Saturday, 13 February 2010

Sunday next before Lent: Being changed and being transparent

The Readings

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Luke 9:28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

It seems to me that these passages are both about the revealed glory of Jesus, brightly shining, and about the effect that this glory has, or should have, on those who see it, or perhaps for us in the 21st century, perceive it. I’m not going to dwell on the Gospel reading since I want us to mainly think about St. Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians, but I’d like to make two comments on the transfiguration from a disciple’s perspective to lay the foundation for what I want to draw out of the epistle.

Firstly it is very noticeable just how much Peter is affected by seeing the glory of Christ revealed in such a way that they could see more of his deity shining through his humanity. And secondly, and most importantly, even though he was affected by it, perceiving the glory of Christ didn’t instantly transform Peter, James and John into wise men. Seeing or perceiving something amazing might well change us, but we have to grow in wisdom in order to manage that change, and that’s a gradual process.

What I mean is that Peter’s comment about building three dwellings was more or less a desire to prolong the moment of revelation, putting off the journey to Jerusalem, and to keep alongside them Moses and Elijah, who represent all of the law and the prophets. Peter wanted to prolong the moment, and Luke comments that he doesn’t really know what he’s saying.

In fact it is quite possible that the voice of God the Father, veiling himself in the cloud, was simply to stop the disciples from wrongly theorizing about what was going on, and instead to become silent in the presence of God. And this is our starting point: perceiving the glory of the Lord in prayer will change our perspective, but it’s possible that we may not necessarily do or say the right thing as a result. The silence in the presence of the Father is what we need, in order to find the space to grow in wisdom and learn to deal with experiencing the presence of Christ.

So that’s what we’re going to talk about today: perceiving Christ’s glory, probably by revelation through prayer, can change us, but we must take the time to dwell in that presence in order to grow in wisdom. Christianity is meant to be an experiential religion. We are meant to know what it is to perceive the glory of Christ, but our religion is not just about the experience. We are supposed to grow from it, not dwell in it. So now let’s turn to the 2 Corinthians reading.

This is a curious passage which again talks about the effect of the revealed glory of the Lord. St. Paul begins by recounting an Old Testament story about how Moses had needed to put a veil over his face after being in the presence of God because his own face had continued to shine with the reflected glory of God, even after he had left God’s presence, to the extent that when they saw it the Israelites had been scared witless. Being in the presence of God changes us, and this was dynamically shown by the experience Moses had.

Paul goes on to use this story to give his own perspective that this explains the reason why it was the Gentiles who were turning to Christ rather than all that many of the Jews of his time. He uses the metaphor of the veil to state his belief that a veil was still lying between them and the glory of God, stopping them from seeing who Christ really was.

And then we come to key verses, and I want to quote these to you again.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

This is all about the transformation that should take place in us as we perceive the glory of the Lord, except it’s rather easy to misunderstand what he means unless we have a little context.

Peter, James and John all saw the glory of Christ at the transfiguration. They saw him revealed as he truly is. However St. Paul says that it’s not the same for us. That was a special moment for those three disciples. But, he says, we only see that glory as if it’s revealed in a mirror, which I initially found a little confusing. I mean if you hold a mirror up to look at the sun, it’s still going to dazzle you. But that’s not what St. Paul meant, because his idea of a mirror and ours are different.

Modern mirrors are made by a fairly complex process of backing glass with silver through a chemical reaction in such a way that very little light is lost in the reflection of the original object. To all intents and purposes what we see in a mirror is an exact two dimensional reversed likeness of the object that’s being reflected. But two thousand years ago things were rather different.

The art of making a high quality mirror was in its infancy and instead most mirrors, particularly for the ordinary working folk, were made by taking a naturally reflective surface and polishing it until a reasonable reflection could be seen. It worked up to a point but without any of the clarity of a modern mirror. They certainly did not reflect all of the light that struck them.

And that’s the point that St. Paul was making. In this life, unless those three disciples, we cannot see the glory of the Lord in all its fullness. What we see, what we perceive, is like reflected glory through a darkened polished surface. Do you remember the eclipse of the sun that we saw back in 1999? Ali and I had bought those proper viewing glasses that darkened the image down substantially allowing us to see the sun as the moon gradually moved across in front of it.

We didn’t see the sun in all its glory, but we saw enough to know what was going on. This, I believe, is a reasonable metaphor for what St. Paul is trying to describe. We cannot see the full glory of the Lord in this life, but we can perceive it to some degree, and indeed we should pursue doing precisely that. Why?

Simply because it is in perceiving the glory of the Lord that we are changed, that we, ourselves, are transformed into something more like the one from whom the glory is shining so that it shines out from us too, or as he puts it, ‘so that we are transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. But what exactly does he mean by that?

I mean let’s be honest, whilst it might be pretty amazing if, after Sunday worship, we all walk out of church looking and feeling like 1970's adverts for Ready-Brek, of what real value is that?

I think the answer comes in the last part. St Paul is specifically referring to ministry here, but it could apply to every aspect of life when he says, ‘We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.’

I think that can be summed up in one word: Transparency. As we are changed by perceiving the glory of the Lord, so we become transparent, and it works in two ways. Firstly we are called to honesty. One of my pet hates is that, in the world of politics, people manipulate truth and each other in order to get their own way.

But what I find even harder is when one sees the same thing within churches, and it always seems to be particularly when power is involved, where what someone says or writes has a subtext which is all about getting what they want, if possible by pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, so that they can have their own way rather than serving the Lord and the community.

I really struggle when I come across these subtexts in the lives of my fellow Christians because when we are like that we become opaque to the glory of the Lord. People can’t see Christ through us, they only see us. We should be open and honest, not calculating to get our own desire. If we are transparent and honest in our dealings as Christians then the second meaning of this transparency becomes clear: we become transparent in such a way as people can look at us and see the Lord Jesus through us.

When we are honest, the Lord becomes visible, but when we practice cunning then we become opaque and make Jesus invisible to the world. In other words our very real practical actions make a huge difference as to how, or even whether, people see Christ. In effect we can actually draw a veil over his glory in our lives by our actions.

At the beginning I made the comment several times that it is important that we notice Peter’s folly in trying to make the experience last. What I meant by that is that being Christians is not all about having good experiences. We have to let those things change us. We should be uncomfortable when we examine ourselves and discover that our declared beliefs haven’t affected how we actually live.

That’s what I meant about learning to be quiet in God’s presence. We should be changed by perceiving the glory of the Lord. We shouldn’t try and revel in it as some churches do. We shouldn’t try and manufacture experiences that make us feel fabulous and ecstatic, but we should nevertheless seek out and try to perceive the glory of the Lord.

When we do, it may lead us to feel great, a sort of spiritual high, but it’s not meant to be about the high. Peter thought it was and the voice of the Father shut him up. It’s meant to be about us being changed by the experience, to become more like the Lord, because that’s what changes the world.

Our worship, our prayers, our silences in God’s presence and the way in which we are changed by them are so that we become open, honest, more like Christ. Our places of work, our homes, our church, our places of study; all of them can be changed when we become more like Christ. But if we practice selfishness, manipulation and cunning, then we become opaque and unchanged. It’s a long journey, but our communities need us to make it. Amen

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