Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a teenager I attended several events aimed at young Episcopalians, like church camp and “Happening” (which is like a youth version of “Cursillo”–a sort of three-day spiritual retreat). These things certainly helped form me as a Christian, and I remain grateful for that, though there was always one element that left me cold–namely the sort of music that we were made to sing at such events. Your mileage may certainly vary in this regard, but even as a teenager I always found traditional hymnody accompanied by organ to be more edifying than contemporary praise choruses and the like. That’s still certainly my preference, though I’ve become less stuck-up about it (at least I hope so). Anyway, one song which particularly rubbed my adolescent grandiosity the wrong way was the 1987 Graham Kendrick worship song “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

This, is no doubt, a divisive one. I was shocked several years ago when the BBC program Songs of Praise, which I’ve always loved, named this Britain’s tenth favorite hymn. Conversely, English journalist Damien Thompson declared it “the most loathed of all happy-clappy hymns.” So whether you love it or hate it, you’re not alone.

Like I said, I’ve mellowed as I’ve grown more mature in the faith. If that sort of music floats your boat, then that’s great. Even so, I think its unqualifiedly cheerful tone misses the rather more ambiguous nature of being exposed to Christ’s glory and I’m particularly troubled by the implications of its final verse, which says “As we gaze on your kingly brightness, so our faces display your likeness, ever changing from glory to glory.” I think that sentiment gives us way too much credit and muddies the distinction between our Creator and us as fallen creatures.

We learn in today’s Gospel that on the holy mountain, Peter, John, and James do not exactly cover themselves in glory, much less do they themselves shine with the radiance of their Lord. They fall asleep when they ought to be keeping watch. Peter profoundly misses the point in seeing this as an opportunity to avoid the terror of Golgotha and retire from the Apostolic mission. And of course, as is a theme we see over and over in the Gospels, the first reaction of these mortals to being exposed to the unfiltered glory of God is to become terrified. The Israelites in our Old Testament lesson become afraid to get just a little taste of God’s glory, when Moses’ face shone. How much more then must the disciples have been frightened by the recognition that their friend and teacher was none other than very God or very God in seeing Jesus transfigured?

On this feast of the Transfiguration I want to focus on two implications of this event in the life of Jesus and the disciples for our own lives as Christians.

First, though perhaps this is obvious, it’s increasingly necessary in our skeptical age to say that this really happened. It is not myth or metaphor, but a real event in which the overwhelming glory of the divine broke into human history. What Peter is essentially saying in this morning’s Epistle is “folks, this really happened!” I say this not just to make it clear that we should have a high degree of trust in the reliability of scripture, though I do believe that. I say it because this makes it clear that our God is ready and willing to break into our world in dramatic and miraculous ways.

I read an article several months ago which attempted to explain why Christianity, often reckoned as being in decline in the West, is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. Among the most striking data was the fact that converts to Christianity in the Global South were far more ready to recognize God at work around them and identify apparent miracles as honest-to-God miracles. I believe our tendency as modern Western people to chock this up to superstition should be a scandal, not only because, to be blunt, it seems more-than-a-little racist. It also suggests that many of us have traded in a robust, supernatural faith for functional deism. I’m by no means faultless in this regard. I think, though, we should all bear it in mind.

Second, the Transfiguration, is one of several examples of how the light of God’s glory is not essentially about feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s not about some inner light that we naturally possess giving us gentle nudges toward discerning God’s will, as a Quaker might have it. Still less is it about the Spirit’s transforming us via moral progress alone (as much as we might pray that this is a fringe benefit, as it were, of our justification). Experiencing God’s glory is, rather an awesome and terrible thing, in the older senses of both of those words. It can be overwhelming, frightening even, because we are not accustomed to that gulf being bridged by the very person of Absolute-Being and Perfection and Love. We see this not only in the Transfiguration, but any time men and women in scripture are exposed to the light of divinity. We see it at Mount Sinai. We see it every time an angel appears in the Gospels. Most powerfully, it is experienced by Mary Magdelene and then by the Apostles when our risen Lord meets them.

This is not to say that there is not consolation to be found in the presence of the Almighty. There certainly is, but so too is there conviction. The most important thing, I think, is that the fruit of this conviction is not about being better under our own steam. It is, rather, on learning to rely more-and-more on the infinite Grace of God in Christ Jesus. It is about recognizing that the Law will always condemn us, but conversely the Gospel will always save us.

We recapitulate this pattern every time we gather on a Sunday. We call to mind and confess what we have done amiss or left undone and then proceed directly to receiving unearned, objective, salutary Grace in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood. So, be not afraid. Approach the throne of Grace here. And steel yourselves to do the same on that last great day, when finally God’s glory will no longer be veiled under the accidents of Bread and Wine, on the day of judgment, remembering that that same day is the day of triumph for all who love the Lord and pray ceaselessly for his appearing.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.