Monday, 27 February 2017

The Transfiguration of Humanity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Sunday 26 February 2017
Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17.1-9  
Exodus 24.12-18  

Listen to this sermon here:

Émile Coué, the French psychologist and pharmacist,
            popularised a famous mantra, and say it with me if you know it:

"Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.
            Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better".

Coué encouraged his patients to repeat this to themselves twenty times a day,
            as part of his psychoanalytical technique called optimistic autosuggestion.

The idea was that positive reinforcement of optimistic belief
            could have genuine health benefits.

Strangely enough, at a medical level, he may well have been onto something;
            as the placebo effect is now well documented:
                        when people believe something to be helpful,
                        they will often show a measurable improvement.

I tend to think that something like this lies behind
            many of the stories of faith healing that get told,
                        both within and beyond Christianity;
            people believe that prayer for healing works,
                        and so, at least to some extent, it does.

I mean, I’ve never seen someone grow an arm back after being prayed for,
            but I can understand how people might show improvement
            in other, less tangible, ways after being prayed for.

Interestingly, Coué’s ‘trick’, as he called it,
            was consistent with the idea of social Darwinism,
            as popularised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is an extension of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection,
            where the biological concept of ‘the survival of the fittest’
            becomes a model for understanding the development of society
                        and the individual who lives within it.

Social Darwinism finds its origin with Thomas Huxley,
            or ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ as he was sometimes known,
who took Darwin’s theory of the origin of species,
            and made it into a kind of philosophical model
            to explain human society without the need for belief in God.

Huxley, the famous agnostic, almost single-handedly
            created the division between Christianity and evolution
                        that comes down to us today,
            with many Christians still believing
                        that it is incompatible with their faith
                        to accept an old-earth evolutionary understanding
                                    of the origin of humanity.

He was unwittingly aided and abetted in this by the then Bishop of Oxford,
            Samuel Wilberforce, whose famous jibe at Huxley,
                        as to whether Huxley was descended from an ape
                                    on his mother's side or his father's side,
                        did much to create the animosity between faith and science
                                    that we still live with today.

Huxley won that debate, replying to Wilberforce
            that he would rather be descended from an ape,
            than to be a man who misused his great talents to suppress debate.
I think, on this and on many other things, Huxley had a point!

I’m one of those who thinks that evolution by natural selection
            is a perfectly adequate model for explaining
                        the biological adaptation and speciation
                        that we can observe in the natural world.

I just don’t see any conflict between it and my faith in God
            or my understanding of the Bible.

But what I don’t like
            is the use of evolution metaphors for societal and spiritual development.
I simply don’t think it’s true
            that every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.

Surely the first world war was ample proof
            of the human capacity to descend into hellish madness at the drop of a hat;
and the links between social Darwinism
            and the eugenics programmes of the Third Reich
            are terrifying and deeply chilling.

I have occasionally joked that I do wonder
            if the fact that I was born with no wisdom teeth
            might mean that I am part of the next evolution of humanity,
but it turns out that this is simply a recessive mutation
            that arose about 300,000 years ago.
Or possibly, as some have suggested, Liz!, it is simply indicative
            of the fact that I have no corresponding wisdom!

So, with all of this in mind, what on earth is going on at the Transfiguration?
            What strange new humanity is coming into being here?

Our story, told for us today by Matthew,
            and drawing on the similar story from Mark’s gospel (Mk 9.2-8),
describes Jesus and three of his disciples going up a mountain
            to have a very strange experience indeed.

Listen to Matthew’s words again:
            ‘And he was transfigured before them,
                        and his face shone like the sun,
                        and his clothes became dazzling white.’

As I said, what on earth is going on here?

There are a number of clues in the text to which we need to pay attention,
            if we’re to begin to get to grips
            with what Matthew is trying to do with this story.

The first thing to realise
            is that this description of Jesus is not unique in the Bible;
rather it is drawing on a long tradition, stretching back into ancient Judaism,
            of visions of God in human form,
            and of encounters between humans and the divine on mountain tops.

We heard earlier the story of Moses going up the mountain,
            to meet God and receive the tablets of stone
            with the ten commandments written on them.

