Sermon for Next before Lent 2020
Sermon preached at the Priory Church of St. Mary of Lancaster on Sunday, February 23rd, 2020
Preacher: John-Francis Friendship
‘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’ (2 Cor. 3:18)
First let me say what a pleasure it is to be back and to thank Fr. Chris for inviting me to preach this morning.
Five years ago, almost to the day, on a warm, sunny morning a group of 20 young Egyptians and one Ghanaian walked on a beach in Libya. The Egyptians were Copts – Orthodox Christians – from the same area in Upper Egypt; farmers – fellahin – some married, some illiterate, all there because they could earn more money for their impoverished families than was possible by farming in their homeland.
I mention them because, on that sunny day, they gave their lives for Christ. They had been captured by Daesh fighters and held captive for some months during which they had been tortured to make them renounce their faith. But they wouldn’t. Recently a book about these martyrs by a Garman author, has been published. ‘The 21’ reveals that for these ‘ordinary’ young men, their faith meant more to them than life itself. As they approached death they were asked, for the final time, if they would embrace Islam and each replied: “I am a Christian”. We know this because their captors, chillingly, posted a full-length video of their martyrdom on YouTube.
The other striking thing about the story is that when the author interviewed their families and friends, he found no animosity or anger towards their killers or their own Muslim neighbours. Instead, the witness of these martyrs burnt away any darkness in the hearts of them all, and the miracles that have begun to occur in connection with them are strengthening the faith of Copts. As the author wrote: ‘the martyrs sheer splendour outshone them … leaving them to become wandering, formless ghosts.
I also mention this because the account we just heard of the Transfiguration of Christ reminds me of for the way the lives of these men revealed the splendour of Christ. Clearly counter-(Western)-cultural, it shocked me into re-considering my own faith in Christ, and I recalled that He who was transfigured today would soon be crucified.
Yesterday, your Council met for a day to consider how to develop their – nd your – personal witness to our transfigured Brother. I know what they explored will eventually be shared more widely but they are intent, as your representative, on considering how Christ is calling them so they can help you consider your call.
SUFFERING AND FAITH
We live in a world where there’s a constant interplay between joy and suffering, pain and pleasure, life and death causing many to be angered and say: “With so much suffering, how can there be a good God?”
We don’t often think about this dynamic – the most fundamental of all human experiences – but religion does. Christianity, in particular, is centred on death and life – and whether that’s physical or spiritual, or the way we face suffering or the way we deal with temptation, it’s all about enlightenment.
Light was the first creation of God: Moses was enveloped in the Divine Light that rested on Mt. Sinai, as we heard in the first reading. For St. John the Beloved, Christ is the Light of the World: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people”. His passionate concern that we should see and believe that Christ is the glory of God’s revelation is echoed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians:
“I pray that your inward eyes may be illumined, so that you may know what is the hope to which he calls you, how rich and glorious is the share he offers you among his people in their inheritance, and how vast are the resources of his power open to those who have faith.” (1: 17-19a)
LIVING IN THE LIGHT OF CHRIST
But, while it’s liberating, it’s not always easy to live in the light – to see the truth, not least the truth of who we are. Not easy to face the responsibility and consequences of the move from darkness to light, the consequence of claiming Christ as our Lord and Master. When I listen to some of our politicians I realise – sadly and dangerously – that some seem to have chosen darkness rather than light. All the virtues we know that underly civilisation, which are taught by our Faith and were embraced by those martyrs – honesty, integrity, truth and so on – are ignored and I’m reminded of Orwell’s prophetic words in ‘1984’:
‘Ignorance is strength’; ‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself’ and, perhaps most chilling of all – ‘Power is not a means, it is an end’.
‘Men have preferred darkness’, as St John said (3.19) but we claim to live in the light of Christ. For both St. John and St. Paul this matter of ‘coming into the light’ is the purpose of faith; to come into such a relationship with Christ that we live at one with all things and reveal that glory in our day to day lives. We, together with the martyrs, are children of Light and glory and, if you have forgotten this truth or are unaware of it, the reading from the 2nd Letter of Peter is directed at you. Just listen again to those words:
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (1: 19)
Today, we’re given a glimpse into God’s eternal daylight.
Throughout the scriptures there are moments of ‘enlightening’, yet our eyes often cannot see beyond the surface. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12) wrote St Paul before going on to say: “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
To look on the face of Jesus is to see something of that glory of God, as His face enlightens us. As one poet has written:
Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it
I know it is—and that if once it hailed me it ever does—
And so it is myself I want to turn
in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting within myself,
as one turns a mirror to flash the light
to where it isn’t – I was blinded like that – and swam
in what shone at me
only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that. (Marie Howe)
REFLECTIONS OF THE DIVINE
By seeking to turn to Christ, we desire to be filled with the life of God. And, in doing so, we can be sure that, because God loves us, God will fill us with that life. That’s what we are to do in prayer – to turn the eye of our heart to the light of Christ. We’re to let the Word that is Christ inform and mould our hearts; to desire that light as lovers desire each other, because they want to give life to each other.
When Jesus reached the summit of this mountain, he had a profound experience of God and was transfigured – enlightened – as he heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Each of us needs to hear, deep in our hearts, those words – “You are my beloved” – and believe that. That’s what strengthened the martyrs.
TURNING TO GOD
Yet, of course, many don’t hear them. So, listen – hear, deep in your heart, your Creator, say: “You, my creation, are beloved.” There’s nothing more important any of us need to hear, and then to turn and look towards the face of God (who, dwelling in light, will be as darkness to the human eye) so that we can be transformed by his loving breath flowing over us.
No doubt, as those disciples laboured up the mountain, or took that final walk along a beach, they wondered if it was all worth it and at times became disheartened. A life of faith isn’t all sweetness and light – we need to accept the fact that night comes when God strips of everything which prevents us being bathed in His light.
There are those, of course, who simply give up and get caught in feelings of despondency – even desolation. Lost in the darkness. It’s at such times we need, with the help of a spiritual director, to trust that God will draw us through such periods. We need to refocus our heart into God’s love; to pray for those gifts of faith and hope and love which will not only carry us through such times, but also strengthen our relationship with God. Yesterday, one of the things we considered was how to develop a simple ‘Rule of Life’ – directions to help us on our way as disciples – ways of prayer and reading, encouraging each other, learning to be generous – which is what the early Christians did.
Finally, let’s recall the context of the Transfiguration. This time on the mountain top occurred six days after He had told His disciples: “If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. And it heralds the beginning of Christ’s Passion when day will briefly, turn to night. Like those disciples we may want to stay in places of light and love, but we have to move on. The Transfiguration of Christ has always encouraged mystics and martyrs, reminding them and giving them the courage to press on when times are dark.
In a simple poem about this event, Fr. Malcolm Guite wrote:
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
So be thankful for glimpses of heaven as we journey on, pilgrims along a path to our own Jerusalem.
Hold this moment – in and out of time – and focus into it, for this is where we belong. Where our hearts can be fixed …
And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting within myself …
Like Jesus we move towards Jerusalem but, for a moment, we glimpse the heart’s desire. The glory of God in the face of Jesus, transfiguring all things from glory to glory, inviting us into the light.