‘Theology in the form of a story.’
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 23 February 2020
There are two occasions in Jesus’ adult life that are described by the gospel writers as ‘glimpses behind the scenes’. The two occasions are Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration. On both occasions, the gospel writers refer to something being seen – a vision is given; and also something being heard – a voice speaks.
You’ll recall that at Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist is said to see the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. A voice is then described as coming from heaven and saying to him:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.’
The purpose of this is to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective – that the Holy Spirit dwells with him and God’s favour rests upon him. So perhaps rather than thinking of this as a mystical experience granted to John the Baptist, its better to see Jesus’ baptism as theology in the form of a story.
The same is true in the second ‘glimpse behind the scene’. Jesus is transfigured, his face is said to shine like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Two other figures appear talking with him, Moses and Elijah. A cloud overshadows them and a voice is heard to say:
‘This is my Son, the Beloved;
with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
Again the purpose is to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective – he is someone with whom Moses and Elijah talk, God’s favour rests on him and we are commanded by the voice to listen to him. This too is less of a mystical experience granted to Peter, James and John and more about theology in the form of a story.
Take the cloud, for instance. In scripture, a cloud is often used to signify the presence of God. The mountain too is a place of encounter with the divine.
In today’s first reading both the cloud and the mountain are mentioned!
When Moses went up Mount Sinai
‘the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the
Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it
for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses
out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of
the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the
mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses
entered the cloud and went up on the mountain.’
The story of the transfiguration draws on this rich imagery from the story of Moses, and uses it to tell us who Jesus is from God’s perspective. He, like Moses, is the one whom God speaks to face to face, ‘as one speaks to a friend’ (Exodus 33.11).
If there is anything resembling a mystical experience it is found in today’s reading from the second letter of Peter. There we’re invited to be attentive to the story of the transfiguration because it is like
‘a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star
rises in your hearts.’
Saint Paul also connects the transfiguration of Christ with the life of faith for the believer. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
‘For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of
darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the
light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4.6)
So too here, in the second letter of Peter, the author suggests that there’s something glowing, luminous if you like, that the eye of faith can perceive in the person of Christ and which, wonderfully, can be ours too if we are attentive.
This is beautifully conveyed in a sonnet entitled ‘Transfiguration’, by the contemporary priest and poet Malcolm Guite whom we recently had with us in the church hall for an evening. It’s from his collection of seventy sonnets for the Christian Year called ‘Sounding the Seasons’.
by Malcolm Guite
For that one moment, in and out of time,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings,
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face.
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar,
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.