Next before Lent - transforming love

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr James Heard, 2 March 2014

One of my favourite things to do in life is to go on a long walk in the mountains. I’ve been fortunate enough to have hiked in the Lake District, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru. Being surrounded by stunning scenery, I find myself filled with a sense of awe and wonder… and… of connection with a higher, transcendent dimension.

Today’s readings - mention is made of high places, of a mountain being a place of encounter and transformation. Such close encounters with God don’t happen too often, at least not with me. But when they do happen, they change us, there’s a new outlook, new vision. We see this in today’s readings both for Moses and Jesus’ disciples.

Three of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, James and John, the dynamic trio – go up a mountain to pray and something amazing happens. Jesus is transfigured. Like Moses, he sort of shines out, his clothes become dazzling white. Peter, in his typical impulsive way, suggests they build three tents - perhaps as a desire to capture the moment, to hold on to the experience. The narrative tells us that a voice comes from a bright cloud: the words Jesus heard at his baptism are told again, but this time they are addressed to his disciples: ‘Jesus is my dear child, my beloved, he is precious to me, I’m proud of him. Listen to him.’

Through this experience, this encounter, Jesus’ disciples are transformed.  They see things about Jesus’ identity that they hadn’t noticed before. But it required the eyes of faith to see.

A number of years ago there was a fashion for ‘magic pictures’. These were images that at first sight seemed just a mass of colour. If you looked at them you couldn’t find any discernable pattern. But the trick was to focused your eyes beyond the picture and when you did so there would emerge a pattern or shape or even words. (My girlfriend at the time gave me one on Valentine’s day – the words ‘I love you’ came into focus. Its amazing the sort of disgustingly soppy things young lovers do!). But the point is, you needed eyes to see, it took time and patience.

Changing the metaphor from sight to hearing, in music, you need ears to hear. There are multiple complex dimensions in a piece of music and it can take many years of training to hear a these deeper dimensions. It involves sharpening of emotional and aesthetic sensibilities to discern what’s going on in a piece of music. One’s ears need training. Patrick Craig inspired us a couple of weeks ago when he spoke about the power of music to move us in worship and prayer – and how music can actually physically impact our cells, our very being.

Perhaps something like this was what was going on at the transfiguration. The disciples are beginning to see a deeper reality in the person of Jesus, their eyes of faith were coming into focus, being sensitised to see.

What’s fascinating about this encounter is that the disciples didn’t immediately get it. They experienced something quite profound on the mountain, but they didn’t really understand what was happening. It was only later that they began to understand, only after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, many years later, they described what happened in a theological way. They draw upon the Jewish scriptures and see parallels with Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and prophets.
Peter urges the early Christians to hold on to this way of seeing, this light, be attentive to it as ‘to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’. In short, there’s a movement from the provisional, the momentary, which reaches toward a fuller perception of light.

And that, I think, is what happened with the transfiguration: something profound happened for the disciples on the mountain that day with Jesus. And they explore its significance later in the following years.

Many people describe having ‘transcendent’ moments on their spiritual journey. Perhaps you have. These are moments when the mundane pattern of our ordinary routines gives way to something vivid and radiant. Moments of clarity, of feeling profoundly connected with a pattern in life, of an overarching meaning to life, sense of a divine union with God. May be on a walk up a mountain, or a piece of music that triggers something deep within us, or it might be through the words of a poem.

Awareness of the transcendent and the numinous is what those who belong to what we (rather patronisingly) call ‘primitive cultures’ known in their bones. Its knowing with a deep undeniable instinctive knowledge that in the depth of myself, in stillness, I am aware of the ‘other’ that is not me and yet is the very ground of my existence. This intuitive sense of the transcendence, the muffled presence of the holy, is what makes us human.

Meister Eckhart, the remarkable c.13 Dominican friar and mystic, describes the necessity of becoming aware of ‘a transcendence abyss’ within ourselves. He spoke of God as having an infinite capacity for giving and each human soul an infinite capacity for receiving. And each one of us must discover our capacity, little by little, to detach ourselves from this all-demanding ego and begin to reflect that which is of God that lies at our very centre. For the deepest mystery about you and me is that we can find God in the depths of ourselves, and having begun to do so we can then begin to find him everywhere. (Michael Mayne, Prayer p.8).

Essentially, it is to have a lived knowledge or experience of the Love that is transformative. This doesn’t have to involve a wild ecstatic mountain top, lightening and thunder, sort of experience. I certainly haven’t experienced that sort of encounter. It might be the still small voice in the silence of our hearts.

An experience of God’s love transforms us. It changes us. And those words spoken about Jesus, God speaks to us too. Unconditional love does not spoil us, or make us live lives of entitlement. It changes us and frees us to give ourselves to others.

After this extraordinary experience of transfiguration up on a mountain, Jesus and the disciples then head back down to the real world – a profoundly broken and needy world.

On Sundays we set aside space to go up a mountain, we experience some space to think, reflect, to pray, to be moved and inspiring by music, to hear the drama of the Bible readings, to experience God in simple gifts of bread and wine. And then? We are sent out to ‘love and serve the Lord’. It’s Monday morning, back to school, back to work, chores to be done. Life continues. We go into this world knowing God’s love for us, God’s freedom, and we live our lives in a way that makes that love known, to help set others free.
Holland Park Benefice