Sunday 6th August 2017
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Exodus 34.29-35
2 Corinthians 3

We are accustomed to instant transformations: we activate a light switch and a room goes from total darkness to brightness; we activate another switch and silence turns into music; we summon an art gallery on the Internet, tell Alexa to find the weather forecast or skype a son in Australia; and we are now so accustomed to all of these phenomena that we don't even think of them as transformations from nothing into something; they are just routine operations.

But none of these properly represents the conjunction between the Old and the New Testaments for the Old Testament was not an empty room or a blank screen. Perhaps the best illustration of the relationship is of a stained glass window, containing many images, which is suddenly illuminated by the sun when a cloud is blown away, revealing all the images in all their beauty and significance. This is how I think of the Transfiguration of Jesus which we celebrate today, not so much speculating on what he actually looked like as understanding the incorporation of the Old Testament into the New in the figures of Moses and Elijah (Matthew 27). In our Second Reading Saint Paul does much the same thing by taking the image of the shining face of Moses and saying that because of Jesus all our faces are made to shine.

Uncharacteristically in a Reformation Collect, we are given a clue to the integrated nature of the two Testaments which I will read in part in case my intoning was not clear enough: "Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus 'Christ ... spoke of the Exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem". I use the word "uncharacteristically" because the Reformation, from its birth in the personal agonisings of Martin Luther, was obsessed with what we might call the mechanics of the Crucifixion, based on Saint Paul's understanding of it and focusing on the individual; but the words of the Collect are much more focused on the theme of the Exodus, or Passover, which was an integral part of the Last Supper. What Jesus said of his own death, regardless of what Saint Paul later understood by it, was that his death was a necessary precondition for saving Israel to establish the Kingdom of God in a new, eschatological Exodus; his followers would collectively participate in his death through the Eucharist and be spared "The time of trial" which is the expression at the end of the lord's Prayer.

This understanding is important because, regardless of the way we understand the meaning of the Cross, the theology of the New Testament is, fundamentally, liberation theology; those who follow Jesus have been freed from the terrible prospect of not being fully united with God. What transfigures us is the Good News.

Judged in this light, the Transfiguration is a graphic illustration both of the continuity from the Old Testament and the disruption caused by the Incarnation of Jesus such that the Exodus theme is expanded and deepened to encompass the whole world. It is ironical, then, that the Vatican of the 1960s was so opposed to "Liberation theology" and no less sad and surprising that white Americans have been indifferent to the Exodus theme which has been so influential in the Civil Rights movement. ON both counts the establishment has been frightened of "Exodus" or "liberation" because it effects a power shift from the establishment to the oppressed. The Reformation focus on personal salvation at the expense of the collective significance of the death of Jesus has been a sad retreat which began around the end of the first Millennium. For the first thousand years of Christian history Jesus was believed to have died for his followers who were "The Body of Christ" but, gradually, the emphasis shifted to personal salvation and a drawing away from cosmic eschatology and away from "The common good". The use of the term "Body of Christ" slowly morphed from being a description of the Church to being a description of the consecrated elements, downgrading the collective role of the Church.

Keeping all this theology in mind, I think that we can draw three conclusions from the Transfiguration: first, Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of the prophets; secondly, the Old Testament informs what Jesus does; but, thirdly, the new liberation is radically different from the original, not just because it applies outside the Chosen People but also because this new liberation is eschatological, in other words it is to be understood as a liberation from death and as a promise of eternal life with God.

But the main point I want us to consider is the corrective which this event supplies to our over-concentration on individualism: I must say that I bristle every time I am forced to sing hymn words which talk about Jesus dying for my sins; like almost all of you I daresay, I have done nothing, individually, that justifies the gruesome and grotesque death of Jesus but there is quite enough horror in the world to explain how we sin collectively and by omission. One of the trends which was exacerbated but not instigated by the Reformation was the privatisation of our understanding of Jesus which was later embellished with an establishment take which made God a proponent of the establishment. It is only in recent years that we have regained insights which have been lost for a thousand years.

For us, an acceptance of such insights is difficult: for a complex of reasons which I do not claim to understand, English religion is particularly private and deeply conservative, as opposed to being public and liberating which only goes to show that, sadly, it is easier for us to impose our standards on Jesus than it is for him to impose his on us.