If we had read on a bit further in the book of Exodus,
            we would have heard that,
            ‘when Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining…
            and Moses would put the veil on his face again,
            until he went in [back] to speak with him.’ (Exodus 34:30, 35).

It seems that, in some way, Moses’ encounter with God changed his appearance,
            it changed something about the nature of his being.
We might say that he was transfigured by his encounter.

But it’s not just Moses on the mountain that lies behind
            Matthew’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus.

In Daniel’s vision of heaven, he describes how,
            ‘thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne,
                        his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool;
                        his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.’ (Daniel 7:9).

The use of the colour white here is very deliberate,
            and is often used in the Bible to indicate righteousness.

So for example the book of Acts
            tells the story of the ascension of Jesus in similar terms,
            with two angels in white robes standing beside the disciples:

‘when he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up,
            and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,
            suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.’ (1:9-10).

And Earlier in Matthew’s gospel itself, in chapter 13,
            we can read the promise that
            ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’ (13:43).

And Matthew’s version of the resurrection story
            is told in similarly dramatic and apocalyptic tones:
‘After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,
            Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake;
            for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven,
            came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.’ (28:1-3).

And in the book of Revelation,
            we have several descriptions
                        both of the divine-human figure called the Son of Man,
                        and of those who follow him,
            all wearing white shining clothes which indicate their righteousness.

Just listen to these few sentences:

‘His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow;
            his eyes were like a flame of fire,
            … and his face was like the sun shining with full force.’ (1.14, 16)

‘If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes,
            and I will not blot your name out of the book of life. (3.5)

‘Around the throne are twenty-four thrones,
            and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders,
            dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.’ (4.4)

‘After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,
            from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,
            standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white.’ (7.9)

‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;
            they have washed their robes
            and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ (7.14)

‘And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure,
            were following him on white horses.’ (19.14).

My point here is that Matthew is not writing in a vacuum.

From Exodus, to Daniel,
            to the Jesus tradition, to the apocalyptic literature,
the story he gives us of the transfiguration of Jesus
            is part of a wider literary tradition of humanity transfigured
            through encounter with the divine.

Or, to put it another way, when people meet with God,
            something profound and tangible changes within them.

Now, don’t hear me wrong here;
            I don’t think that Jesus was, or even is,
            the next evolution of humanity.

His transfiguration is not some kind of fusion
            of the physical and the spiritual
                        resulting in an ability to exist on a higher plane
                        than the rest of us mere mortals.

Neither is it a mystical experience for us to seek to emulate
            in some quest for enlightenment or esoteric knowledge.
That way lies heresy, I’m afraid.

But nonetheless I do think that there is a new humanity
            coming into being in Christ,
and it is revealed at his transfiguration.

Paul, I think ,was onto this when he described Jesus as the new, or second, Adam.
            Listen to how he puts it in his letter to the Romans:

‘Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man,
            and death came through sin,
            and so death spread to all because all have sinned …
much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace
            and the free gift of righteousness
            exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all,
            so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners,
            so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.’
            (Romans 5:12, 17-19).

Paul places Jesus in contrast with Adam,
            the symbolic first human from the book of Genesis.
Humanity came into being through Adam,
            and the new humanity comes into being through the new Adam,
                        the Son of Man, the Messiah who was transfigured
                                    in the presence of his disciples
                                    on the mountaintop in Matthew’s story.

But hear this, and hear it clearly:
            it is not about evolution, it’s about transfiguration.

The new humanity does not arise by natural forces,
            red in tooth and claw,
            from the redundant carcass of the old humanity.
It does not out-compete its predecessor,
            nor does it vanquish it by might and right.

Rather, the new humanity arises by grace and through love.
            It emerges in the midst of our sinful fallen state
            as a gift from God that transfigures our lives and our world.

God, in Christ, is transfiguring humanity.

A new way of being human has come into being in Christ,
            and it has the capacity to utterly transform our way of being in the world.

The clues are all there for us in Matthew’s text,
            which as we have seen is rich with the resonance of ancient stories,
telling of God’s journey with humans
            from their very beginning
            to this crucial, decisive moment of transfiguration.

