St Bride's: Sermons

Transfiguration

Luke 9: 28-36

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29 And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.

30 And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:

31 Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

32 But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.

33 And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.

34 While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.

35 And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.

36 And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

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In the days when I was teaching at a theological college, I once had a mature student who was an absolute nightmare.  She was very needy; she had incredibly low self-esteem; she struggled with her academic studies; and she was always hopelessly behind with her work.  Her problems were so significant that I had frequently wondered how on earth she had managed to get through the rigorous process of selection for ordination training in the first place; and her difficulties were so entrenched that it was difficult to know how to begin to help her.

She was a part-time student, so had continued working in her regular job during her training.  And one day I had occasion to visit her in her own workplace.  I knew that she was a nurse - what I hadn't realised was that she was in fact quite senior, and was involved in nursing training.  And seeing her functioning in an environment where she felt completely at home, was a total revelation: it was like encountering a completely different person.  Because at work she was confident, outgoing, authoritative, and highly professional; and I became aware for the very first time that she also had considerable pastoral gifts.

That one encounter enabled me to recognise that, although I had thought that I knew her really well (after all, I had spent enough time dealing with her crises!) - actually I had never seen the person she truly was at all.  I had written her off as a no-hoper; whereas in fact she had gifts, skills, and abilities of which I was completely unaware.  I could also now begin to understand why she had been selected for training, because I could see her strengths, not merely her problems.  At last I had grasped a sense of her full identity, and it completely transformed the way I related to her after that.

There is something at the heart of that experience that I have always found helpful as a starting point from which to begin make sense of the rather baffling story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  As we heard in our reading from St Luke's Gospel, Jesus goes up onto a mountain to pray, taking three of his disciples with him.  And there, despite the fact that they are 'weighed down with sleep' (note that detail, by the way) his followers witness an astonishing transformation: they see the appearance of his face change, his clothes become dazzling white, and two men, Moses and Elijah, speaking with him.  Then a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, 'This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.'  In that one encounter, the disciples suddenly glimpse a truth about Jesus of which they had previously been unaware.  Their eyes are opened to his true significance and his true identity.

But there is even more to it than that.  Because, particularly in the way that Luke describes it, this incident sets off fireworks in all kinds of different directions, making connections with other key incidents from his Gospel.  The heavenly voice from the clouds takes us back to the start of Jesus's ministry, and his baptism in the Jordan by John, when that same voice declared from above: 'You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.'

And when in today's Gospel reading we are told that the disciples who accompanied Jesus were 'weighed down with sleep' we cannot help but make a connection with that other occasion when, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus took the disciples with him to the Mount of Olives, and lamented that they could not remain awake while he prayed.  Which takes us to the start of the events leading to his passion and crucifixion.  And then we have the figures of Moses and Elijah, appearing in glory with Jesus at his Transfiguration.  How very interesting that in Luke's account of the first Easter morning, the women who go to the tomb at dawn find it empty except for two men in dazzling clothes.  In other words, the story of the Transfiguration of Christ also points us forward to his Resurrection.

So it is that at the moment of Transfiguration, past, present and future events collide in a single powerful but fleeting moment, as the disciples are given a glimpse of the full identity and true destiny of the man Jesus, and suddenly recognise that there are whole dimensions to his significance that had hitherto bypassed them completely.

Little wonder then that Peter's all too human reaction is to try to capture that moment and 'bottle' it.  'Master, how good it is that we are here!' he declares.  'Shall we make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?'  But Peter has failed to grasp that what he has been shown is a moment of revelation, not a permanent state of affairs - in the same way that you can be shown an amazing image of a place to which you are travelling - but you cannot bypass the arduous travelling that is necessary to get you to that destination.  In the same way, you cannot have a resurrection without first having a death.  But those moments of revelation, when they come, are so powerful, that they really can be life-changing.

Today, the 6th August, is not only the feast of the Transfiguration; it is also the anniversary of a much more sobering event: the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.  Some years ago, I chanced upon a book by a man called Paul Glynn, entitled Song for Nagasaki.  The book tells the story of a Japanese man, a medical doctor, called Takashi Ngai.  He was also a convert to Christianity.

When, on 9th August 1945, three days after Hiroshima, the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, the hospital where he worked was situated a mere 700 meters from the epicentre of the explosion.   Miraculously he survived.  But when he returned to the place where his home had once stood, he found it reduced to ash and rubble - and within it, harrowingly, he discovered the remains of his wife, whom he had loved dearly.  He was utterly devastated.  He left that pitiful scene of unimaginable carnage to search for his children with his world in tatters, literally as well as metaphorically.  But Ngai later described how, as he did so, remarkably, and against all the odds, a single phrase from the teachings of Jesus suddenly took hold of his heart: 'The heavens and the earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.'

It is the kind of Christian testimony that one dare not speak of lightly, nor dismiss lightly.  Because it was a moment of revelation; a moment of transfiguration, when suddenly and powerfully, and against all the odds, the steadfastness of God was glimpsed in the face of utter devastation and meaninglessness.

Takashi Ngai knew that, because of his exposure to radiation, he was a dying man.  His prayer was that he might be granted the time he needed to finish whatever work God had entrusted to him.  And his final few years were a time of extraordinary creativity.  While he could still walk, he continued his work as a doctor, tending the sick.  And when eventually he was permanently immobilised, he wrote a string of remarkable and moving works testifying to the depth of his compassion and his commitment to reconciliation.

Takashi Ngai, like the disciples at the Transfiguration of Christ in our Gospel passage today, was granted a glimpse of the astonishing reality of God's power and grace, when he least expected it.  And he was himself transformed by that experience - as we too can be.

And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

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