Sermon for the Transfiguration 6.08.17
We use some words in church that newcomers find very strange. In fact we use quite a lot of words – I might mention incarnation, communion and ascension for starters. There are also simple-sounding words like grace, sin and faith that we use in special ways. And then there are real doozies like transfiguration, the name of today’s celebration.
I’ll come back to that one. But the word I want to focus on is a simple English word that is one of the most important concepts in Christianity, and it features in both our readings today. That word is glory.
If I asked you to give me a definition of the word glory, what would come into your mind? Wikipedia gives us the everyday meanings of the word: “high renown or honour won by notable achievements; magnificence or great beauty.” But when St Peter writes about Jesus, “he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory”, he is talking about something more than high renown or great beauty, though both of those things are part of what glory means.
Glory in a Christian sense means the manifestation of God’s presence as perceived by human beings. Or in simpler words, being aware through our senses that God is with us. Think about some of the times in the Bible when God’s presence was made known to people. Moses took off his sandals in the presence of the burning bush because he knew it was holy. Ezekiel fell on his face when he saw visions of God’s glory. The shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem were sore afraid when the angels lit up the sky with the good news of Christ’s birth. The Book of Revelation, that very strange document filled with apocalyptic imagery, describes the elders falling down before the glorious Lamb in heaven.
And today, on this feast of the Transfiguration, we have one of the most famous experiences of glory in the whole Bible. Jesus’ appearance is changed – that is all that transfiguration means – becoming full of light, so that his disciples are awed and terrified. They know that they are in the presence of God.
There are some clues in this story about what meaning we are to take from it. It’s not just a weird experience that happened to Jesus. What happened on the mountaintop was a revelation of God’s glory to a group of human beings, Peter, James and John. They saw the truth about Jesus, the truth that is there all the time even when he doesn’t appear before us in dazzling white clothes with Moses and Elijah beside him.
Every detail in this story is important. It happened on the eighth day after Jesus had been speaking to the crowds. The eighth day is the first day of the new creation, after the completion of a week ending in a Sabbath. It is on the eighth day of the week that Jesus will be raised from the dead. The new creation in which we will be raised to eternal life with God is linked to that event. On the eighth day, all things will be brought to perfection, with the sins and sorrows of this life put right at last.
Another detail – it is while Jesus is praying that his glory is revealed. His perfect communion with his heavenly Father is shown by his shining appearance. But his prayer is specifically about his coming death – his departure, as the text says, which would fulfil the Law and the Prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. At the very moment when he is facing the prospect of being killed, the presence of God radiates from him.
But later, on the cross, Jesus experienced a moment of being abandoned by God, when he cried out a question that went unanswered, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This was a crisis in the life of the Trinity, a breaking for a moment of the perfect intimacy of God being with his own Son. Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields, writes in his fine book A Nazareth Manifesto, that “at the central moment in history, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, has to choose between being with the Father and being with us. And he chooses us.” And this ultimate choice of love results in the Resurrection, which shows us that God is with us always, in life and in death.
The transfiguration showed us the eternal truth of God’s presence with Jesus and therefore God’s presence with us. The glory that the disciples saw shining from Jesus’ face is a glory that can be seen, if our eyes are truly open, in each one of us. C.S. Lewis wrote in his famous essay, The Weight of Glory: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ… the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
Saints in the Orthodox Church are said to have moments of shining with the glory of God, so brightly that it is impossible to look them fully in the face. This is a foretaste of seeing each other in heaven, when we will all shine with the glory that God created us for. The saints just get there a bit ahead of the rest of us. They are so strongly anchored in eternal life here and now that we can glimpse the glory of heaven in them.
Going back to the details of the story, Peter reacts to this vision of glory, this manifestation of God’s presence, by wanting to build booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah to dwell in, furnishing for them a special place on the holy mountain. But God’s glory cannot be contained in that way. What the disciples have been shown is that God is present in the midst of life and suffering and even impending death. They must carry that experience of God’s presence with them when they return to the plain, to the ordinary everyday work of life. Rowan Williams says, “If we have seen his glory on the mountain, we know at least, whatever our terrors, that death cannot decide the boundaries of God’s life. With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.”
I have spent quite a bit of time in the past week sitting with a couple of people in the hospice who are coming to the end of their life’s journey. When we are on the boundaries of human life, we can experience God’s presence in a powerful way if we are open to it. We cross a holy threshold at the moment of death, stepping into the infinite love of God. We enter the new creation beyond earthly time, when everything is put right. Someone described dying as like that moment of relief when a too-tight shoe comes off our foot and we can stretch and relax. Like many people who have spent hours at deathbeds, I have been strongly aware of the welcome of God surrounding a person who is in that liminal space. That is an encounter with glory.
It can happen in daily life too. Some of you may remember the Mark Wallinger video at the Whitechapel Gallery at the turn of the millennium. It was called Threshold to the Kingdom and showed people in slow motion coming through automatic double doors at international arrivals at London City Airport. The soundtrack was the famous Miserere by Allegri. As people threw their arms around their relatives, welcoming them into the UK, the undercurrent was inevitably the reunion of loved ones in heaven. For a few magical moments, the prosaic act of getting off a plane in a new country was a luminous foretaste of crossing that final threshold. I never wait at the arrivals lobby in airports now without remembering that glimpse of glory.
We can practise being open to the vision of glory. We can look for signs of God’s presence in our midst. Relaxing on holiday is a good time to do this, because it’s very easy to feel the presence of God when we surrounded by mountains or gazing at the ocean, or even in a beautiful English garden or a pastoral landscape. But it’s not just the great outdoors that gives us a glimpse of glory. Remember C.S. Lewis and look for the glory of God in our neighbours, and in strangers too. Look for the manifestation of God’s presence in the faces of your children, your parents, your partner. Look for it in the homeless person sitting on the pavement or the elderly person struggling with their shopping. Look for it in the person who dresses or speaks differently from you, and in the young person in a hoodie or riding a moped.
And look for it in the mirror. Gaze on yourself and see a beloved and unique child of God, who was created to reflect God’s glory and was baptized to shine as a light in this troubled world to the glory of God the Father.