Sermon: The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Sunday 6 August 2017
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director of Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Transfiguration (Daniel 7.9–10, 13–14, 2 Peter 1.16–17, Luke 9.28–36)
A week ago tomorrow we marked the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, where some half a million men lost their lives battling for four months over a few hundred metres of mud. Like much of the trench warfare experience of the Great War it now seems militarily pointless, humanly horrific – and was largely not spoken of by those who survived. Some things are beyond words. But still form part of our experience. And this church, like almost all in our country, is marked by memorials to those who didn’t return – not least our great east window, dedicated on St Martins Day 1920.
Today’s gospel account of the Transfiguration, crucial to the story as told by all the first three gospel writers, is likewise something about which, we’re told, at the time they could not speak. “In those days, [they] told no one any of the things they had seen” our reading ends. Why is that? What are the things we find hard to speak about – and why?
The philosopher Wittgenstein put it this way: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”, which like all aphorisms both reveals and hides what it means. Some people thought what he meant by that was that the only things we can sensibly talk about are the things we can touch, see, hear, taste or smell. That rules out most of what passes for religion for a start, they claimed – and still claim. How can you talk in any meaningful sense bout about a god you cannot touch, see, hear, taste or smell? But Wittgenstein himself clarified that was not what he meant. It’s not that our conversation has to be reduced to the lowest common denominator – it’s rather he was saying that the really important things to us in life – love, purpose, meaning, yes, and God – are the very things we most struggle to put words around. And yes, that sometimes we should stop talking, and just experience.
Passchendaele and its like was one such thing for those who survived it. Bringing it closer to home, the struggle I find to put the right words into the card I give Sue every year on her birthday or our wedding anniversary is another, perhaps more common to many of us. And the way we find we can – or can’t – talk about our spiritual experience is yet another.
There’s a name for that in theological tradition too: it’s called apophatic theology – literally, ‘theology by denial’, telling what we can’t say about god, rather than what we can. It’s a salutary warning, at a time when some people are very keen to spell out for us exactly what it is God wants, in minutest detail, along with the perils of disregarding what they tell us God is telling us. And to be clear, that’s not a dig at any one current school of thinking in the church – every stream is well capable of doing that, in their own way.
But sometimes we do feel the compulsion to speak, even of those things which at first we just couldn’t. And by the time 2 Peter was written, the transfiguration experiences which Peter couldn’t speak of at the time were the subject of the exhortations of his second letter – a letter written to “those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours”, as the opening lines say.
And at the risk of simplifying, there’s just two things he wants to bring home in recalling what he saw that day. The first is simply this: it’s all true. It’s not a “cleverly devised story”. He was there, he saw it, he heard the voice – and he yet lives to tell the tale. And the second is what it’s all about: “This is my Son, whom I love”. And as Luke’s account says: “Listen to him”.
The experience of the Transfiguration was clearly dramatic, but for those there, Peter, James and John, hard to take in, impossible to understand. When they came down from the mountain Luke tells us how they were all immediately confronted with a horrific case of a parent with a deeply troubled child that they couldn’t do anything about. After dealing with it, Jesus told them things about the Son of Man being given into the hands of sinners, which they equally didn’t understand. It was only later on, after the experience of crucifixion followed by resurrection that it began to make sense to them. It also started to make better sense of things in their existing scriptures – the prophecies in Daniel as one example, of ‘one like a son of man coming on the clouds. And so they began, haltingly, to speak of it all. It’s true. It matters. Listen to God’s Son.
I began with the horrors of Passchendaele, remembered at its centenary this week. My grandfather, born in 1879, drove ambulances on the Somme in the Great War, and returned to wed my grandmother, and give birth to three children, the youngest of whom, my mother, still lives at 96. Like so many of his generation, he never spoke of it to her, and she had no tales to pass on to me and my brothers, nor we to our children and grandchildren after us. It was, literally, too unspeakable. Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent. But it was real. It happened.
Our faith is something equally real. It is based on things that happened. And here and now it happens. In life’s glorious moments, in its terrible moments, and in the ordinariness of everyday life in between. Speaking of it is necessary – but also difficult. We should do it carefully – but we should be ready to do it. It is the Peter of the Second Letter that I’m wanting to be like, rather than the Peter who stumbled down the mountain without any words to say. But both of them are disciples of Jesus. And like both of them, I know that, whatever I do or don’t say; however eloquent or inarticulate I may be, he is the one I should listen to, God’s beloved Son. He has the words that lead to eternal life. And you should listen to him too.