Sermon for Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral Wednesday 6 August 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
Readings: Exodus 34.29-end & 2 Corinthians 3
When you are a priest and called Moses, you have to put up with a lot of bad jokes. I give a prize for original ones. Your also have to preach on a lot of passages about your biblical namesake. One I had a few months ago was, “Moses the servant of the Lord was dead.”
Well, this Moses the servant of the Lord is not dead yet.
The Gospel of the Transfiguration read at the Eucharist today tells us that on the holy mountain there appeared with Jesus, Moses and Elijah –
- one symbolising the Law of God given through Moses,
- the other the prophets who recalled the people to obedience to that law.
We heard in our first reading of the giving of that Law on Mount Sinai and the physical effect that encounter with God had on Moses; something which puts the fear of God into the people: they dare not look. He must cover his face.
In the Hollywood movie, “The Ten Commandments” the part of Moses is played by Charlton Heston. The make-up artists try to show the effect of the glory of God on Moses by giving him a more bouffant hairstyle with more blond highlights each time he comes down the mountain: an effect more comical than awe-inspiring. I have not tried to replicate this look.
Paul takes up this picture of the glory of God reflected in the face of Moses, in the passage we had as our second lesson. As rabbis did in those days, he freely adapts the original text to serve his own purpose. The veil Moses put over his face because the Israelites could not look on the glory of God reflected in him, becomes one worn by Paul’s fellow-Jews which prevents them from seeing Jesus as the Messiah.
Paul argues from the lesser to the greater; comparing the glory of the covenant which was revealed to Moses, and its effects, and that revealed in Jesus Christ. He does not deny the glory of what was given through Moses but he says that what has come in Jesus Christ is infinitely greater. One was passing, the other eternal.
“What once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came with glory, much more has the permanent come in glory.”
For Paul the glory of God had been revealed first in creation and then in the law, but supremely and finally in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he will say a few verses later in the Epistle:
‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in face of Jesus Christ.’
If we would see God, if we would begin to know what God is like, then we must turn our gaze to Jesus Christ, whose Gospel brings illumination. Its content is the glory of Christ and because the Messiah is perfect eikon or representation of God the glory of the Messiah and the glory of God are identical.
But this light is much more than a physical quality: it is God’s character and nature, that self-giving love revealed in Jesus Christ. God’s rule and glory are rooted not in power but in that sacrificial love.
And in that light we do not just see God. Jesus is both human and divine, so what we see in the Transfiguration is also the glory of humankind made in the image of God. If we would see and know what we are meant to be, then we must also look to Jesus and, as God says in the Gospel of this day, “listen to him.” In him we see ourselves as what God intends us to be, rather than what we have made or failed to make of ourselves.
We must beware of thinking that it is only other people who have veils and fail to see clearly. It is not just pagans who make idols of things which are God’s creatures and worship them. It is not just the Jews who read the scriptures and fail to see Jesus. We all do.
The law given to Moses shows us that failure, how far we have fallen short of the glory of God, of the self-giving love which brings human fulfilment, but, says Paul, the law does not have the last word.
The illumination brought by the gospel is a new act of creation by God. God, who in creation said “let there be light,” has by a new creation set in human hearts the illumination brought by the glory of God in the face of Jesus. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
What we find in Christ is not just information about God given to detached observers but knowledge as transforming relationship. The Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, works now to transform us by our union with Christ “from one degree of glory to another.”
How does this happen?
- First, as Jesus takes us up the holy mountain with him, as we worship and pray, as we “listen to him.” We do not literally have to climb Mount Tabor to do that because Christ has provided the means in the Spirit as we worship and pray, as he speaks to us in the words of scripture, as he takes material things and transforms them in the sacraments to be the vehicles of his new creation.
- It happens too as we follow Jesus down from the mountain into the life of the world with all its joys and sorrows. It takes place as we learn through looking at Jesus to see his image in all God’s children. The glorification of Christians is no pious flight from reality. Glory belongs to the plain as well as to the mountain; out there as well as in here. We are called to journey on to Calvary where we learn the cost of the glory.
So, to borrow some words of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Christ we find “a strange glory.” The disciples found this hard to fathom then. It’s no easier now for us now.
A glory which took them away from the conflicts arising around Jesus would have been fine. Yet, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey, says in his fine book on prayer, Be Still and Know, “when Jesus went up the mountain to be transfigured, he did not leave these conflicts behind, but… carried them up the mountain so that they were transfigured with him. It was the transfiguration of the whole Christ, from his first obedience in childhood right through to the final obedience of Gethsemane and Calvary.”
What is true of the Master also goes for the disciples. To receive the image of Christ, “from glory to glory,” involves not just some religious bit of life but all of it:
- imitation of God in our outward actions;
- formation of Christ in our inward self;
- continual rejection of the standards and values of this present age;
- involvement in the flesh and blood struggles of the world.
Can we, dare we, forget that: in a week when we have marked the beginning of the world conflict of the last century; on a day when we remember Hiroshima; while in Iraq an ancient Christian community is driven from its home; while in Gaza the guns have fallen silent for a while leaving devastation, – but for how long? When we come to pray and worship, we are not to leave all that at the door.
The Transfiguration has spoken to Christians of the hope not just of humanity transformed but of the whole creation, set free from its bondage to decay so as to obtain “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
This hope springs from the truth we see in Jesus Christ: that sacrificial love is the source and the end of all creation. To a world sated with too many words, that hope can only be made credible by transfigured lives; “letters written on human hearts, to be known and read by all, letters of Christ….written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Your hearts and my heart.