Readings 2 Corinthians 3.12—4.2, Luke 9.28–43a
Baptism of Josephine Piling
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
You are sitting just fifteen metres above sea level. I am a little higher, but it’s still not what you’d call a mountain top. Nevertheless, our job is to see what the story of Peter, James and John on the mountain might have to say to us down here. Let’s think about what they see on the mountain, what they are doing on the mountain anyway, and what happens next.
What they see on the mountain is a vision of Jesus transfigured. This person they know well changes in their sight. They see more in him than they had before, and they see that it has something to do with what matters most to them: they see him with Moses, the giver of the Law (the ten commandments and more), and Elijah, that giant among prophets, two people who sum up what really matters for a Jew.
What we are doing here – Josephine’s baptism in a few minutes – either it touches what matters most, or it is a waste of time. And what does matter most? Unless you come to Christian faith from a Jewish background, Moses and Elijah may not be your particular heroes. Still, you’ll have heroes of your own. Who? Churchill and Roosevelt, Beveridge and Bevin, Tutu and Mandela; Elizabeth Tudor and Margaret Thatcher (Richard III, anyone?); Farah and Trott, Simmonds and Weir; Crick and Watson; Bach and Beethoven, Adele and Sandé; Chaucer and Shakespeare… whoever the people are who sum up what you would work for or fight for, what delights you and excites you and makes life worth living, what matters for you. (And if what matters for you is summed up by Dolce & Gabbana or Ben & Jerry, then you are very welcome this morning; and we have some serious work to do.)
Transfiguration. The word stands for the potential, the rumbling volcano beneath our feet every time we meet to worship God. Unless our worship is transfiguring, unless it touches the heart at the level of these deep-down things, then all this is nothing more than what a prophet of our own day has called ‘a happy hour, imbibing cheaply of the Spirit’.
Transfiguring moments do happen, though, even to members of the Church of England. I don’t mean totally out-of-this-world experiences, but times when something or someone you know well reveals a depth, glows with a reality you hadn’t seen before. I remember a moment at a service when I was a student. Those taking part were all very familiar to me, but suddenly I saw more: that they and I were just the latest people to take part in something that been going on for hundreds of generations, and that it was beautiful, that it mattered to worship God and to do it with care and love. And transfiguration needn’t be churchy. Your moment might have come when a friend or family member said something that revealed to you that they had been swimming in deeper waters than you ever realised.
Transfiguring experiences can ambush you at any time, but we can help them to happen. Here, for instance, we can allow an atmosphere of worship to arise among us. That’s not too hard in a space like this, soaked in the prayer of centuries, but we can do our part. Here’s one thing we can do. Never let being late stop you coming to church but, if you can, do get to church before the service starts. If you have a little person to look after, then that’s your job, and a noble one: who knows how these infant experiences of church might transfigure that person’s life in the years ahead? But if you don’t have childcare responsibilities, cherish those pre-service minutes. Let them be quiet; keep them empty, so God can begin to fill them. (This is actually easier when you’re new to a church than when you have friends there.) Your near-miss on last night’s lottery is a big story, but it will keep. Don’t tell your neighbour as soon as you sit down, or during communion; let it wait until after-service coffee, and wait on God instead. We need to notice that what the disciples see on the mountain is connected with what they are doing on the mountain: they have gone up there to pray.
What happens next is that they come down again, with Jesus, back to earth. Luke’s gospel tells us that immediately they meet two people in desperate need. The way this comes straight after the vision on the mountain urges us to make connections between the two: what the disciples see up there must have a cutting edge down here, or it has no point.
Here in St Mary’s, ‘up there’ and ‘down here’ are very close. This ‘mountain top’ is just yards from Tesco, where the tills will start to go ting-a-ling-a-ling in precisely sixty minutes, and it is surrounded by places where work is done, money is made, jobs lost. How unstable the world of work is now, and how cruelly our world still defines people by whether and how they earn money. What is happening in all this, deep down? How might our views of these things be transfigured by what we encounter here?
In our first reading, St Paul says that, when Moses came down the mountain with the ten commandments after his summit meeting with God, his face shone with reflected glory. You and I are called to be up there with Moses, with Peter, James and John, gazing on glory with unveiled faces. And if we catch just a glimpse, says Paul, then the Spirit of God will begin to change us, so that what we have seen of God we start to reflect in the world; and that will begin to make the world a different and better place. That is God’s call to each of us. That is God’s invitation to Josephine, on the journey she begins as she comes now to be baptized.
A happy hour words from an unpublished talk given by John Bell of the Iona Community.