Sunday, 10 February 2013

Transfigured humanity - glory in weakness

Here’s a verse from today’s Gospel reading (Luke 9.28-36):

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.  

It’s only St. Luke who tells us that when the disciples went up a hill for the purpose of prayer, they were really too tired to do the job. But while he is praying, Jesus is transfigured in their midst; the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear to bear witness to the glory of God revealed in Christ.

 What do words like “transfigured” or “transfiguration” and “glory” mean to you? Writing in the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons declared:

The glory of God is a man fully alive.
You can see it in our Gospel reading. Not only Jesus, but Moses and Elijah also, appear before the disciples in “glory.” It’s a dazzling vision which contrasts with the state of the disciples, Peter, James and John. They are “weighed down with sleep.” They try to respond to the vision with that strange offer by Peter to build three dwellings - it’s an inadequate response, an attempt to deal with something beyond their understanding. St. Luke’s Gospel tells us: “Peter did not know what he had said.” It might make us think of our own inadequacy when we say that we are simply lost for words. And then the disciples find themselves reduced to terror as a cloud covers them. The cloud signifies the presence of God - and the disciples hear God speak: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” When the disciples return down the Mount of the Transfiguration they are asked to heal a young boy - and they fail. Where is the effect of God’s glory on them?

We need to go back to those words of St. Irenaeus which I quoted: “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” That’s what we see in Jesus - the Son of God, but at the same time fully human. The glory of his Transfiguration is not something alien coming upon him. The Transfiguration of Christ reveals the true glory, the real nature of a man who some want to write off as “all too human.” Our humanity is a calling to share the glory of God. Our weakness is something to be transfigured. God can use us because we are human.

Glory is not something to escape into from our human condition. Glory is revealed because we are human with all the frailty and frustrations of being what we are. But we wrestle with the frailty and frustration. (Here) at St. Cuthbert’s this morning we can’t help but be conscious of the loss we share by the death of Ian Severs on Friday evening. I wonder what people who didn’t know Ian made of him when they first met him? They’d find him in a wheelchair. With his Parkinson’s the words didn’t always come out right, limbs didn’t always behave properly; and he’d lost a leg - and had an arm that was barely functioning. You needed to get to know Ian a bit to start to know the man - and to recognise just how important he’s been, not only to the members of his family, not only to his friends, but to us as a church, and more widely in showing what it is to be fully alive even in the most extreme conditions of physical weakness and disability. He was with us (here) in church at the Eucharist last Sunday. In the conversations I had with him during the last week he didn’t say that he’d been feeling unwell; he did say he’d had a positive outcome from his last hospital check-up - but mainly he was taken up with tackling problems of fabric we’re having at present in the church and the hall. Problems they are to us - but Ian’s approach was to sort them out.

 There’s much more we need to say about Ian - and to share with one another. His death is a grievous loss. But we see in his approach to prolonged illness an example of how to live. Where should he sit in church, he’d asked, when he couldn’t fit his wheelchair into a pew? For me it’s always been important that he should be at the front. Not just so he could join in the service better - but so he could show us what and who we are.

 “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” That doesn’t mean being fighting fit, intellectually brilliant or the funniest person around. It means being open to what God can do in us.

Today our Diocese of Durham is encouraging us to observe as “Giving Sunday.” It’s up to the parishes as to what they do with the occasion - and it’s not the best time of year, I think, to be trying a stewardship drive… to encourage people to put more money on the plate, or think about increasing  their standing order for the church, or review the Gift Aids they might use to make their giving more tax efficient. Of course we’d be delighted if you do all these things. But perhaps we need first to think of life as a gift - in all that we receive from God, in the extent of God’s mercy, in the generosity to which we are called as Christians to respond, in what we can give back. It’s a time to express gratitude. I and the Church Council need to say thank you to all of you who give to support the work of our church. I don’t need to say how much you should give. I realise that some people get concerned about what they can give. What I’d say now is that our giving is about recognising the gift we have already received. As to the extent of our giving, it’s a strange thing but people who are generous somehow find themselves able to go on being more and more generous. Love itself does not count the cost.

I’m pretty hopeless at thinking of how to conduct so-called “stewardship campaigns” to stimulate giving to the church - I’m not starting a campaign now. But when we’ve had them in the past (at St. Cuthbert’s), I’ve been glad for people who have been practical about what we needed to do and who were ready to take a lead. One of those people was Ian Severs. It was Ian  who was ready to get up in front of other people and tell them what we needed to be doing. He put into practice what we needed as an example. He was down to earth.

And that’s when we see that the “glory of God” is not something unworldly. It’s worked out in the here and now, within the limits of our human capability, but at the same time able to be transformed - transfigured.

For all we have received - in terms of wealth, health (and our weaknesses), material resources, and above all people who show us his grace at work, in whom his glory is revealed, thanks be to God!

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