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“Die? That is the last thing I shall do.” *

March 12, 2017

Sunday 12 March – Second Sunday of Lent

Visit to Hall Green United Community Church (Methodist and Moravian)

Genesis 12:1-4a           Romans 4:1-5, 13-17              Matthew 17: 1-9

As a sign of how far relations between the different Christian traditions have improved in the last 50 years, let me remind you of a remarkable event that took place last October in Lund Cathedral, when the Primate of the Lutheran Church of Sweden welcomed Pope Francis in jointly commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Can you imagine that? The Pope attending a Lutheran Cathedral to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! And then Pope Francis preached about Martin Luther! (well, Luther was a Catholic…. To start with!). [Interestingly, the Pope spoke about “justification by faith” which, historically, has been seen as a stumbling block, a disagreement between the Lutherans and Catholics. Well, I’ve got some news for you: the Catholic Church and the Lutherans have issued a ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ which shows that we are substantially in agreement over this doctrine.[1]]

And Pope Francis also said something that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago: “We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. We ought to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearn to be one.”

Yes, as Christians we yearn to be one. When arranging my visit today, your minister David Howarth emphasised how important it was for us to be nurturing local ecumenical relationships. And that is the spirit in which I come this morning – in my own little way to try and foster greater understanding and reconciliation between our traditions.

And so, I pose two questions that are significant to all Christians:

“Have you been saved?”, and

“Do you glory in God?”

As faithful Christians we should be delighted to be able to instantly reply to the first question with something like: “Oh yes, I have definitely been saved. I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ.” And the second question? Many of us could honestly reply, “Oh yes, of course we glory in God, we love God completely. We worship Him.”

However, I suspect we might be less confident if we were asked the same questions in a slightly different format:

“What have you been saved from?” and “What exactly is glory?’

Answering these slightly more puzzling questions is what I would like us to think about this morning.

Today’s reading from Genesis is known as ‘the Call of Abraham’, when Abraham recognises that there is only one, true God; and the Gospel story today, known as The Transfiguration, is the very first time in history that human beings actually see God Himself glorified – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The two readings go well together because they mark the two key points in what is known as our shared ‘salvation history’: the way God lovingly reached out to humanity through the Jewish people, gradually revealing more and more of Himself to us, until we reach the ultimate revelation, God made Man in Jesus Christ.

We Christians can often be taken for granted, the role of Abraham in our faith. We can make the mistake of focusing too much attention on the New Covenant, the New Testament, glossing over the Sacred Scriptures found in the Hebrew Bible, marveling at just how much Jesus was prophesied, predicted and foretold for a period of two thousand before His birth.

We might also not realise that we ourselves are steeped in four thousands of years of Jewish and Christian culture, and because of our history and culture simply assume, accept as a given, that there is only one true God.

Surely, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that there is only one, true God? Well, no, it isn’t.

Four thousand years ago people worshipped all sorts of gods – anything could be a god. You just have to look at the seven names given to the days of the week – they all reflect a long history of pagan worship in this country:

Sunday: worshipping the sun

Monday: the moon god

Tuesday: ‘Tiw’ was the one-handed god of combat

Wednesday: Woden was a pagan god who guided souls after death

Thursday: Thor’s day – a fertility god associated with thunder and lightning

Friday: after Fríge, an Anglo-Saxon goddess

∗∗Saturday: the Roman God Saturn

Pagan gods can be anything. And it’s not confined to history, it’s still happening today, when many people, despite claiming they are ‘not religious’, persistently, repeatedly – religiously – worship false gods. Food, alcohol, TV, money, drugs, are the obvious ones; there are other more subtle pagan gods in our midst – the cult of celebrity; some people worship at the altar of economic growth; others swear that everything depends on science, which must not be questioned.

In Abraham’s time, the world was similarly awash with pagan gods, and Abraham started off, like everyone else in his world, by worshipping a multitude of pagan gods. And worshipping gods in those days often involved animal, even human sacrifices (which may go some way to explain why Abraham was willing to offer his only son as a sacrifice to God).

But have you ever wondered why, to this day, human beings feel this deep urge to completely commit ourselves to something, to become obsessed with something, to worship something?

It’s just part of us. You could say it’s in our DNA. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because humans are made in the image of the one true God. We are desperately searching, yearning to be re-united with our Creator. Deep within our very being we desperately want to be reunited with our Maker. (Incidentally, it is our very same Divine origins that make us, as God’s children, yearn to come together and be united as one again in worshipping God.)

To return to early human worship of pagan gods…. why the sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice of human life, on pagan altars?

In it’s primitive form it’s because people are frightened. Fear is a dangerous emotion because it is closely linked to violence. These primitive worshippers were frightened of making their gods angry, because they believed that when the gods were angry, bad things would happen to punish people. People simply thought they could appease angry gods, keep them satisfied, by offering them gifts. And the best gift to give to your pagan god is life itself. So, by offering the life essences of animals, and ultimately human life, you can prove how devoted you are to serving that god.

