Second Sunday of Lent

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“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

There can’t be very many among you who have not seen changes in this church over the last fifty four years. If you see photographs of the inside of this church from when it first opened it would look very different, especially following the re-ordering in the 1980’s. When we see something which is very familiar it is very easy to imagine that it has always looked as it does now. This might be particularly so in the case of someone moving to a new town and seeing buildings for the first time, after all they’ve never known any different. The truth of course is somewhat different. If you know anything of the history of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London you’ll be aware that it has a history going back three hundred years, during the course of which it has been “reinvented” many times;  not least in the 1840s when Samuel Phelps, whose promising career as an actor had fallen on hard times, was persuaded into a joint venture of managing the theatre (then regarded as being somewhat remote, being as it is in Islington which at that time was in a rather unpleasant part of London) and producing the plays of Shakespeare and other renowned dramatists. Until then it had been a place where light entertainment in the shape of performing dogs and acrobats vied with the audiences’ drinking and rowdy behaviour.

Against all odds, the plays were received by these same audiences in respectful stillness culminating in rapturous applause. From the first night, Phelps and his company played to packed houses. Most of this was due to Phelps, described in Brian Masters’ book The Actors as a quiet and modest man who did not relish fame, but as an actor who so identified himself with the character that he “virtually disappeared into the part” or, as was noted at the time, “he loses his identity in the character he portrays”. In other words, he was transformed into the character and made it real.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a transformation but of a kind we cannot fully comprehend. Can you just picture the scene? Jesus and the three disciples are on a high mountain, and then Elijah and Moses appear followed by the overshadowing cloud which is a reminder of the way God’s awesome presence was revealed in the Old Testament, but this manifestation is different from any that preceded it. It was beyond the comprehension of the disciples, who despite all that Jesus had said about himself still did not understand who he truly was. Yes, they acknowledged him as the messiah, but that didn’t mean they knew who he was. Yes, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had been the first to profess belief in Jesus as the expected Messiah, but what he did not and could not understand was that profession which resulted in Jesus’ first prophecy of his suffering and death. Peter rejected this prophecy and it earned him Jesus’ rebuke. The glorious transfiguration of Jesus affirms the revelation that produced Peter’s act of faith but it also affirms Jesus as the Son of Man who is destined to suffer. “Was it not ordained,” Jesus would later say to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?” Suffering was to become a part of Peter’s discipleship – the suffering he experienced when Judas betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the suffering and remorse he endured in the courtyard after Jesus’ arrest when he denied knowing Jesus, the suffering he endured when he arrived at the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection and the bewildering sight that greeted him.

This suffering is not limited to Peter and nor is it limited to the disciples; we have only to look at the persecution of Christians down the ages, indeed we have only to look at Christians who are persecuted in Nigeria, or Egypt or China now. We are reminded of those later day martyrs – Oscar Romero and Janani Luwum for example; for all who would follow the Lord, suffering is unavoidable. As disciples of Christ we have to accept the suffering, but we accept it with love. When we do so one must be willing to lose oneself for Christ’s sake; only then will a disciple find his or her true self in God.

 Oscar Wilde wrote “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, the coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword!” In today’s first reading the action also takes place on a mountain: Abraham is tested to the utmost limit when commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. We recoil from such an idea and relax with relief when in the end it does not happen. Child sacrifice was practised by Israel’s neighbours and part of the writer’s purpose was to warn against its happening in Israel. But the main purpose was to show Abraham’s total faith in God and his emptying of himself in love of and obedience to God even to the most extreme point imaginable. Ultimately, however, Abraham’s response is but a reflection of God’s love for us. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his own son for God and indeed God did actually give his only Son for us  – in the words of the second reading, “God did not spare his own Son but gave him up to benefit us all.” God’s love for us is unlimited, it is unimaginable; we may turn our love away from him, or we may not yet recognise his love for us, but it is nonetheless there. To lose ourselves for Christ’s sake we are called to have something of Abraham’s unselfish love and faith. When we do, then we experience that unbounded love God has for us.

 When an actor portrays a character he or she seeks to lose him or herself in the identity of the character, setting aside their own character. It is an actor’s skill in losing self-identity when portraying a character that enables him or her to make that character believable. It calls for an emptying of self if the character is to take over and become real for the audience. The greatest actors can make us forget the actor and believe totally in the reality of the character portrayed. We are called, in a sense, to do something similar as we seek to respond to the voice from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” The difference is that our text is not a play, it is a reality; it is the word of the Lord. Like an actor we are to listen, to seek to understand, and then to let the words become a part of us. We however are not seeking simply to immerse ourselves in a character from a play because Christ is a reality in our life. In our Christian experience we seek to be transformed into Christ. To be able to do so Christ calls us to be empty of self. When we achieve that state of grace it will not be just we that live but Christ that lives in us….Amen