Archives for posts with tag: Transfiguration

Sermon for the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, 15th February 2015

Holy Communion and Mattins – Mark 9:2-9: Evensong – 2 Peter 1:16-21

One of the nicer ways to get people, who don’t normally come to church, to darken our doors, is for there to be a concert in church. We are blessed here in Stoke and Cobham with an awful lot of good music. We have all sorts of recitals, here in St Mary’s, and down the road, St Andrew’s hosts regular concerts under the ‘Maiastra’ name.

This is where musicians who have participated in a residential master-class at Aidan Woodcock’s house, at Little Slyfield, just opposite the Yehudi Menuhin School, give a concert, led by their teacher. These are people at the beginning of their performing career, who have already graduated – sometimes more than once – from leading music schools, and have usually won some prizes as well. The Maiastra concerts – the name, incidentally, comes from a mythical Persian bird – are a real opportunity to hear the classical music stars of tomorrow, and they’re very exciting, very good.

These concerts do bring a lot of people into the church who wouldn’t ordinarily come – either because they are not local, or because they just don’t go to church. I hope that some of them, having found a warm welcome and a beautiful space, do decide to come back to worship with us later on.

So far, so good. But I had a rather disappointing exchange the other day with one of the admin staff for the master classes, who was trying to book the church for a Maiastra concert at the beginning of April. ‘How would Friday 3rd or Saturday 4th be? Would the church be free?’ Well, I was rather surprised, because of course that is Good Friday and Easter Saturday. I had to delicately remind the lady that this was Easter, the height of the Christian year, and that, I was afraid, the church was not going to be free.

‘So sorry’, she said, ‘Of course.’ She would talk to the course tutor to see whether the course could be slightly rescheduled, so as to allow the concert to take place without conflicting with Easter. Back came another email. ‘How about the Monday or Tuesday?’ Oh dear.

So I had to go back and explain that that was the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week – all part of the most important part of the Christian year, so that you couldn’t think of having a concert in the church, unless it was a devotional performance, at all during that week.

Well, of course the concert will eventually take place at some other time. But I reflected on that a bit, in the context of our worship today, on the Sunday before Lent, when we remember Jesus’ Transfiguration. The cloud descended, and a voice said the same words as they heard when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan: ‘He is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.’ It was a literally dazzling experience for Peter and James and John, as they accompanied Jesus up the high mountain. You couldn’t ignore that. It would be a life-changing experience.

But here’s the thing. Today, very often it would appear that people are ignoring this: that these extraordinary events no longer affect people’s lives. The nice people organising the Maiastra concert had forgotten what the main purpose of a church is. It’s not just a pretty concert venue. At the Church’s General Synod this week, one of the speakers reminded the delegates that studies had shown that, if the Church of England carries on declining in numbers at the current rate, 1% per year, overall in England (although fortunately, not in the Guildford Diocese), there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when churches in many rural parishes will be unsustainable and it will no longer be the case that the Church of England will have a parish church in every city, town and village in England.

So the Church has been embarking on all sorts for programmes of evangelisation: Messy Church, Fresh Expressions, Alpha courses, and so on. And quite a lot of it seems to be working. New people are coming to the the Church. Its interesting that it’s not always the most modern ideas which are successful in involving new people. Apparently the fastest-growing service in terms of numbers attending in the Church of England is – what do you think? It’s Evensong.

Obviously to some extent that’s influenced by the fact that cathedrals are attracting more and more people, and Evensong is seen as a quintessentially cathedral service; although of course we have lovely Evensongs here at St Mary’s every Sunday, sung just as they are in a cathedral; in fact, we sing a little bit more of the service than they do in Guildford Cathedral.

But the fact is that we are 2,000 years away from the spectacular events of Jesus’ time here on earth. It was relatively easy, when compared with our position, for the disciples to go out and spread the Gospel. As St Peter said in his second letter [2 Peter 1:16], they’d ‘been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ – they had seen Him, they’d witnessed the miraculous things that happened; and the inner circle, Peter and James and John, had even seen a foretaste of the Resurrection. The transfigured Jesus was like the resurrected Jesus. It was a glimpse into the future.

As a matter of intellect, as a matter of rational reflection, that’s still tremendously important, even 2,000 years later, even today. For us as Christians, as practising Christians, it’s something we couldn’t even think of ignoring. We have to react. We have to come and worship, and say prayers, and give our sacrifice of praise.

But what about the people who don’t get it? The people for whom church really doesn’t figure in their lives? St Paul has something to say about that in his second Letter to the Corinthians. ‘If our gospel be hid’ – if our Gospel is veiled, if our Gospel is obscure – St Paul says that it is ‘hid to them that are lost’, who are ‘on their way to perdition’, as one translation puts it. ‘Their unbelieving minds are so blinded by the god of this passing age, that the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the very image of God, cannot dawn upon them and bring them light.’ [2 Corinthians 4:3f]

It’s an easy thing to understand. If you are doing well, having a nice life, enjoying good things, you probably don’t feel there’s anything much missing in your life: that’s one kind of distraction. If you are somebody who comes from a home where nobody ever went to church, and you go to school and study at university among people who see a scientific explanation for everything; who don’t need, or feel they don’t need, any kind of reference to God, the Gospel will be veiled from you.

Later on in his second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says this. ‘No wonder we do not lose heart, though our outward humanity is in decay, yet day by day we are inwardly renewed. Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far. Meanwhile our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal.’ [2 Corinthians 4:16f]

I think that’s a very good message for us. We can’t see, in the same way that the disciples saw. That unseen reality, that inner spiritual reality, the working of God, is what is permanent and unchanging. It’s just as good now, as it is was 2,000 years ago, as it was in the time of St Paul.

Jesus’ injunction to us Christians was to ‘go and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ So what is it that we should do? I’m not really qualified to tell you a whole lot about Fresh Expressions of Church or Messy Church – although I can tell you that our Messy Church, run by Churches Together, attracts big numbers of children and their parents each time – but what I think is important and perhaps may open the idea of the Kingdom to more and more people – is the idea that we get over and over again, from Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John Sentamu, that we should be as the Lord intended us to be, and that we should live our lives in such a way as to promote human flourishing: flourishing, ευδαιμονία, something more than just passing your time without hurting anybody, something more than just keeping your nose clean: but instead actively looking out for ways to go the extra mile, to do the better thing.

It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single out anyone, particularly in the last week, for examination against that kind of background, but I can’t help thinking we will all have been a bit challenged by the sad story of the Revd Lord Green, the retired boss of HSBC, who has preached sermons and written books, preaching the virtue of observing the very highest moral standards.

But unfortunately at the same time, his bank was offering to clients a very aggressive form of tax avoidance. When I worked in the City, we were brought up to distinguish, reading the fine print, between tax avoidance, which is legal, and tax evasion, which isn’t. But this now seems to be a place where simply following the letter of the law isn’t enough. The Christian way, the Gospel way, is in fact not only not to evade tax, but also not to avoid it either. It’s rather bad luck, I think, on poor old Lord Green that in his part of the City – as indeed in my part of the City when I was there – nobody told him that the rules had changed, and he perhaps never appreciated that simply observing the law wasn’t necessarily sufficient in order to demonstrate the light of God.

Because, you see, when you do get to be able to see the light, then you will be like the Good Samaritan. You will be actively looking out for people you can help, rather than just sticking to the letter of the law. Let us pray that we will see that light: that the light will shine on us: and if we’re not transfigured, let us pray that we are at least transformed.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.