(Sermon 2 Mar 2014)
First an admission – this sermon was written for Candlemass one month ago and has been adapted to this week’s readings; so you’ll be relived to know that I’m only going to touch upon the Transfiguration rather than attempt a full exposition
When I first looked at the three readings for last month I suddenly realised that there was a theme connecting them. Each, in their own way, show different communities and writers possibly trying to make sense of what was before them; and just to touch upon today’s gospel there’s at least the possibility that we see that happening in the account of the Transfiguration.
You see the Transfiguration is only covered in the Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – but not in John. Of course this isn’t a situation of 3 versus 1. Matthew and Luke are generally regarded to be based on Mark – or all three are based on an unknown account called Q or even any combination of those two; but it’s simpler to accept that Mark precedes the other two and the accepted understanding is that Mark is recording Peter’s memories. John’s gospel on the other hand has been seen as anything & everything from late 3C (now disproved when fragments were found in the Dead sea scrolls and so were dated to 90AD) to any old man writing at the end of his life; but there’s an argument which I accept that John is an authentic and eye witness account based on or by the apostle John. Now if this is so then why does one of the other two people present on the mountain with Jesus not feel it worth recording? Is it because this was in fact a vision that only Peter had – a bit like Paul’s Road to Damascus experience? One that made sense to him but was, to other people around, just a made who’d fallen over? If it was – and it’s a big if – then what we see if Peter (through Mark) trying to make sense of his psychological experience. I only mention this as a possibility.
Now to last month 🙂 Luke in some ways was a very precise eyewitness (so he’s known to distinguish between ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the Acts of the Apostle and to use exactly the right titles for officialdom in individual Mediterranean towns of the Greek world) but as the only writer to record the presentation of Jesus in the temple there are two possibilities: either he is covering an episode that he picked up by talking personally to Mary the mother of Jesus, who legend has it was living in Ephesus with John at the end of her life; or alternatively he is ‘filling in’ a back story that points the way to the person who he believes had been revealed to be unique key to understanding the nature of God – and filling in a back story was an accepted technique in the ancient world. We can’t know which but what is significant here is not whether it happened exactly as retold or whether Luke was providing some sort of back story but that Luke is trying to show a continuum that leads to the key to the Christian faith – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s trying to make sense of it all.
In the reading from the unknown writer of the letter to the Hebrews we see themes of a devil, a high priest and sacrifice. All three have a particular relevance to 1C Judaism. The concept of a devil had come back with the Jews when they returned from exile in Babylon in 6c – in fact before that the Devil doesn’t appear in Jewish though. Priests were standard throughout the ancient world and incidentally we make a mistake when we equate the priests of Jesus’ era with priests today. The English word ‘priest’ is a translation of two words – the Greek word Hiereus which is used for the kind of priestly figure who ran the roost in temples or who sacrificed in other religions, and then the Greek word ‘Presbyteros’ (or leader) in the very early community of the New Testament rather than. Finally, presenting the death of Jesus as a sacrifice rang true with Jews. Sacrifices in other religions asked things of the gods; but for the Jews it was a sign of atonement. Incidentally although it’s the model to explain the death of Jesus we most often quote, it’s only one of a number: another is Jesus showing ‘greater love by dying to show the nature of God’ or ‘Jesus looking to ‘light the touch paper for the second coming’. However, going back to these three ideas presented in Hebrews you can see the writer trying to explain the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a way that made sense both to him or her, the writer, and to his/her target audience.
Finally in the Malachi reading we see the early church looking for indicators of the momentous events which, for them and for us, come about in the resurrection of Jesus. We know that the Christian community was looking for indicators and sometimes they picked up on things whose significance comes about as a result of mistranslation or even a misunderstanding of Greek or Hebrew punctuation – the idea of a virgin birth being the product of a mistranslation from Hebrew into Greek in the Greek bible known as the Septuagint which most early Christians would read being the one, and another being the prophecy supplied to foretell the some of the attributes of John Baptist which Jews will tell you involves punctuation being mistakenly changed to prove a point.
Here’s an idea though; that in taking a stable positions – treating concepts fleshed out in the Epistles, taking creeds written in the 4C, following a position on sin shaped by St Augustine in the 5C, and finally, the concentration on a personal relationship with God that comes out of the reformation in the 16C – we’ve allowed ourselves to stop reinventing our perspective in a way that’s rings true in our own time.
I guess for me personally this is all brought into focus by the fact that certain elements of the wider Christian church railing against the idea of evolution and a world we believe to be 4 billion years old; and yet I have a physics teacher father who has just retired a second time from his role as an Anglican clergyman who regularly talks about evolution as the only credible a mechanism we have for explaining the workings of the universe but. And yet and yet he argues that it’s an alternative mechanism not an alternative truth.
OK, so here let me “chuck in penn’orth” to what it’s all about – a perspective which might make sense to the people who wouldn’t darken our doors: which is that of a creator God ‘outside time’ who began a process 13.7 billion years ago with a Big Bang, who stuffed the explosion with all the elements needed to give rise to life somewhere down the line and who relied on the mechanism we know as evolution to deliver one, two, many or an infinite number of sentient species capable of loving each other; and therefore in telling us something about the nature of God what we see in the person of Jesus is the clue to understanding what God hopes for us and from us. Oh and btw look at the third verse from the next hymn which plays with the idea of another Christ in another species in another world – and if you can get past verse 3 without blubbing you’re better than I.
But if this model of what the world is about, what God is about and what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were about makes any sense to you then the critical concept is ‘love’. Not just our love for Jesus or God’s love for us – or even of our love for our fellow Christian believers – but love of our fellow human beings, even those we personally can’t stand or those who think that we’re an irrelevance up here on a Sunday morning. I happen to believe that you can present a strong argument that this is the conclusion that Jesus came to and that you can see it in the development of his ministry in John’s gospel – a subject for another talk if Kate ever asks me back – but for now we have to think long and hard about every decision we make in the light of this understanding.
For me that means examining every action we take – whether voting, in relating to people and in the things we do here in St Laurence’s – to see whether we contribute to the sum total of love in the world or, in the words of someone very dear to me ten years ago, whether ‘everything we do contributes to the Kingdom of God’.