Sermon preached at the Eucharist, Christ the Servant, Stockwood, Bristol, 1 April 1972
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. […] Meanwhile, where is God? When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, if you remember yourself and turn to him in gratitude and praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away…
That’s from the beginning of a book on grief written by C. S. Lewis after his wife died. It’s terribly final, isn’t it? Life comes suddenly to a full stop and people are no more. I find this coming home very forceable if I have to take a series of funerals in a week. A procession of people in sorrow; each one different and intimate, a family drawing closer together, pale and tear-locked faces; each one facing that peculiar barrier of death.
I suppose the worst thing about a death in the family is that, for a time, everything seems upside down, the daily pattern of life seems in a mess; there’s a great big hole in that life.
Today’s Gospel presents a different picture. Not the disfiguration of death and grief but that Transfiguration of our Lord; so much so that it was as if Jesus’ face shone like the brightness of the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
Also, the inner three, Peter, James and John, saw a vision of Moses and Elijah who appeared to be talking with Jesus.
And of course it’s Peter, impetuous, hasty Peter who speaks first. He, like the rest, must have been scared stiff; yet it’s he who says, “it’s a good thing to be here; let’s make three shelters, one each…” Then the clouds and the voice, and it’s all over. What were they to make of it?
It’s most apt that it should be a vision of Moses and Elijah. Moses received the Law from a mountain, and Elijah embodied the ideals of the prophets; and wasn’t Jesus’ teaching that on which “hangs all the Law and the prophets”?
The two Old Testament figures symbolise too all that was expected of the coming Messiah, the great and mighty king who was to overthrow all the oppressors of Israel and lead the people into a new age of prosperity and peace.
Also the disciples went up the mountain a few days after Peter had said that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
“It’s a good thing to be here,” says Saint Peter, and why shouldn’t he? Here were the two Old Testament figures embodying the hope for the Messiah, and indeed that very Messiah himself.
Poor Peter, he grabs the wrong end of the stick; he thinks as men think, as his forefathers and his contemporaries think that Messiah will be. Why should Moses and Elijah and Jesus be on a level?
Why not indeed?
But, as Jesus said to Peter later on, “get behind me, Satan, you think as men think and not as God thinks,” and this was the occasion that Jesus spoke of the need for him to suffer. It was as if he said, “don’t you understand yet? I must suffer before I come to my glory. I am not the sort of Messiah that you and your forefathers have expected.”
The glory of the transfiguration was only a foretaste of the glory that was to come, but that glory was not without its price; and the price was pain, and suffering, humiliation and death. There is no glory without its pain, no victory without Gethsemane.
You know, if you think about it, this is true of the common things of life. Anything which you do which you think is worthwhile is worth a lot of effort. The young people raising money for CURA in the hall have slogged away for two days and two nights at the table tennis table to achieve it. The great artist and musician will “take great pains,” as we say, for their creations to come to light. Parents will spare themselves no effort to give their children the best and to bring them up properly. And in the end you look back and think that it was worth all the effort, even if you get a bit downhearted in the middle.
Well, to get back to the subject at the beginning: Death.
How often have these words been said at funerals:
we therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our lowly body that it might be like unto his glorious body…
…and for some there is a great deal of pain and suffering until they come to realise the truth of that promise. The time of grief and sorrow are necessary to the realisation and greater appreciation of the power and scope of God’s love.
Indeed, the whole of creation is in travail in one great act of being born, as a recent Shelter poster expressed it.
I think that the words of a nun who lived six hundred years ago, Julian of Norwich, sum up the whole idea of the final glory achieved through suffering and pain:
He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I thought, what may this be? And it was answered generally thus: “It is all that is made.” I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might have fallen to nought for littleness.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second that God loves it, the third that God keeps it […]
And it came about that there should be sin [and, she could have added, pain and doubt and suffering]; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.