Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In a predominantly rationalist and scientific age, some progressive Christians find stories involving the inexplicable, like Jesus’ Transfiguration, which we’ve just read, or, indeed, miracles, rather awkward. The temptation often is to ask, ‘Did it really happen?’ I’ve sometimes asked that myself, but have come to wonder if it is the right question. On one level it is pretty futile anyway, for how can we ever know? Nowadays, we are normally careful to distinguish objective reporting from mere story-telling, but this account of the Transfiguration comes from a different age and a different culture. Precision in reporting back then was secondary to the intended message, which may be why the Gospel writers sometimes contradict each other in reporting the same events. What, then, might this mysterious Transfiguration narrative be about?
Well, the Gospels present it as an experience of personal transformation for Jesus, a moment of enlightenment. The voice from the cloud was symbolic of the way that Jewish tradition said Moses met God. That both Moses, Israel’s supreme law-giver, and Elijah, Israel’s supreme prophet, should be present illustrates, perhaps, the Gospel writer’s intention to make it clear that Jesus had the affirmation of both Jewish law and prophecy. And from this point on, Jesus seems clearer in his mind that he must set his face towards Jerusalem, despite the fact that his vision of what he understood God’s kingdom to be about would inevitably lead to a confrontation with both the political and the religious authorities. The disciples have a different response to this Transfiguration, it seems. Peter, we read, thought this experience demanded a religious response. He wanted to construct symbolic tabernacles or tents in an attempt to preserve this transforming moment. Throughout Christian history, it has been tempting to seek to honour Jesus with magnificent buildings, statues and artwork, to contain the revelatory moment, rather than allow it to result in a transformed life.
Many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences, I think, those life- changing moments that can alter our perspective. But life isn’t all mountain tops. In Luke’s Transfiguration story, there is no indication that he would have us stay with the mysterious, up there where the view was different. Yes, it may encourage us to a fresh vision, but according to Luke’s account, Jesus, the very next day, led his disciples from the mountain of mystery down to the plain, back to the reality of everyday life. That is where the vision must be worked out. Ultimately, we have to decide between real and what might be called artificial religion. In a world where there are vast inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, putting the main effort into building tabernacles to honour Jesus won’t quite cut it. In a world where obscene amounts of money are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in arms companies is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays, while allowing multinational companies to continue destroying tropical forests to satisfy demand for meat or for palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the environment. In a world where the survival and well-being of the vulnerable poor and elderly is dependent on properly funded health and care services, for wealthy corporations or individuals to be evading or avoiding tax may well be meeting the needs of self-interest, but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour.
The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective, but it is not the place to stay. Jesus’ Transfiguration experience wasn’t about his own exaltation, because he then went on to demonstrate that his real mission was among the people who needed him most. The Gospels consistently portray Jesus as being more concerned with the realities of life on the plain, rather than the esoteric existence of the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these are surely the tasks of the plain and the valley. It is, of course, tempting to seek inspiring mountain top experiences, but it is too easy to forget how they must then relate to relationships and living. One of the central things the Christian gospel urges us towards is transformation – in our own lives, our community, our church, our country and our world. A brief moment of Transfiguration glory witnessed leads us to recognise an ongoing personal need to be transformed again and again, and to seek to transform life on the plain and in the valley, just as it seems to be transformed in those visions up in the clouds. It was Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who recognised that transfiguring experiences do not rescue us from the humdrum or the horrible. However much we might seek to bottle those mysterious, wonderful moments, ‘Transfiguration’, Ramsey said, ‘is the transforming of suffering and circumstances’. And it was the writer C.S. Lewis who pointed out that while heaven may be beckoning, you still have Monday morning to get through.
Laura’s baptism today (though she won’t realise it yet) is a moment of transformation for her and for her parents. Baptism is, for all of us, our way into taking a share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That, in itself, is a transforming experience. The last word on the mountain of Transfiguration goes to God, who says, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him!’ It is no coincidence we read this story just before Lent begins. In Lent, starting this week on Ash Wednesday, the church urges us to catch the vision; to listen to the beloved Son, Jesus; to see in what ways our lives and the world we inhabit can be transformed by his life. That implies taking a penetrating look at ourselves, our motivation, attitudes and actions; determining our priorities. Too often, I fear, Lent has been used to induce guilt and make us feel bad about ourselves. But I reckon the God we see in Jesus is probably more interested in what we have the potential to become rather than beating ourselves up about those things in our past that may have compromised the light that is already in us. I wish you a meaningful and enlightening Lent.