Preached on the Feast of the Transfiguration 2014: Matthew 17:1-9
Today, I want to continue to unpack what it might mean for us to be a truly Authentic Church. We do so in the context of the Feast of the Transfiguration, when we remember how Jesus met with Elijah and Moses on a mountaintop, where his appearance was transformed so that he shone in dazzling light, and where God's voice was heard telling Jesus' followers to 'listen to him'.
This crucial moment in Jesus life comes at a pivotal point in his ministry. For a moment, on the mountain-top, he is seen for who he is at his core. He is the Son of God, the incarnate Word through whom all things were made. He is served by even Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest men that had ever lived. By even meeting them, who were dead, he stands as a bridge between this world and the next. It's a powerful moment, pregnant with meaning. But what is even more astonishing, is what comes next...
...According to the account in Mark's Gospel, this moment is a turning point. Having been transfigured, glorified, recognised as the Son of God, Jesus comes down the mountain, and then sets his face towards Jerusalem. He walks, with purposeful steps, towards his death and humiliation at the cross.
This is, I believe, the core of the story. Jesus comes not to reign in power and majesty, even though power and majesty are at the core of who he is. Jesus comes not to dominate humanity, but to offer his very being, and his very life, in the service of humanity. Jesus shows us that God's way is the way of giving and self-sacrifice. The fulfillment of his earthly ministry will not be to climb onto a throne...but to be nailed to a cross.
This is a theme we will revisit again throughout Lent, which begins this week on Ash Wednesday. And its a message that the world still doesn't get. When we look around the world, at all the conflicts that are presently taking place, it is not difficult to see humanity's fundamental failure to understand the servant heart of God. All the conflicts we observe are ultimately about Power. Will the Russians control Ukraine, or will the Western Powers? Will President Assad hold on to power in Syria, or will the rebels? Over and over again, in Irag, in Afghanistan, in Turkey, in Eqypt, and in a thousand other places of smaller conflict, the issue is about power...power to control others. Power to impose one group's will on another.
It reminds me of how children behave in a playground. Gangs form up around a playground leader. The Gang leader provides identity to the gang, and promises protection against other gangs. There is no great intellectual idea underpinning these gangs...it's just pure self-preservation, and a childish desire to dominate others, and to own the playground. It's the Capulets versus the Montagues. It's the Jets versus the Sharks. It's the Sunnis versus the Shiahs. It's the so-called Christians versus the so-called Muslims.
It is not without reason that the Bible refers to human beings as God's children - because that is how we behave. We fail, again and again, to understand that our Father's way is the way of sacrifice and service. We completely miss the mark (which incidentally, is an old meaning for the word 'sin').
And this is true of other aspects of our lives too. Even on an individual level, we act like children in a playground. We revel, for example, in the fact that human beings no longer think of themselves as servants to one other, but rather as consumers of each other's goods and services. We live in an age of consumer rights, and consumer watchdogs. The mantra of any company that wants to make a profit has to be "The Consumer is King".
But along the way, we have constructed a society which would quickly crumble into anarchy and war - in just a matter of days - if just a few of our consumer products became unavailable. Look at how even the threat of a fuel strike has us queuing at the petrol pumps. If we heard today that Supermarket lorry-drivers were going on strike, how many of us would dash to Sainsbury's this afternoon to fill up our cars? We no longer grow our own food, or make our own clothes...we consume the food, clothing and energy that others provide for us. Like children...children who are utterly dependent on their parents. We have become utterly dependent on those who provide the services we need.
Sadly, I fear, this tendency towards consumerism has crept into the Church too. It is sometimes celebrated in the press that Cathedrals are getting larger congregations than at any time in their history. Great news, on the surface. But why is this? Perhaps, for some, it is a genuine love of high quality music and worship. Perhaps it is a desire to connect with God through soaring music and soaring columns and stained glass windows. But aren't these, essentially, consumerist desires? Cathedrals have an uncomfortable fact to face: that many of the people they see, packing into their pews, are only there because they want to have their religion 'done to them'. They want their priests to do all the work of praying and thinking; they want the choir to do all the hard work of singing. They want Christianity that makes them feel a bit spiritual, and touched by God, without having to do more than turn-up to be part of it. Many of them (though by all means not all) want nothing to do with the hard-work of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the lonely and the bereaved. They are happy to throw a few quid into the collection plate, and pay for others to fulfill their Christian duties for them.
This, however, is fundamentally at odds with the kinds of Christian communities that Jesus envisaged. Jesus wanted his followers to be parts of a body of believers, who acted as salt and light to their neighbours. He wanted churches to be places where people truly learned the value - to themselves and to others - of putting service and sacrifice first. He wanted churches that were full of people who produced valuable products for the world - products of love, charity, forgiveness, sharing and community. He didn't want consumers, whose only contribution was to turn up, listen to the choir, and throw a few coins in the collection in the hope that the building will still be open for the next time they need a bit of spirituality. He wanted producers who gave and lived sacrificially - who truly worked out what it meant for them to love God, and to love their neighbour as themselves.
A truly authentic church, then, will be the kind of church which is growing up, beyond the playground. It will be the kind of church which is full of people whose hearts are bent on giving, not receiving. It will be full of producers, not consumers.
I wonder...which kind of church do you think we are? Do we, 'listen to Him' - as God told Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration? Are we the kind of people who produce more than we consume? Are we those who are salt and light to our neighbours, offering sacrificial lives, poured out in service?
Or are we, sometimes, those who turn up for church because we like the music, and we want our weekly injection of religion?
Each of us must answer that question for himself...but perhaps some of the questions we might ask are along these lines:
When did I last give a day of my time to sit with a lonely person and offer them love?
When did I last bring food for the foodbank to church?
When did I last offer an hour to make tea and coffee in the Cafe, or after church?
When did I last give up a day to paint a wall, or polish a floor in this building that tries to be a beacon of the Kingdom in North End?
When did I last give an amount of money to the church which really felt like a sacrifice?
When did I last sacrifice some TV time to read the Scriptures or pray for the world?
If the answer to such questions is something along the lines of 'well, quite recently actually' - then I suggest all is well.
If the answer is 'I can't remember' then perhaps some deeper questions need to be posed. Because these are the sorts of things that authentic Christians do. These are the signs of an authentic church.
Sermons in this series:
1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.
2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met. Are we the same?
3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin? Breaking Rules? Who decides what is Sin anyway?
4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?
6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days? How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!
7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?
8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?
9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?
10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?