Sermon for Sunday next before Lent High Mass Sunday 26 February 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
In a church building like this one, with its striking appearance – transfigured by restoration and new lighting – and representing a tradition which values the artistic, the material, and the sacramental – flowing from the goodness of God’s creation and its affirmation in the incarnation, it would be understandable to focus on the visual element of the transfiguration story: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
But at the heart of the event are those words uttered by God the Father: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
So we must listen as well as look.
‘This is my beloved Son.’ One of the meanings of the Greek word agapetos translated as ‘beloved’ is ‘unique.’ Jesus is not just one son of God among many, like the other figures on the mountain: Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John. He is God’s own self-generation, self-expression.
Coming shortly after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, this word on the mount of Transfiguration has been called God’s “confession” of Jesus.
In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, God speaks directly to earth only twice: at the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration. This twice-uttered voice means that the single most-important fact that God wants the church and the world to know is all that we have in Jesus of Nazareth. God’s voice from heaven signifies that Jesus is the most important reality in the world. The centre of the Transfiguration is the voice’s declaration of who Jesus is and who he should be to us.
God wants the Church to reverence his Son more than any other person, project, programme, or cause. Any and all of these must be seen in the light of Christ. In Paul’s language, it was “the Father’s good pleasure that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col. 1.19)
“We have the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ – who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4. 3-6)
The one difference between the divine voice heard at the Baptism of Jesus and at his Transfiguration is the addition of two Greek words akouete autou, Listen to him. In these two words the story reaches its sharpest point; they are what the story, the cloud, the transfiguration, the Old Testament figures and the voice from heaven are all about. The response God wants to his beloved Son is faith’s obedience.
Notice that the Father does not say, “Listen to Me!”, or even “Listen also to me,” as if God the Father had important things to say to us independently of Jesus. Instead, God directs complete attention to his visible, audible, touchable Son. Jesus is God the Father’s Word. So if we want to listen to God, we must “listen to him.”
The Father is not ignored, but heard when we give ourselves to God’s Son, for only in the visible Son do we really know the invisible Father. Jesus does not eclipse the Father; he reveals him. If we would know what God is like, we must look to Jesus. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey taught: “In God there is no un-Christlike thing.”
Moses and Elijah, who symbolize the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, and Peter, James & John, who represent the leadership of the Church, are all present, but it is to Jesus first and foremost that we must listen.
He is the key to the interpretation of scripture, drawing together its diverse threads, even its apparent contradictions. As we hear in the Sermon on the Mount, reverent listening to Jesus not only illuminates the Old Testament, it also leads to a certain subordination of it: “You have heard it said…..but I say to you.” God’s “Listen to him” teaches us to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus; interpreting it in the light of his deeds, teaching and emphases.
The voice of God in particular and the Transfiguration in general means that the gospel of Jesus must be placed above the law and the prophets and everything else in scripture as the paramount authority in the Church. Scripture is the norm in the Church and the Gospel is the norm over Scripture.
It is not just the Old Testament that is subordinated to Christ. Church leadership is also put in its proper place. The voice interrupts the first church leader, Peter’s building plans. Peter, the Rock, is never to be the church’s final voice of authority. So, his, “No, Lord” after Jesus’ passion prediction and now “Let us build three booths” are over-ruled. Church leadership is to point unequivocally to Jesus as Lord, and to follow him on his lowly and suffering road.
More than 500 years ago, a successor of Peter, had a rather grander building project: to tear down St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, built on the site of the apostle’s tomb, and build a bigger and better one. This project would be financed by the selling of indulgences; a fund-raising device not available to us for the restoration of All Saints, and one which then would arouse the opposition of an Augustinian friar and academic in faraway Germany and trigger the Reformation.
Happily, we live in more ecumenical times, and this afternoon, the present Bishop of Rome will be visiting All Saints – not this All Saints – but the Anglican Church in Rome – to dedicate an icon to mark 200 years of Anglican worship in the city. The present church not only shares a name with us: its architect was George Edmund Street who was a churchwarden in this parish.
