Sermons

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (The Transfiguration)

6 aug 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Leanne Roberts, Treasurer

 

podcast

In this morning’s gospel reading, we hear of weird and wonderful things taking place. Peter, James, and John go up a mountain with Jesus – and we should remember here that, in the Bible, remarkable things often happen on mountains – and Jesus becomes ‘transfigured’, which means he changed in form, ‘metamorphosis’ in the Greek.

Not only does he undergo this extraordinary change, but Moses and Elijah – the greatest patriarch, and greatest prophet – appear on this mountain too, and converse with Jesus. To top it all, the voice of Almighty God himself speaks from the clouds. It’s not your average afternoon, even for these disciples.

The feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, to give it its full title, is one of my favourites in the whole Church Calendar. It’s been a pivotal feast of the Church since at least the C2nd, and was considered by many of the Church Fathers to be critically important to the Christian faith – not least Thomas Aquinas, who called it ‘the greatest miracle’.

The description of the transfiguration is in the each of the synoptic gospels, and these accounts in Mark, Matthew, and – the version set for today – Luke are remarkably similar in context.

Prior to the miracle, in each rendering, Jesus is teaching his disciples, trying to impress upon them that there will be difficulties ahead. He speaks of having to lose one’s life in order to save it, and gives some bold hints of what’s in store by insisting that anyone who wishes to be his follower can only do so by taking up their cross; he knew his own death was approaching.

Immediately after the miracle, it’s business as usual as Jesus returns to healing and teaching those who sought him out, all the while getting closer to the violent reckoning that is coming, as he’s trying to warn his friends, when they reach Jerusalem.

It’s easy to rush straight to the more dramatic and unusual aspects of the story: the dazzling light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the stumbling, terrified disciples. But that would, I think, be to miss an all-important detail. We’re told that Jesus takes Peter and John and James with him. Where? To go up a mountain. Why? To pray.

There are several accounts in the gospels of Jesus removing himself from the bustle of the crowds, the demands of his intense ministry, in order to go to a deserted place to pray.

Time alone with his Father was how he refuelled, recalibrated, was refreshed and sustained sufficiently to minster in the way he did for those three remarkable years. If it was necessary for Jesus, how much more so is it for us?

Most of us have good intentions regarding our prayer. Most of us believe it’s important, feel we should do more of it, wonder how we could do it differently, more regularly, more effectively. The transfiguration of Jesus has much to teach us about prayer; what it means to encounter the glory of God, and in that encounter, to be seen for who we really are and changed as a result.

Let’s start with the most unpopular aspect: effort. It takes effort to establish and sustain a life of prayer. The transfiguration, like many other encounters with the divine in Scripture, takes place up a mountain. Jesus, Peter, James, and John had to climb up there. Sometimes our efforts to pray can feel like we’re climbing a mountain – sometimes it can feel like hard work. But when we persevere, and get to the top, we have a better view, one that uplifts us. And, most importantly, we see things we simply couldn’t see before. We really can encounter the divine if we’re willing to commit to the climb.

A great enemy of prayer is our desire and determination to ‘get it right’. What does this mean? Who’s judging our prayer apart from us? I’ve heard so often people say that if only they knew more about how prayer worked, or what the best techniques are to pray, they’d do it more often. We really are deceiving ourselves once we go down this path. Prayer is nothing more – and nothing less – than coming before God. Saying ‘here I am, do what you will with me’.

Prayer is showing up, trying to remain open, waiting to hear what God might have to say. There’s no magic technique. Back to the account of the transfiguration: look at Peter, star disciple, saying the wrong thing. He doesn’t get chastised for it. Jesus doesn’t think any less of him for his comment, though he’s on the wrong track. Peter is, at least, attentive, engaging in the moment, trying to think through the enormity of seeing the full, glorious truth of Jesus for the first time. He is heard. He is loved. And he carries on, getting to know Jesus better and better. Despite all the setbacks – and there are still a fair few to come for Peter – he doesn’t give up.

A warning: if we persevere in prayer, if we ask God to speak to us, if we truly want to enter more deeply into relationship with Jesus, we will get a response. Surely, though, this is what we’re after? I thought about that account of the voice of God on that mountain, and how terrified those disciples must have been. If we are serious about our prayer, we need to be ready for God’s response. It can be scary, and it’s not always what we expect. It can change us in deep ways we hadn’t anticipated.

And this brings me to the crux of the matter. Prayer takes us to the place of reality, where we can see things as they really are. Prayer is the place where revelation happens. At the transfiguration, Jesus didn’t change in essence – he remained himself, fully human, fully divine – but his form appeared different, for a moment, to those disciples.

The real change happens to them.

As Jesus is transfigured, they are transformed. It’s a confusing and frightening experience for them at first, and this is all true of prayer. This is what happens when we draw close to Christ – whether up the mountain, or in the privacy of our room, or in church – reality can be tough to assimilate at first. Because in prayer, we can’t hide. We appear as we really are, and we catch a glimpse of who God really is – loving, creating, liberating, glorious, eternal. And always seeking to draw us further into his divine life, to find, heal, forgive, redeem. To bring us home to him, transformed by his grace.

Once we’ve caught a glimpse of this we, like the disciples, will never forget it.

The Gospel is filled with stories of those who, like Peter, James, and John, are transfigured, changed as a result of encounters with Jesus. The sick become whole, the lame walk, the mute sing, the dead rise, the marginalized are brought near, the hated are loved, and the frightened are comforted. This is the transfiguration in which we are invited to share when we allow the Christ to touch us and open our eyes through encounter with him, encounter through prayer.

But it never ends with that encounter. When we glimpse divine glory, we are called, compelled to look outwards, to go into the world. Prayer is a personal, intimate experience, yes, but it is part of a journey. Just as the disciples go down from the mountain with Jesus and continue to help him in his ministry, heading inexorably towards Jerusalem, our transformation is a stage in our journey of discipleship.

Those glimpses we get in prayer sustain us through whatever is asked of us; we continue to carry our cross, but our burden is light. As Malcolm Guite puts it in his sonnet on the Transfiguration, Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar/ Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.’

Prayer is how we come to experience ‘how things really are’, however hard or bleak things can be for us sometimes. Are we ready for reality? Are we ready to see the light of heaven, hear the voice of love incarnate?

Real life, lived in and through and with Jesus, is being offered here this morning; and as we see Christ in the breaking of the bread, and come forward to receive him at the altar, we are affirmed, and sustained, and called into his life and sent out into his world, transfigured, and transforming.

To him be the glory.