Sunday, 26 February 2017

Encounter & Transformation

First preached as a sermon on the Sunday before Lent 2017 at Guildford Cathedral.
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18;  2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want to invite you to mountaineering with me. You don’t have to be supremely fit or nimble, and you won’t require oxygen. All you need is openness of heart to an encounter, and a readiness to go back down the mountain changed.

View of Guildford Cathedral from the south east
The first mountain, well, hill. Morning by morning I ascend Stag Hill and up here at its summit I meet the Lord in word and sacrament as I come to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist. I then descend the hill into the University bearing, I trust, the life and light of Jesus Christ. And in the evening I repeat the ascent and descent through the sublime worship of Evensong.

It may not be Mount Sinai, Mount Zion or the Mount of Transfiguration, but it is my place of ascent and encounter, one I share with you. This holy place is a place where we meet the Living God, where the Holy Spirit draws us Sunday by Sunday, day by day. In coming here we open ourselves afresh in word and sacrament to the transforming, igniting, inspiring possibilities of God.

The Bible is replete with times and places of encounter with God, and transformation through God, and more often than not, but not exclusively, they happen on high places.

The Transfiguration of Jesus as described in our gospel reading, our second mountain, is one such moment.

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
Jesus takes with him three disciples - Peter, James and John – and is joined on the mountain by the figures of Moses and Elijah. Moses embodies the teaching and guidance of Torah and is the representative figure of the Exodus: liberation and freedom. Elijah encapsulates the prophetic tradition of the radical call to turn afresh to God.

In Jesus’ presence Moses and Elijah are recast as the pillars on which the people of the New Covenant will be shaped. Jesus is not another person amongst them but is the very presence of God, not superseding but shot through the first covenant which Moses and Elijah represent.

The transfiguration accounts of the three synoptic gospels, and testified to in the Second Letter of Peter, are emphatic that something quite decisive and remarkable happened on that mountain on that day. They ascended a mountain, encounter Jesus and through his transfiguration they are transformed themselves, ready to descend as new creations in Christ.

This rich and powerful moment of encounter and transformation on the mountain gives shape to all our encounters with God. It tells us that encountering God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is not a matter that can leave us indifferent. As St Paul writes, in a different context, ‘we shall all be changed!’ (1 Corinthians 15)

The transfiguration of Jesus conjures up an image of the surging vision of people streaming up our third mountain to God’s dwelling place as described by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Many peoples will say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ (Isaiah 2.3).

The transfiguration also evokes the picture too of the water flowing down from our fourth mountain, the Temple Mount described by the prophet Ezekiel: surging water flows and meets the stagnant waters to transform them and make them fresh (Ezekiel 47.8). It shapes what the action of dismissal at the Eucharist is meant to be: as transformed people we go to be living water to a stagnant world.

Ascent and flowing down; encounter and transformation; God’s ways of life.

Christianity is a religion of enduring encounter and transformation. It is a religion of intensity and extensity, in other words intense moments of encounter that then spread out without being thinned down.

We call this sacramentality: intense moments when the divine presence breaks in. The pouring of water in baptism, the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, the words of absolution following confession,  the pledge of the husband and the wife, the soothing oil of gladness in anointing, the empowering Spirit given at confirmation and ordination: in all these intense moments God’s transformative grace breaks into human experience.

Churches and cathedrals are places of encounter with and transformation by God, and are themselves sacramental. That is at the heart of why this is a precious and holy place and not just a big brick hall.

The great Christian quest is to see the light of Christ breaking through in all places, all moments and all people. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit which is open to us all. In this light we see things afresh and differently; when we have seen the light of Christ shining out then our eyes focus in a new way.

If we will allow it – and God works with us, not against us - this transforms how we see the world and how we are seen in the world. It means we see the Kingdom of God in our midst and we are seen as signs of that Kingdom.

So what will a transfigured you or I look like now, and when we’re out and about in daily life? Perhaps to modify the words of St Benedict, we will be ‘striving to live by God’s commandments every day. Treasur[ing] chastity, harbour[ing] neither hatred not jealousy of anyone and do[ing] nothing out of envy… not seek[ing] to quarrel; shunning arrogance. Honouring the elderly and loving the young. [When having] a dispute with someone mak[ing] peace with them before the sun goes down. And never los[ing] hope in God’s mercy’ (RB 4). That’s not a bad application of being a Christian.

But it’s not just about us: this also about who Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is.

In the gospels Pilate declared ‘behold the man’ and the centurion declared, ‘truly this is God son’: both were right, because Jesus Christ in his body is truly human and truly God. The reading of the transfiguration gospel today tells us of what will be accomplished in Jerusalem in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our journey to Easter takes us to see Jesus exalted on another hill; the hill of Golgotha. There, as St John Chrysostom said, ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.

In a dying and dead man on the cross – flanked not by Moses and Elijah but by two criminals - we see the exalted glory of the God who loves us.

The season of Lent, of careful, prayerful preparation that we will begin on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is a time of deepening encounter and transformation as we are exalted in the heights and walk the way of the cross. It is not too late to prepare for Lent!

As you prepare for Lent you can ask yourself two questions: how and where do I encounter Jesus Christ? What does my life transformed look like?

You have ascended the mountain of the Lord; you meet Christ in word and sacrament: then go from here and be bearers of his light and life.

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

© Andrew Bishop, 2017