The mystical moment on the mountain occurs,
            we are told in the first verse of our story, on the ‘sixth day’.
The echo of the creation story from Genesis
            is too strong to ignore here.
According to the ancient myth,
            God created humanity on the sixth day,
            before resting on the seventh.
And in Matthew’s story,
            the new humanity is brought into being on the sixth day.

Then, the transfigured Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah,
            whose symbolic presence speak of the law and prophets,
            fulfilled in the presence and person of the transfigured Son of Man.

The whole of human history is here in this story,
                        contained and completed in this moment,
            and the whole story of human attempts to encounter God
                        is reflected in the glory shining from the face of Jesus:
                                    from creation itself and the first Adam,
                                    to Elijah the prince of prophets,
                                    to Moses the giver of the Law.

It all comes down, for Matthew, to this one moment on the mountaintop
            with Jesus and his three disciples.
Like the narrowest point in the egg-timer of history
            the past funnels to the future through this one moment of transfiguration.

And so the new humanity is born.

The second Adam is transfigured from base human flesh,
            in the company of history, and baffled disciples.

And it’s not about genetics, it’s about inheritance; which is very different.
            It’s about covenant not country.

And any nation, tribe, or people
            who claim exclusive or privileged access
                        to the revelation of God in Christ
            are missing the point of the transfiguration.

From God Bless America,
            to God Save the Queen,
                        to One Nation under Allah,
God will not be so constrained.

Because God’s people are all people,
            they are humanity transfigured.
And all we need to do to see it, and to see our own place within it,
            is to open our eyes, look to the mountain,
            and see the moment of glory in the face of Jesus.

Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus
            opened his eyes to the one who appeared to him as
            ‘a light from heaven, brighter than the sun,
            shining around [him] and [his] companions.’ (Acts 26.13)
And what Paul realised in this moment of his personal transfiguration,
            as his eyes were blinded to his old life, and opened to his new one,
what that God was not confined to one people,
            and that the call of God goes way beyond the ‘chosen nation’ of the Jews
            to encompass all the nations of the Gentiles as well.

And so Christianity as we know it was born,
            as Paul set off on his journeys to change the world.

And I think that brings us to today,
            to a gospel with no barriers, no exclusions,
            it brings us to the freely given love of God
                        extended to people of every nation,
                        from all tribes and peoples and languages,
                        of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and sexualities.

This is the new humanity that comes into being in Christ.

We’re it! We are the new humanity,
            and we don’t worship a parochial God who exists to serve us and those like us;
            neither do we follow a partisan God
                        who is defined over and against the wisdom of science.

Honestly, I have had it with ‘little Christianity’:
            ‘Me and my Christian mates, we’re the only ones that are right,
            and the rest of the world is wrong and going to Hell’
Blow that for a game of soldiers!
            That’s not what it’s about.

God is so much bigger than that.
            In Christ, God is revealed as so much bigger than that.
The disciples didn’t really get it;
            they decided that they were going to try and build some little huts
            for Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah to live in.
The human response to this vision
            of the whole of history coming down to this one person,
            is ‘I know! Let’s build him a house so he can live with us, with his mates!’

We constantly take the big God, and we make him into the little God:
            our God, the God who goes with us, and stays with us,
            and dwells with us, and proves that we’re right and everybody else is wrong.

This is not what it’s about.
            It’s not about God of this nation, or that nation,
                        or this people, or that people,
                        or this denomination, or that denomination,
                        or this religion, or that religion.

This is not God over creation,
            it is God in creation, transforming it from within.

This is not a philosophy of gradual optimistic self improvement,
            we don’t become the new humanity
                        by just mutually encouraging ourselves,
                        by singing our happy mantra songs
                        (or whatever it is that we have a tendency to do
                                    in our various Christian traditions).

This is a gospel of the radical transformation of humanity
            without which there is no hope.

Because this is the transfiguration of humanity
            reflected in the glory of transfiguration of the Son of Man.

This is us, we are humanity transfigured.
            And so are they!
And our task is to proclaim the truth
            that there is a much bigger, wiser, more gracious,
            more loving God than any of us have ever grasped.

