A Sermon from Sherborne

From one degree of glory to another

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 3 March 2019 by The Right Reverend Richard Atkinson, Bishop of Bedford

 

 And all of us … are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another [2 Corinthians 3.18].

 St Paul writing to the Church in Corinth, as we heard in our first reading, says not only in the Spirit are we free to witness the glory of God; but our calling is to be changed, degree by degree, into the glory of the Lord. It is a promise of transfiguration not just in Jesus, but for us all.

And all of us …… are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another.

There is a story of a farmer and his family who had lived an existence remote from civilisation. One day, however, after the death of a relative they are summoned by a large law firm to hear about a bequest. Reluctantly they all pile into the farm truck and head off for the city. Eventually having struggled through the traffic they pull up outside a vast office block. The farmer tells his family to stay in the truck whilst he ventures in. ‘But Father, can’t I come with you’ argues his son. Ok but the rest of you stay in the truck. So Father and Son head towards the building where automatic doors open for them. ‘Gosh, did you see that’ says the son, ‘the doors opened by themselves’. ‘Yes’ says the Father ‘you never know what you are going to get in the city’. So in they go marvelling at the huge atrium and everything around them. Going to the receptionist the farmer asks for directions and they are directed to the lift doors. Not knowing what to make of them – they have lived a very remote life – for a while they stand there looking at them. Eventually an elderly woman comes along, the lift doors open, the woman steps in and the doors close. A little later the doors open, and a beautiful young woman steps out. An old woman steps in and a young woman steps out. The farmer turns to his son and says ‘Quick, go and get your mother.’

Change. Transformation. That is our focus today. Not the transformation of that story. In contrast the transformation that is at the heart of the Gospel is not replacing one thing by another; rather it is renewing what is, to be more fully in the image of Christ. Transfiguration is the empty barren plot of garden that gradually over time is filled, plant by plant, with life and colour.

It is Archbishop Desmond Tutu looking out over the dried up South African Veld and reflecting on how it would soon be lush, green and beautiful. I realised, he has written, the power of transfiguration … The principle of Transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation is ‘untransfigurable’.

It is our Lord on the mountain top translucent with glory. It is our lives day by day made more like Christ.

And all of us …… are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another.

Jesus goes up the mountain to pray and whilst he is praying the appearance of his face is changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Jesus is transfigured. The glory of God that is the underlying melody to all creation, that is the essence of his divinity, is made visible. The incarnate Lord who is the Word made flesh is revealed fully as the human being who is also divine.

With those disciples we see what ought to be – human lives, indeed all creation, transfigured and full of the glory of God.

Malcolm Guite in his poem ‘A Sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration’ catches how what is at the heart of all being shines into the world.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
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 this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

On that mountain top, Peter, James and John get that glimpse of how things really are. For them it is a more intense experience of what we have when in someone holy or in an act of deep self-giving love for a moment we know that we have glimpsed something of that greater reality that is the love, the glory of God.

It is Mother Teresa holding the dying on the streets of Calcutta – in the midst of mortality and the cheapness of live there was love and mercy; there was transfiguration. There was The Love that dances at the heart of things.

It is Sister Gillian Rose who I met some years ago at Bollobhpur Hospital in rural Bangladesh who for years has been caring for new born children in this desperately poor part of the world. I still recall especially the neo-natal unit for premature babies. There was no expensive machinery, just simple wooden boxes with tiny children out in the sun, along with a huge dose of godly love. It was that living glory full of grace and truth that shone out upon us from a human face. And Gillian is supported by USPG who is one of your mission projects.

And all of us …… are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another.

So what is God saying to us this morning? Well we stand on the cusp of Lent, and that theme of transfiguration; of being changed more and more into the likeness of Christ; of letting the glory of God shine evermore through us, is so relevant as we enter this season of spiritual discipline and growth.

We are reminded that there is that deeper reality of how things really are. A crucial message of hope to a world where so often the clouds of oppression, despair and self, blot out the glory of God that seeks to shine into our midst.

We are reminded that Christ in calling us to follow him desires us to grow daily more like him. A steady state spiritual life is not enough; we are called to grow more and more into the image of Christ.

We are reminded that as the light shone through Jesus, so that light must shine through us – that dancing love shining through us into the world.

And therefore as we come to Lent three questions for us all:

  1. What one thing will I do this Lent to become more attuned to, more attentive to that under-lying reality of the hope and glory of God? How might I spend more time waiting on God, contemplating his presence?
  2. What one thing will I do this Lent to become more like Christ? It could be about prayer, or bible study, or reading, or worship …..
  3. What one further thing will I do this Lent to allow the glory of God to shine through me into the world? We are not all Mother Teresa or Sister Gillian Rose, but we are all called to let love shine with a human face.

 

If you walk along the brook that runs not far from our house in Cardington to the South of Bedford you come to a clearing in the midst of which is a simple stone plaque. The plaque announces that you are standing at the birth-place of John Bunyan the author of the Pilgrim’s Progress and seventeenth century holy man. He is the saint of Bedfordshire who we should rightly rejoice in, even if for much of his life the established church saw to it that he was banned from preaching and incarcerated in jail.  Whilst Pilgrim’s Progress has been one of the most published books in the history of printing, John Bunyan did write several other lesser known works. One is called ‘The Holy War’ a somewhat clunky allegory, about the spiritual battle for the souls of human beings. It tells of a city called ‘Mansoul’ (the allegory is clear) and the battle for control of it between The Great King El Shaddai, The Golden Prince Emmanuel and the Lord Secretary – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively – on the one side and Diabolus the usurping prince and tyrant – the Devil on the other.

As well as echoing the fall in how it tells of the original innocence of the town being lost as sin and the devil take possession; it also describes the repeated attacks of the devil and his desire to lead the townspeople astray. Under the likes of Captain Damnation, Captain Torment, Captain Corruption and Captain Past-Hope the heart of Mansoul is corrupted.

It is a book of its time, but that allegory of the assault of sin and evil on the soul of humankind is a timeless message. A reminder that if we are to walk with Christ our soul must be rooted in the Gospel. The call to be transfigured – to be more and more in the likeness of Christ – is not just a nice idea; it is who we are meant to be. This Lent let us ponder the transfigured Christ, let us hear those three questions, let us be transformed day by day into the glory of Christ.

And all of us …… are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another.

The Right Reverend Richard Atkinson, Bishop of Bedford 03/03/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne