Sunday, 23 February 2020


After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 NIV )
Surprised to read the following tweet on Twitter, quoting from Theilhard de Chardin, from a pastor who obviously thought sounding smart was better than keeping to the traditional Christian view of the human condition:
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spirit beings having a human experience." 
Which reminded me of another quote, often mis-attributed to CS Lewis:
“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body”
Which is also a long way from what we find in the Bible. The Biblical view of things - inasmuch as we can ever derive a Christian view of these things - is that human beings are very much body and spirit, bound together by their very nature. We are whole human beings. Not body-less beings, for a time being making use of a fairly broken vehicle to get around. When the body dies, in the Old Testament, the spirit goes down to Sheol - the grave - a damp, gloomy place where not much happens. Not released into a lovely experience of weightless transcendence.

Which is important in terms of how we see ourselves. If you're a soul which has a body, the temptation is to think your spiritual side is all perfect and lovely, while the bodily side wears out and breaks down and eventually gives up the ghost. Whereas if we're body and spirit - bound together - one integral human being - then maybe the fact that our bodies are imperfect and fallible means our spirits are in much the same state. That they need healing and renewal as much as we know our bodies do.

In which case baptism makes sense - as we wash the outside, we are also expecting a similar baptism of our spirits.

And communion makes sense. We don't just come to church for a nice little spiritual experience. We don't meet God just in the stillness of our quiet times - though that's good as well. We also meet God in physical creatures of the earth. In bread and wine. Things for which we give thanks, along with giving thanks for all creation.

But then that gives us another challenge. If our bodies matter, bread and wine matter and are where we most closely meet God - then what of this world we live in? If you are the sort that thinks you're just a soul that happens to have a body, then you might think - well, it doesn't matter if the climate is changing. It's a shame for the people whose houses are flooded, or whose forests are burning - but it's only the temporary world. We're sitting here waiting for the psychic spaceship that will whisk us away to the the land beyond the clouds where we can sit in the sky and float around in our nighties forever.

But if our bodies matter, if bread and wine matter - then this world matters. And we should figure maybe looking after bodies - ours and other people's - matters.

Which is a long way to coming round to Jesus on the mountain with Elijah and Moses and his closest three disciples. But important. Because the temptation is to think that, on the mountain there, the disciples see Jesus' true nature as a godly being, rather than the dusty creature they see every day walking round the paths of Judea and Galilee. But let's consider. They're on a mountain.

It was on a mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. It was on a mountain that Elijah heard the still small voice. The Israelites liked to build their places of worship on the high places, and the Temple was built on a hill in the centre of Jerusalem, itself in the middle of the Judean uplands. The Israelites were so keen on worshipping God on hills that some of their enemies thought their God was a god of mountains. Now the Hebrews knew their God was the god of everything - David knew that even if he went down to the grave, God would be with him. But there's a certain truth that you can get to feel God better than in a low one, often. Maybe it's a bit like the old days at Launde Abbey, the retreat house on the borders of Leicestershire and Rutland. It's at the bottom of a massive hill. And in the days before they installed Wifi, if you wanted to make communication with the outside world, you'd have to climb  to the top of the hill to get a signal for your phone call or web browsing. You had to get better reception. And on the quiet of a hill top, you have the time and calm to listen.

And so maybe the disciples can just see better. They're seeing the same old Jesus who has been walking round with them. But also, as his clothes are shining white and his face is transfigured, they see Jesus is the Son of God, with his divine nature revealed to them.

I wonder whether the Transfiguration - in a way - looks both forwards and backwards. Jesus was taken up on a mountain previously - by the Devil - and showed the whole earth, and offered it if he will bow down and worship the Devil. And rejected the offer. Here on the mountain, with Moses and Elijah - those two great warrior prophets - if he had one of them at each side of him, he could drive the Romans out of the Holy Land. But, like Galadriel considering the Ring, he knows that's not the way forward. His way will lead forward to a cross. So he is once more the Jesus who Peter knows, walking down the mountain with those same road-worn feet, telling them he's going to have to die.

But the Transfiguration also looks forwards - in the Garden after the Resurrection, Mary doesn't know Jesus at first. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples don't know who he is until he sits down at the table with them and gives thanks and breaks bread. The Transfiguration is a promise that whatever is to come ahead - and it must lead through the Cross - another place on a hill where human beings will see God - it will lead through that to the Resurrection, where the first promise of the renewal of the world is made. Where the first human being will rise - body and spirit - and go to his Father, to take our human nature into the heart of heaven.

There's a promise of the resurrection of the whole Universe. Heaven and earth stand on tiptoe, waiting for the day that all of us will be made like him, and the re-made universe will shine with that holy light that the disciples saw, and ring with his praise, and give thanks for all that God has done. And there's a glimpse of that, on that mountain, as the disciples fall down before the living God, who is also their friend, Jesus.

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1 comment :

  1. Indeed. Man is a single entity, body and soul, acting on the material and spiritual plane all at once. He is not two separate things, brought together for the term of this life, to be rent apart at death. The separation of body and soul is not part of God’s design, it is the consequence of sin. We shall be reunited with our physical bodies at death; we don’t know how that happens but we have Christ’s physical resurrection as the template.

    I always find this transcendental passage hard to take seriously because of St Peter’s rather hilarious offer to make 3 shelters/tents/booths (LOL) for Jesus and the prophets. (And despite James and John also being there, it is “I” – Peter – who alone is going to build the tents - me, me, me! Which points up just how miraculous it was that God was subsequently able to achieve such prodigies, through such a complete prat).

    De Chardin, nominally a Catholic priest, was basically a new-age pioneer and nutcase. Avoid.


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