That it is our calling,
            and it is our only hope.
That is the gospel of Jesus Christ,
            and we should live it.
This is Christ transfigured for our sake,
            and for the sake of the world.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

On life, death, and dying

A talk by Simon Woodman, given at the debate 'Assisted Dying and Living: A Better Conversation'
By Ekklesia and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2 February 2017

Listen to the audio of the debate here

It may seem obvious to say it, but living is the natural precursor to dying. This biological machine which I call ‘me’ is winding slowly down, and will, one day, stop. I hope that day is far off, and that the days between now and then will be healthy and happy. But, as a minister of a church, I am all too aware that for many of us, life ends too soon, and in ways that we would not choose.

This was brought home to me at a funeral I took in my late twenties, when I stood at the front looking at the girlfriend and young children of the deceased man, who was the same age as me, and heard the daughter ask her mother, ‘Is that Daddy in there?’ How I got through my lines I will never know.

Through my thirties I saw over many years my wife’s mother deteriorate with early onset Alzheimer’s, to the point where the person we had known and loved was replaced by a body that was deeply distressed and yet inarticulate and inactive. And I saw the medical industry keeping her alive long after her life had ended.

Just two examples from my own story, and I am well aware of the danger of extrapolating policy from personal experience. But I’m not here to argue policy, I’m here to talk theology; and it seems to me that if our theology doesn’t resonate meaningfully with our experience, then its not really doing its job.

So what, I wonder, might a Christian perspective on end-of-life choice look like? There is clearly no one ‘right’ answer to this, and I will let others argue their positions differently to me. But it seems to me that, sometimes, death might not be the worst thing that can happen to a person. Actually, I’ll put it a bit more positively than that: Sometimes, death is the best thing that can happen to a person. And I say this born out of a deep theological conviction that, from the perspective of eternity, death is not the enemy, because ultimately, I do not believe that death gets the final word on life.

I think that the author of the book of Revelation grasped something of this when he offered his readers a vision of the death of death. He said, ‘Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and … then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. … Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ (Rev. 20.13,14; 21.4). The author of Revelation knew all about suffering and torture and pain and death, but he didn’t accept that death gets the last word on life. If he is right this means, practically speaking, that life can be lived free from the dominating and debilitating fear of death.

This, I think, is a profoundly Christian perspective, challenging the ideology of ‘life at all costs’ that determines so much of our medicalized approach to death and dying. If death is not the ultimate enemy, then death can be embraced as a good part of life, to be welcomed rather than resisted when its time has come near.

Staying with the Bible for a minute, but moving swiftly from the end to the beginning, the opening vision of a garden offers a picture not of a world without death, but of a world where death is a friend, and not an enemy. The vision of Eden in the book of Genesis is not of a world rapidly facing over-population and resource-scarcity due to the immortality of the animals and humans that life there. Rather, it is a vision of a world where death is so much a part of life that it is as much a friend to those who live there as the rising of the sun on another day.

The Bible thus both begins and ends with a vision of life where death is transformed, and humans are released from its tyranny. Even St Paul, in his letter to the Philippains, maintains a remarkably ambiguous perspective on life and death, commenting that:, ‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’ (1.21) And this biblical-theological perspective, I believe, is profoundly relevant to the pastoral realities that we encounter in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.

If death does not get the final word on life, then our lives are so much more than the moment of our passing. I firmly believe that every good moment of life is held safe by God and passes into his eternal embrace; and that nothing true, honorable, or just, pure, pleasing, or commendable, is ever lost to the love of God. So at the moment of our death we are neither constrained nor judged in the manner of our passing. We are rather freed to embrace death, knowing that in death we are held eternally in God’s love.

And so, to assisted dying. It does not seem to me unthinkable that modern medicine here has a great gift to offer those who are nearing the end of their life. It could even be a gift from God to be received with the same gratitude that we receive the other medical miracles that make our lives so much more bearable than those of any generation of humanity before us.

I hear and echo all the arguments around safeguards and ethical constraints, but these should no more prevent us using assisted dying appropriately than the safeguards and constraints that govern surgical or pharmaceutical medicine prevent us using those services.

My point here has been to establish the principle that there is a Christian perspective on assisted dying which sees it as a gift and not a curse, and which states very firmly that, in Christ, death need neither be feared nor fought, because death does not get the final word on life.