SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
and at All Souls’, Morven
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY (22nd February) 2004
2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2
2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2
Our gospel passage opens with Luke referring to former sayings of Jesus. Luke crafted his Jesus-account carefully, and places the Transfiguration event into the context of Jesus’ very challenging and uncomfortable demands of his would-be followers. Peter has just come up with the astounding insight that the wandering teacher Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of Judaism: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus has, as we too well know, responded with the equally astounding “Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.” This is strange behaviour for one whose task is to be known and to be recognized and to be proclaimed.
With hindsight of two thousand years and with our experience of hearing innumerable sermons we know the reason: Jesus would not allow Peter and the others officially to say anything about his identity until the full extent of the reach of divine love was revealed on the cross. It is in that great and painfilled cry of dereliction, or in the darkness that falls across the face of the earth at the moment of Jesus’ dying, that the full extent of the Jesus-event is revealed (however metaphorical the latter description might be). This is love that reaches even to the extent of those who cry out in God forsakenness, even to the extent of those who dwell in utter darkness. Such cannot be seen by Peter and the others in this moment of the story, as Peter reveals his insight into the identity of Jesus.
So Jesus responds to Peter’s insight in a manner that makes sense – with our hindsight. He begins to talk about suffering and about death and about the way of the cross. The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. It is a poor advertisement for the benefits of knowing and receiving Christ. But then our perspective shifts, and we find ourselves joining Peter on a remarkable encounter with God, high up in the mists of Middle Eastern mountain. It is the sort of encounter that would turn a hardened sceptic into a true believer. It is the sort of encounter most of us have never had.
Which is precisely why Peter gets it wrong. "Lord, it is good that we are here." In a sense there’s no denying that: an encounter with God, however terrifying, is not a bad thing to experience. But Peter wanted to tabernacle there, to remain there, keeping God as a mountain top experience, keeping God as the privileged insight of a select few. God will not play ball. Luke in fact is polite: "And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen." Matthew and Mark make it quite clear that the garrulous Peter, James and John needed very clear and stern instruction from Jesus to ensure that they took to heart Jesus’ earlier “Shhhh” and applied it to this encounter too.
That is why we have this reading now as we prepare to enter our Lenten journey. There is a sense in which we need, if we are going to undertake a disciplined Lent, to be reminded of the light at the end of the Good Friday tunnel. The great and impossibly unexpected joy of Easter is devalued and trivialized if we don’t recall something, even some small portion, of the cost of it. At the same time Easter’s dark prelude needed only to occur once: we remember, and even re-enact, re-present the events of the journey of Jesus to the Cross, but we need never undergo its darkness in full. We know the resurrection hints. [At Charleville: In a sense we know that Dimity will emerge from the waters of baptism, the waters we will shortly remember as “the dark waters of death,”] We need to know that we will pass through the waters of baptism from death to life, the same waters as those remarkable liberating waters of the Exodus of which we heard in the first reading and the psalm We need to know, for we need to know the God-breathed meaning to our lives that God’s Easter surprise brings us.
So as we begin our Lenten journey we are given a glimpse of the surreal, beyond-words encounter with God that lies ahead. We join, momentarily, Jesus on the mountain top. But we are called to step down and to begin a journey towards Jerusalem once more.