Peter’s building project is arrested by the command to listen. Church leaders can be tempted to think that the main service we perform for Christ is to be very busy on his behalf. But the Church’s main service is to provide opportunities for him to be listened to – in faithful preaching, teaching and living. Right listening leads to un-frenetic obedience – Mary rather than Martha. It is meaningless activity and empty busyness that is rebuked.
“Listen to him!” Shema in Hebrew, akouete in Greek, is about something deeper than the ear, though it is that first of all. Its initial meaning is “Listen with your ears,” and so it sets apart the Church’s ministry of preaching and teaching for special respect. But a word is really listened to in the biblical sense, when it is believed. And a word is believed when it is allowed to do its full work, creating in hearers the obedience the word invites. “Listen to him,” means ‘obey him.” True listening results in practical action.
So at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the risen Jesus telling the disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” According to Matthew, Jesus continues his ministry through the Church’s teaching and sacramental ministries.
“Listen to him,” is plural, it is addressed to a community, not an individual. We need the company of the Church, our fellow-Christians, both our contemporaries and those who have gone before us in faith, to hear rightly. There is no dependable listening to Jesus that is not at the same time listening with them. This is true even when we read our bibles alone: the Bible did not drop down from heaven enclosed in black leather and gold edges. We read a text collected, translated, and published by church teachers and members.
Then we obey him – deep listening – by faithful work and service in our callings at work, home, in the community where we have been placed and with the gifts given to us. Listen to him starts in the Church and ends in the world. Wherever the church exists, its member are both gathered in corporate life and dispersed in society for the sake of mission in the world. The church gathers to praise God and hear his word; the Church disperses to serve God wherever its members are, at world, in private, or in the life of society.
‘And when the disciples heard this, they fell flat on their faces and were deeply frightened. And Jesus came up, touched them and said, “Get up now and don’t be afraid any more.”’
These verses are unique to Matthew and demonstrate his understanding of the Transfiguration. Divine appearances in scripture are more often occasions of fear rather than ecstatic uplift. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for he is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 10.31). The disciples’ reaction is the common one to encounters with the presence of God and the demands of his word.
But what follows points to the sacramental life of the Gospel: ‘Jesus came up and touched them, and said, ‘Get up now and don’t be afraid anymore.”’ The God of the direct voice from heaven, the God of demands, can be terrifying; but the God who came to be with us, the God of the gospel, the flesh-and-blood Jesus, is the God who picks up the pieces. Touch and Word are combined here and together they put us back on our feet again
After the Word of “listen to him” comes the sacrament of Jesus’ lifting touch, just as in the church’s worship we have first the Liturgy of the Word and then the Liturgy of the Sacrament. God challenges and levels us by his holy word; God comforts and lifts us up by his holy sacrament.
The entire Gospel is present in this verse, for the Church believes that in the person and ministry of Jesus, God himself came up to us, took hold of us and told us to get up on our feet and not to be afraid anymore. He came to us at Christmas, he gripped us by his helping words and deeds in his ministry, he put us on our feet by his Good Friday death for us, and he banished fear from our hearts by his resurrection. This single verse may seem an afterthought to the main event, but it contains everything. For Jesus shines not just to shine, not just to impress, not even in the final analysis to make us obedient or trembling, but especially to raise us up, to put us on our feet, to enable us to breathe again so that we can be obedient to his word, can listen to him.
As important, as absolutely central, as the demanding Word of listening is, without Jesus’ strong sacramental hand we react to God’s commands as the disciples did; we fall flat on our faces. But with Jesus’ gospel encouragement and sacramental touch, we are given such foundations and resources that we are able to listen to him in a more obedient life. The most gracious point of all in the Transfiguration is here in Matthew’s footnote to it: Jesus lifts and strengthens the disciples to whom he gives his tough commands.
‘And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus only.’ Matthew, Mark and Luke all include this verse, so it must be special. Christ alone is the scarlet thread woven through the fabric of the whole story. It is he who alone in transfigured – not the others. It is Jesus alone who is honoured by the Voice. It is Jesus alone we are to hear. And when the extraordinary incident is over, there is only one reality left to see: Jesus alone. It is Jesus alone who is to fill the Church’s vision. The Transfiguration points to a Church which must be Jesus-centred, attuned to his word, trusting in his sufficiency for everything.