A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Luke 9.28-36
There were fifty young Norwegians in this church yesterday asking me questions about St Martin’s and the question that always gets asked in this church is what does that east window mean? And my answer to those young people was. “What do you think it means? Look and see. There is no explanation better than the experience of you yourself.” When asked what they saw they were full of ideas. What do we see in today’s Gospel?
Just before today’s Gospel begins in chapter nine Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Throughout his ministry thus far he has shown his disciples the meaning of the kingdom through his actions, miracles, parables and signs. He has not defined himself or explained himself rather he has led them to participate in an event beyond their human understanding. He has led them to see for themselves. And now he asks them: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Who is he- who is this man who called them to follow and seems to be turning the world upside-down. And in one of those spontaneous leaps of faith and flashes of inspiration Peter gets it and blurts out “You are the Messiah of God.” Half the Gospel has built up to that point. It’s a break-through in their understanding. But straight away Jesus begins challenging them again. He tells them he will undergo great suffering, that he will be handed over to the chief priests and elders and be killed. He tells them on the third day he will be raised and that if they want to follow him they will have to deny themselves and take up the cross too.
Imagine those disciples’ reaction. What is he talking about? Where is he leading them? They have glimpsed the meaning of salvation but these glimpses of the kingdom are side by side with forces of struggle, threat, darkness and even death. What is the meaning of this unknown journey they have embarked upon?
As if to show them rather than tell them Jesus leads his closest disciples up a mountain and there they see him transfigured. Suddenly, unbelievably they see this carpenter’s son, in a new and astonishing light. He is right up there, with Moses and Elijah; still more he is even greater than them. For they see Jesus in dazzling white at the very centre of the revelation and Moses and Elijah are talking to him. It is the confirmation of all that has been intimated. And these three disciples, understandably, want to hold onto that experience, possess it, sustain it forever, perpetuate the moment so that they have lasting proof. Peter cries out: “Master it is so good to be here, let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” And as if all this is not enough there is a voice coming from the cloud telling them that Jesus is God’s Son, the beloved, the chosen one, and they must listen to him. It is the midpoint of the Gospels, the high point, it is a long way down from here. I wonder if there have been moments in your life which silenced you, overwhelmed you, made you think. Wow it’s so good to be here– truly this is why I believe. And you think you will never doubt God again until you wake up the next day
You cannot sustain those moments of religious experience. There are times when we seem to reach the top of the mountains of our faith but we have to come down again just like those three disciples did. But something had been disclosed to them which could never be undisclosed. The revelation had widened the horizons of their lives and that was both wonderful and challenging. Deeply challenging because it sometimes feels safer to go through life blinkered, it gives you an excuse for not doing anything. How can you live comfortably with all that Christ has demanded of us? Something is at risk, something great is at stake and in the midst of our fear of the unknown the voice from heaven points us to Jesus and says “This is my Son, my Chosen, my beloved, listen to him.”
And this is the mysterious nature of our faith. Faith is always drawing us onwards, drawing us further. Just when we thought we knew the answers, we have to set those answers down and move on empty handed. Just when the disciples thought they had reached the mountain of glory, they had to go down and start all over again.
Today I am particularly aware of how things move on because all week our beloved Associate Vicar for Ministry- Katherine Hedderly has been preparing to move on to her new post at All Hallows by the Tower and all week we’ve been saying things like. This is your last clergy staff meeting, or this is your last Bread for the World, or this is your last day in the office with me after 10 years of sharing it. And we have all been thinking “How good it is to have been here.” Time of course moves on and it does not return and yet within that there is a sense that all you experienced you carry forward with you in your heart. The memories, the hopes the fears, the love the struggles and above all the faith that once made you first believe and since then has been calling each day forward to face an unknown. None of us know what the future will bring. Just like those disciples did not know. But we go forth holding fast to that which is good. Holding fast to the visions that led us to the tops of mountains, that helped us to see Christ in the face of a child, or in the kindness of a stranger, or the frailty of someone who was sick, or someone who came to us in need, or in the beauty of the Eucharist. During Katherine’s time here there have I think been many tops of mountains we have all shared together- moments when we glimpsed Christ the beloved, the one who we serve. There have also been many daily struggles to keep on following and believing and remaining steadfast. And through all of this, God, calling us onwards, stripping us down, showing us that we do not own anything accept the knowledge that we are his children and that he will be with us to the end of time. In moments of transfiguration we look round and think -wow how did I ever come this far? And then we turn to face the future and realise we need to recommit our lives to God. We came thus far with Christ and it is Christ who will lead us on.
The dwelling place on the top of the mountain which Peter wants to make to capture the experience is of course the dwelling place that travels with us. We are Christ’s dwelling place. We in him and he in us. We are that tabernacle and Katherine and Loren carry that dwelling place within them to warm the hearts of all at All Hallows with the same kindness, compassion and care with which they have warmed our hearts and served this community so faithfully. And they will also discover of course that Christ is there before them and is hallowing their new home and community. But how good it is to have been here together.
This week I too am facing a small rites-of-passage myself. I’m going to be 60 which seems quite old to me. But quite exciting too because I get to travel on the buses and undergrounds for free. Reaching 60 makes you look back at the past and wonder how you got here. And behind you see the mountains which transfigured you and remember some of the valleys and ditches you struggled in and converted you too. You remember the companions you met on the road some who are still with you and some great guides who have gone before you. You realise it’s been a tough but incredible adventure and you also realise it’s not over yet. There will be more mountains to climb, and moments of transfiguration and more crosses to carry and more companions on the road though it may be hard to find one as good as Katherine. But the one thing that you know from these transfigurations that will always be true is that Jesus is with you on the road and above you in the mountains and that if your life has taught you anything it is that he is the guide whose love will never ever fail you. It will be with you until the end and it will be with you into eternity. That is his promise. That nothing will separate you from God’s love.
On Friday I sat by the grave of dear friend and spiritual guide who for twenty years had shared my faith journey with me. Fr Simon Holden was a monk from the Community of the Resurrection where I had just been to his funeral. I sat by his grave giving thanks for all he had taught me about the love of God and wondering how I would manage in the future without his wisdom. And then I saw a sister also coming to the grave. She was carrying a bunch of wild spring flowers and daffodils. “Simon would like those” I said to her. “Yes” she said “I have come to put them on his grave because every time I came to visit him here he always put flowers ready in the room I was staying.” Yes, that was Simon, I remembered he did the same for me. As I looked around the graveyard we could see that the flowers were still blooming and I realised that though sometimes we part, love and goodness do not part they continue to lead us forward. The transfiguration continues to sustain. We are called to be the bearers of Christ’s love. The creative power of God’s love never ceases. And I am profoundly aware that unless the seed falls on the ground and dies it remains a single seed but if it dies it bears much fruit. I place a single daffodil in Simon’s grave too, and then turn and walk away through a whole field of daffodils full of spring light.