So if you do not serve your pagan god properly, there is the constant threat of that your life will be a misery, and, even worse, you could find that after you die, you come face to face with a very angry God to be judged. This is why pagan worshippers were in a constant state of fear – fear of doing something wrong combined with a fear of death.

So that is why humans have an innate sense of the divine – we were made by God in His own image; but we also have a fear of the unknown, they need to be saved from ourselves.

As we heard in the second reading this morning, St Paul writing to the Church in Rome, it is our faith in Jesus that saves us. But let us return to my opening remark and ask: “Saved from what?”

Are you ready?

(1) saved from the fear of death;

(2) saved from fear of meeting an angry god who will destroy you when you meet him or her;

(3) through following our Lords’ teachings, saved from the fear of leading a meaningless, immoral life; and

(4) saved from the fear of being overwhelmed by this fallen world with all its false teachings and evil.

Now to my second awkward question. “What exactly is glory?’ As Christians we’re saying it all the time…. ‘Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.’

But what does GLORY TO GOD actually mean?

We know glory when we see it:

  • The “glory” of God’s creation;
  • a breathtaking view across the countryside;
  • amazing pictures of the earth taken from space;
  • the buzz we get from a fantastic piece of music.

Glory thrills us. It’s deeply emotional. It can’t be measured or analysed by science. It make us joyfully, rapturously happy.

God is glorious because he is fantastically powerful, breathtaking, beyond description. We feel a surge of love, love of God and His creation that we can’t describe.

The Transfiguration we heard about in the Gospel this morning is a revelation – it didn’t need to happen. It didn’t need to be in the gospels – but it is there in all the gospels bar John. This is the strength of The Transfiguration as an historical incident: it is not central to the Christian case; the only reason it is in the gospels is because it happened. It is one of those cases of the evangelists writing things down without knowing why they were important, and their very puzzlement is what makes the story so convincing.

So why did the Transfiguration happen? It has been the task of Christian theologians over the centuries to ponder on its meaning and to try and work out what it means.

A clue about the theology of the Transfiguration is in the timing of when we are reminded of this glorious event during the Church Calendar. Lent. We are preparing for the glorious feast of Easter, the pinnacle of our Christian religion.

The timing of the reminder points towards one of the reasons we think The Transfiguration took place shortly before the first Easter. Peter, James and John needed to see the Glory of God, Jesus ‘transfigured in glory’, because Our Lord knew His disciples’ faith would be tested to the limit by the horrors they would witness at His gruesome passion and death.

The Transfiguration was just a GLIMPSE of the glory of God, to encourage, to build up Peter, James and John for the dreadful PAIN and SUFFERING that was to come at Easter. To give them HOPE for the glory that they were to share in the future.

Perhaps I could take a short ecumenical diversion and explain something in Catholic churches that many fellow Christians find unsettling, perhaps even shocking – the tradition of displaying crucifixes with an image of the suffering Christ on them.

Catholics do NOT do this because we like suffering; we do NOT do this because we deny the singular, ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross (that would be a shocking heresy were it true).

No, we have this tradition because we want to remind ourselves of the price Jesus paid for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.

Jesus Christ’s death was appallingly painful. He didn’t choose to avoid it, or keep it out of sight. Our atheistic society lays down that suffering and death is to be put out of sight, and DON’T mention religion. All this is rooted in a basic lack of Christian HOPE in our modern society.

So what should be our true Christian response to the prospect of inevitable death?

Because of Abraham’s ‘Call to Faith’, because of the Transfiguration, because of Christ’s excruciatingly painful death, His miraculous Resurrection and His glorious Ascension in to heaven, boldly we can say:

  • We believe and trust in one God.
  • We believe in life after death, and can freely talk about death as part of the necessary journey to heaven.
  • We do not despair: we not only live in hope, we die in hope.
  • We openly recognise that the process of death may involve pain – of course eased by modern palliative care.
  • We look to each other to help when we’re dying – practically giving care, and spiritually in praying for the sick and dying.

Today’s readings are intended to build up in each one of us our Faith in God as we journey towards Easter, our shared Christian journey towards seeing God as He really is. We build up each other’s faith, not through appeasing pagan gods with meaningless sacrifices and superstitious nonsense. We do it through praying to the one true God, praying for each other; we do it through forgiving each for our past sins, and by serving each other through good works and charity.

And that’s’ the message for today. Just like Peter, James and John seeing Jesus glorified, so we, through faith, support each other as we journey together on the struggle through this life, towards God’s promise of being reunited with Him in our heavenly homeland. Amen.

 

 

 

 

* “Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do.”  Said to be the last words of Lord Palmerston (1784 – 1865), Prime Minister of Great Britain.

[1] Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, 31 October 1999.

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