Faith and Hope

Sunday 19th February 2012
Year B, The Sunday next before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:1-9

A few weeks ago the Growing Together house group was holding a difficult but vigorous discussion on science and belief triggered by Richard Dawkins who must be aghast at the great boost he has given to Christianity. We were exploring such ideas as fact, truth, axiom, interpretation and experience and it was fascinating that when we introduced the idea of belief towards the close of the discussion some people became anxious; there was an uncomfortable feeling that a Jesus not built on fact would be a rather fragile Jesus in this harshly empirical world; but we finally agreed that nothing fundamental about Christianity was factual. Yes, it was an historical fact that a person called Jesus had been born, had lived and preached and been crucified. They were the bare facts but by themselves they did not constitute a religion. Anyone could accept the facts as they were without drawing any conclusions. The Group concluded that by virtue of the Holy Spirit we bring faith to the facts; and we concurrently concluded that of all the ways of understanding the world the factual was the least significant: we are bound up throughout our lives with exploration, interaction and interpretation; in spite of stubbornly dogmatic scientists we know that the way each of us reacts to the music of Bach or a painting by Monet is not simply neuro-chemical; and we recognise that, above all, what counts in the way we live is the interaction between our experience and a situation or an object.

Which brought us, finally, to reject the idea that the Bible is a scientific textbook which is, in essence, Dawkins’ chief methodological weapon. He treats the Bible as he would treat a primary school scientific textbook; I say "primary" because contemporary physics, for example, is far from clear-cut so Dawkins' strategy is profoundly disingenuous or malicious; take your pick. And the sadness of it all is that there is a large and vocal Christian following for this simplistic textbook view of the Bible bowling old Dawkins a series of long hops.

All of which brings me to today's Gospel. Now we could argue quite plausibly that if God can create history in creating the world and if God can break into that history in the Incarnate form of Jesus then the Transfiguration, taken literally, is a piece of cake. It has always shocked me that people who believe that God created the world and that Jesus was the incarnate God have problems with such transcendental happenings and with miracles, not to mention the collection of re-manifestations of Jesus we call the Resurrection. But whether this was an actual event faithfully recorded by Mark, Matthew and Luke from eyewitness accounts - and the three accounts are just different enough to be credible - or whether it is a piece of deeply symbolic narrative, the outcome is the same. So instead of concentrating, Dawkins-like, on whether the accounts of the Transfiguration are factual we need to think about how they inform our faith.

Let us start by looking at the two figures who were manifested in the blaze of Christ's glory: the first was Moses, the greatest of all the Prophets who brought Israel out of bondage into freedom, who was the nearest any human being ever got before Jesus to being perfect (and the wrong of which he is accused is, in my view, bogus and only inserted for symbolic reasons) and who, in consequence, had a direct and intense relationship with God. And the second was Elijah, the most dramatic of all the prophets who was caught up in the turbulent world of religion and politics, who, as we heard in our First Reading, was accorded the unique Old Testament honour of being taken up into heaven and whose earthly re-manifestation was, in consequence, believed by many to be a necessary precondition for the coming of the Messiah. And so in this scene the icons of liberation, Messiah and transcendence are bound together; the Old Testament is the soil out of which the rod of Jesse blossoms in the Incarnate and now transfigured person of Jesus.

To understand the full significance of this tableau we should briefly consider three things:

Taken together these three themes of continuity, transcendence and relationship provide a firm foundation for the contemplation of our faith as we approach the Lenten season. We believe in the context of the Church, Christ's gift to his people which provides continuity through Word and Sacrament. In Sacrament we accept the invitation of transcendence to give us the strength to build God's Kingdom on earth. And in our relationship with God, in his bride the church, and in the intimacy of our own homes, we are wooed; and we are promised, through our Messiah, the consummation of all our desires.

As our tableau is transfixed, God says: "This is my beloved son. Hear him." And indeed we should, for Faith is what God requires; but hope is what God promises.