A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Matthew 17: 1-9
Not long ago a friend told me about a special moment in his life. He was a student at university, and each week he attended the same seminar. He couldn’t concentrate on the documents studied in the seminar because he was captivated by the face of another student who sat almost opposite him each week. He got no impression she noticed him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He actually dropped the course, but he kept on attending the seminar just to look at her. Eventually, he plucked up the courage to ask her to join him on a bike ride. They cycled about ten miles together until they reached a great castle. And at that point she looked around at my friend and in an instant he knew. He knew he would marry her. He knew they would be together. He knew whatever challenges life threw at them, they would face them together. It was his defining moment. Everything that followed would reflect it. His whole life was encapsulated in this instant.
When a journalist is observing a political debate or a commentator is narrating a sporting contest, they’re looking for just that same thing – a defining moment that will encapsulate an event and turn a long story into a pithy image. When we’re interviewing for a job, or meeting our family member’s new partner for the first time, we’re looking for a revealing word or gesture that will epitomise our feelings and sum up how things are going to be. I wonder if you look back on your life and can identify a moment like that – a moment that was a turning point, or a conversation where someone said something that was so true it pierced your soul and you still come back to it, over and over again.
When the gospel writers wrote down the stories of Jesus, they were looking for such defining moments. Have you ever thought about how much material they must have left out, and why their accounts are just the length they are? It would have been hopeless to try to record everything Jesus ever said or did, even if there were eye-witness accounts for all of it. What they were doing was setting down the defining moments – and what we’re doing today by studying and reflecting on those defining moments is attending to exactly what they wanted us to see. Because being a Christian is saying Jesus is the defining moment of all existence. Jesus is the meeting of heaven and earth. Jesus is the very essence of us, beholding God, and the very essence of God, beholding us. Jesus is the moment we find out who we are and who God is.
If the gospels themselves have a defining moment, then it’s a decent guess to say it comes in today’s gospel reading – the story of the transfiguration. You could say the whole gospel story is in this moment. We’ve got a strong echo of Jesus’ baptism, because the words from the cloud are almost identical to the words similarly spoken at Jesus’ baptism. And we’ve got a clear nod to Jesus’ crucifixion, because on Good Friday Jesus appeared on a hill with people on either side of him, and here at his transfiguration he does the same. There’s also a strong hint of the resurrection, because his clothes are dazzling white and all is swathed in heavenly glory.
If it truly is a defining moment, as these echoes and foretastes suggest, what happens? Remember my friend and his cycling date. When she turned to look at him, it was like he’d been given a template for the rest of his life. Here was how it was going to be: trust, desire, love, companionship, peace, confidence, understanding. I want to look at the Transfiguration story in the same way. I believe in this defining moment it shows who Jesus is and what difference that makes.
Let’s start with who Jesus is. The voice from the cloud says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ That’s three statements. ‘This is my beloved child.’ Is there any more wonderful statement in the whole Bible – in the whole world? ‘You are my beloved child.’ Can any of us ever get tired of hearing such words? Not everyone ever hears such words said to them. But no one doubts these are the most precious words we can hear. They’re as precious to God, to say and to hear, as they are to us. They’re in the present tense. This isn’t a love that once was, or a love that might one day be: this is a love that’s now, right now, deeply expressed and deeply received.
‘With him I am well pleased.’ This is saying, everything that’s happened in the gospel story up to this point – this is exactly who I am, this is a through and defining expression of God. Jesus has gathered a group of disciples, taught and modelled the kingdom, reached out to the poor in word and action, offered signal gestures of healing and transformation that signal his kingdom, and tussled with the authorities who circumscribed who and what could be holy. God is saying, Jesus is the definition of who I am. If you want to know me, understand me, find me – don’t rail at a distant beard in the sky, don’t concoct a mathematical proof – look at him, talk to him, base your life on him.
‘Listen to him.’ That’s the third part of God’s endorsement. Being a Christian requires the simplicity of recognising Jesus is God standing before us, the humility of realising Jesus is everything God has to say, and the obedience of responding. When I was a student one of my teachers got cross that students arrived late for class. So he said anyone who was more than ten minutes late wouldn’t be allowed in. One day there was an impasse in the discussion and the teacher asked, ‘What would Jesus say if he walked in at this moment?’ A wise guy piped up, ‘He wouldn’t say anything because you wouldn’t let him in after ten past.’ The teacher was wrong about the ten-minute rule. But he was right about the question. What would Jesus say? Most of the time we don’t have to ask that question – we can simply ask another question: What did Jesus say? Listen to him. God says, ‘Jesus speaks for me.’
That’s who Jesus is. God’s beloved child, whose actions God endorses and whose words are God’s words. What about the second dimension of the defining moment? What difference Jesus makes.
Look at what happens straight after the voice speaks. The disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ This very simply tells us who we are without Jesus. We’re on the ground, and we’re terrified. Not a bad summary of the human condition. We’re earthy, fleshly, limited creatures; and in the face of eternity, glory, divinity, revelation, we’re petrified out of our skin. We arrange the world around us to be so absorbing and busy that we’re perpetually distracted. But when the defining moment comes, the moment of truth, we’re cowered in terror and helpless in horror.
Jesus does four things. He comes to us. He came to us in flesh and blood in first-century Palestine and he comes to us through the Holy Spirit today. He comes to us however fallen, foolish, fragile and fearful we are. Then he touches us. Touch must be about the single most controversial thing in church and society today. How to touch each other is about the single most important thing we each have to learn about being together. Touch is electric; is infectious; can be unwelcome; can be coercive; yet can be healing; can be transformative. Jesus touches us. His touch is healing, electric, transformative. His touch changes everything. People sometimes talk about having a relationship with Jesus. Maybe it’s simpler to say, ‘He touched me.’ Then third Jesus raises us. He says, ‘Get up.’ He’s the one who turns us from terrified creatures to beloved companions. He raises us. And finally he says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Not because bad things won’t happen; not because we won’t face challenge and sadness and grief and regret; but because he’s come to us, he’s touched us, he’s raised us, he’s with us – and always will be.
That’s the difference Jesus makes. He comes, touches, raises and transforms us. That’s the whole gospel story. And it’s all here in this defining moment – the Transfiguration story.
And as we read this story today we do so at a defining moment for our congregation. Later today Harry Ching will be licensed by the Bishop of London as our Assistant Vicar for International Ministry. His commissioning answers three important questions about our community. Question One, is our Chinese congregation an eccentric offshoot of our common life, with no significant connection to the rest of the community? The answer’s no. Our Chinese sisters and brothers are integral to our life, and under Harry’s leadership will become even more a blessing to St Martin’s. Question Two, is the international character of our congregation and staff a curious characteristic of our common life, or is it a source of genuine vitality and vibrancy? The answer is, our international character is a vital but neglected aspect of the glorious diversity of St Martin’s, and the church more broadly. Harry is among us not just to pastor the Chinese but to enhance the quality and depth of our international and intercultural ministry and mission – to help us discover what diversity truly means as not just a slogan but a habit and practice of church renewal. And Question Three, is St Martin’s fundamentally a church on Trafalgar Square that does some other things, or is it a national and international movement for renewal of church and society, based in central London? The answer is, it’s gradually transforming from one to the other. Appointing a priest for international ministry is part of that change. Harry is among us as a catalyst to make our ministry more truly international, in the best possible ways. But he’s also among us to help us realise how truly international our mission is, and perhaps has long been.
So this is a defining moment. A moment when our discipleship, ministry and mission is transfigured, and we see like never before what God, and Jesus, and church are all about. Remember my friend on the cycling date. His companion turned round, and in her eyes, and smile, and laugh, and loving arms, he saw the words, ‘You were made for me.’ Those words changed everything. In the Transfiguration story God says Jesus is my beloved child – his actions and words are mine. And then Jesus comes to us, touches us, raises us, and accompanies us. Together these actions and words say, ‘You were made for me.’ They’re our defining moment. They change everything.