Sermon for High Mass – Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday 6 August 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie for the Transfiguration of Our Lord 2017
In cultures unlike ours, where people are used to listening to extended story-telling, story tellers pace their narrative, sprinkling it liberally with hints at what is to come and repeating those hints in slightly different ways, with other narratives wrapped up in the middle.
Our Gospel is doing something like that as Luke tells the strange story of Jesus suddenly appearing bathed in light with two great figures from Jewish biblical history – Elijah and Moses, both long dead. Several things are going on here, about death, and life, about Jesus, about the transfiguration of history and, if we want to be involved, about us.
After my mother died, I had the odd experience of going through all her possessions twice, at a four-month interval. She died rather suddenly of a cancer which killed her within three months of diagnosis. It was in Sydney; I’d been with her during January 2004, once we knew she was ill, and had to return suddenly to take her funeral in mid-February. Having interviewed removalists and estate agents on that visit I travelled to Sydney for a third visit in September to oversee the sale of her house and the removal of the contents. Then, almost a year after she died, it all arrived in the UK. Going through it all again I immediately realized how wise it would have been to leave most of it in Sydney. Most of the objects are coterminous with my ability to remember; many of them belonged to my grandparents or a great aunt; several belonged to my father’s grandparents. At which date, ironically, they would have been exported to Australia from England.
The things look different here. First, most living spaces in Australia are bigger than most living spaces here, so the furniture all looked bigger than I remembered it. And then there’s the light: even in winter the light in Sydney is much brighter than it is in an English summer, so colours look different too. That’s all on the surface; but these are, mostly, associational objects, some inevitably taking on a new association because I last got to know them again while my mother was very ill and, as it turned out, about to die. Once they got here, and now that they belong to me, they mean something different, not least that I am now the eldest survivor of my family, which still feels very strange 13 years later. But looking at them, as I unpacked them and tried to work out what to do with them all, and now having them with me here, I have often glimpsed a jumble of remembered events and heard the echoes of conversations throughout my life, some trivial, some significant; some happy, some now understood with fresh insight and new meaning.
Luke gives us something like that in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It comes at a significant moment in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, but of course those involved don’t know that at the time. It happens just after Jesus has forced his friends to address the question of who he really is, and Peter has got to the right answer:
And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” Luke 9.20
Just eight days later, he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain and they share this strange experience. Mark, Matthew and 2 Peter also record it: it is one of the better attested stories in the corporate memory of Jesus’ friends; and as it was remembered it came to be better understood; (‘do this in remembrance of me’). At the end of it, we are told
And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. 9.36
Luke then tells of Jesus healing a disabled boy (the spiritual breaking into the material in a different way) which he follows with a two-verse reminder of the significance of what some of them had recently seen:
But while they were all marveling at everything he did, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying,… 9.43b-45
The mountain-top experience looks forward even while it is happening; it is then viewed with hindsight by the participants, the writers of the New Testament, and, eventually, us here this morning. In addition to this fluid temporal significance, it suggests the spiritual realm breaking into the material: it is a glimpse of glory, of the brilliant light of God, ‘the true light which enlightens everyone’ as St John describes Jesus.
Jesus is seen, precisely, in a new light; he looks different, his stature is increased by his proximity to Moses and Elijah; a voice from God repeats the words spoken to him at his baptism identifying him as God’s son. He is changed in a way that will only fully make sense after the resurrection, when he will be among them in the glorious body which they have now glimpsed.
The mountain-top location is also significant, a further common ground with both Moses and Elijah. And Moses and Elijah together represent the law and the prophets; they are the Jewish iconic short-hand for the scriptures, which tells us at least two important things: first that the scriptures are living revelations, not written codes, and second that they are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus (and not in words written about him). The instruction is ‘listen’ to a person, not ‘read a book’.
Seeing things in a new light happens all the time in our lives. It requires a process of growing familiarity and thoughtful reference back and forth to establish significance and meaning. The spiritual life and sensibility is like this too. We seem to be presented, in this story, with a blinding revelation, a single event, but once we begin to unravel it we find many threads of gathered understanding and a sliding timescale which momentarily penetrates beyond the material dimensions of time and space. Then we may return to the larger story of Jesus and re-examine the furniture, the supposedly familiar landscape, objects and words anew.
God’s purpose, revealed in Jesus, is the big picture. And the story of the Transfiguration is a reminder to listen to a person: the instruction is ‘listen to him’ not ‘read a book’. The law and the prophets, the whole prior revelation of God, are there with him as living people who speak to us as well. But literally in a new light: there’s also a reminder to keep our eyes open for that new light.
Good religion, for Christians, is about noticing his presence now, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the relationships formed after the patterns he teaches, and beyond our own tradition, in all that promotes life and light, seeking always to build one another up and looking for that glimpse of glory on our own horizon.