated with Peter, and this, I think, is Peter’s own verdict on himself and his companions. We were rubbish. But even Peter cannot deny that, by the grace of God, they got the message sometimes. His own insight, that Jesus is indeed the Anointed of God, the true King, the Messiah: that was not some human calculation, but a gift from the Father, a revelation. And this incident, a week later, was also a revelation, an unveiling of the reality underlying, and concealed by, the outward appearance of a carpenter-turned-religious-teacher.

There can be little doubt, I think, that we owe this story to St Peter. There were, after all, only three witnesses to the event, apart from our Lord himself. James was killed by Herod Agrippa well before the Gospels were written down, and John does not include it in his Gospel. The only other reference to the incident is in the second letter of Peter. It follows on from Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, and the first warning by Jesus of his coming crucifixion. I think we must hold these facts in our mind if we are to reach any understanding of what the story is about.

Matthew calls what happened a “vision”, which suggests that it was something granted to the three disciples, but would not have been accessible to any outsider who had happened to be present on the mountain. For a short while they saw Jesus as he is eternally, in the glory that he was to attain only through the cross. They saw him in the company of Moses and Elijah, God’s mightiest servants from the past, now themselves with God in glory. They heard him designated by a heavenly voice, “My Son, my Beloved.” They were told, “Listen to him.” And then the vision faded, and as they looked round, there was only Jesus, as they had always known him. And there is no suggestion in the Gospel that this experience was any help to them in the crisis of Good Friday.

August 6th is a day of anniversaries. Thirty-four years ago Pope Paul VI died at Castelgandolfo. And sixty-eight years ago, in a burst of light like a thousand suns, the Americans destroyed the city of Hiroshima with the Atomic Bomb. I can never celebrate the Transfiguration without reflecting on the contrast between God’s ways and human ways of achieving salvation. God undoubtedly wants a just world- one where people live in accordance with his intentions, one where they enjoy peace and security. Does he, then, destroy the wicked with the breath of his mouth? Does he hurl thunderbolts from on high? Does he over-awe humanity with displays of power and glory? No. He comes as the child of poor and humble parents, he lives as an ordinary craftsman, he suffers and dies as a criminal, an innocent man wrongly convicted. That is God’s way, and Jesus says that anyone who wants to be his disciple, to share in his work, must take up their cross and follow the same way.

The human way is the way of power and force. Security comes from destroying enemies, or at least rendering them powerless. The terrorist, full of resentment at perceived injustice, wants to overthrow governments by violence, to impose his own vision of justice by force, and to disregard the pain and suffering inflicted upon the innocent or uninvolved. And to defeat the terrorist, or the dictator, the temptation is to use the same methods. Yes, that is the human way.

Three years ago today, the last survivor of the Great War, Harry Patch, was laid to rest. A few years earlier, at the Menin Gate in Ypres, he said that he wanted to remember “all our brothers who fell- on both sides of the line.” The perception that those on the other side of the line are also our brothers and sisters is at the heart of Christianity. God has one Beloved Son. But we are all made in his image, and we must try to recognise that image in one another. Under the veil of flesh, Peter and the others could not easily perceive the reality of the Person they followed. It had to be “unveiled” by God himself. Under the veil of sin (ours as well as theirs), we cannot always perceive that those who oppose us are still our brothers and sisters. We cannot always, unfortunately, avoid having enemies- people who wish us harm. But we can, by God’s grace, refuse to be enemies- people who wish harm to others.

“This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” And what does he say? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, are summed up in commandments to love God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves.

Before I finish, a word about John. He too was present, but on the face of it there is no account of it in his Gospel- which in some other respects seems to give a more accurate chronological framework for Christ’s ministry. My own answer, for what it is worth, is this. I think that John almost certainly knew Mark’s Gospel, and its relationship to Peter’s preaching. In presenting his own account, he largely avoids going over the same ground, already known to his own readers. But if we look attentively, we will see that there are references to be picked up in the light of what we know from Mark. For instance- and this is the chief one-

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

The actual word means “pitched his tent” (skene) among us.

“We have beheld his glory, glory as the only son from the Father… and from his fulness we have all received.”

Surely this is an echo of the transfiguration and the heavenly voice?

“The Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Tent, glory, son of the Father, Moses- all these key-words occur in Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, and I cannot believe that John is not making his own reference to it here. And “glory” is a constant theme of his Gospel.

To sum up:

1. The Messiah is not just “one of us”. Even in his earthly life he possessed an unseen glory that put him on speaking terms with “the Law and the Prophets”, and indeed an even more exalted status.

2. The juxtaposition of glory with suffering is intrinsic to his mission as Messiah.

3. We too must take up our cross and follow him if we want to enter his glory. We are all faced with the inevitability of death, and the real challenge of meaninglessness and despair. Our hope and our salvation is to confront these things by clinging to Jesus. Today’s mystery is intended as reassurance, a guarantee that there is an unseen dimension to reality, a glory that is all around us even if we cannot perceive it now.



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