Saturday, February 25, 2017

Means of Grace, Hope of Glory: Reflections on Matthew 17.1-9

The Means of Grace, The Hope of Glory
Reflections on Matthew 17.1-9

RCL Last Sunday after Epiphany
26 February 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            17.1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

            9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

            As a boy growing up in the Episcopal Church in Colorado, I enjoyed the ‘secret’ language of my church.  Our clergy wore copes, mitres, chasubles, dalmatics, albs, cassocks, surplices and stoles, while the clergy of my friends’ churches wore ‘robes’.  We had Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and the Sundays after Trinity, while my friends had Christmas, Easter and Sunday. 

            My favourites were Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima.  The words rolled off my tongue even as the eyes of my friends glazed over.  These were the older names for the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday:  Septuagesima (‘seventy days’), Sexagesima (‘sixty days’) and Quinquagesima, this Sunday, fifty days before Easter.  On Quinquagesima, sometimes called ‘Farewell to Alleluia Sunday’, every hymn we sang had an ‘alleluia’ in it as we prepared to enter the ‘alleluia-less’ of Lent.

            But when I was an older teenager, the Episcopal Church adopted a new lectionary and this Sunday became ‘The Last Sunday after Epiphany’ and focused on the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain in the company of Peter, James and John.  Although something was lost when Quinquagesima was transformed into the ‘Last’ Sunday after Epiphany, something more important was gained.  We were reminded of the fundamental purpose of our Lenten discipline:  using the means of grace for the hope of glory.

Transfiguration Not Transformation
            On the mountain Peter, James and John have a vision of the glorified Jesus.  Some English translations struggle to express adequately what they saw, but we are on safer ground with the translation we use.  Jesus was transfigured not transformed.  ‘Transformation’ is the process of becoming something other than who one is.  ‘Transfiguration’ is the process of one’s true self being revealed.

            For a moment Peter, James and John see Jesus as he is:  the incarnation of God in time and space in the person of a rabbi from Nazareth.  Transfigurations are moments when we see someone clearly, see ourselves clearly, and these moments become the foundation of our hope for the future.  Like Peter we want these moments to last, but in the world as it is we can only glimpse behind the veil.  In God’s future we shall be who we are without pause; we shall see God face to face and need not be afraid.

            But in the meantime, in the mean times, we depend upon what a traditional Anglican prayer calls the ‘means of grace’ to strengthen our ‘hope for glory’. [1]

The Christian Community as a Means of Grace
            When we gather as a Christian community, whether for worship or for service or for some other purpose, we stand on top of the mountain awaiting a vision of ourselves as transfigured servants of the risen Christ.  Every time we are together, I hope that you see flashes of glory in the people who make up this community and those like it throughout the world.  And when of those flashes of glory catch our eyes, then is the time to offer a prayer of thanks for the hope it gives us of the world to come.

The Word as a Means of Grace
            Every Sunday we hear a hefty dose of Scripture.  It’s no wonder that there are some voices in the Anglican Church of Canada that suggest reducing the readings from three readings and psalm to one reading, maybe two, with the psalm optional.  As a pastor, priest and teacher, this is not something I favour.  Why?

            I have no illusion that every sermon I preach and every word within every sermon speaks God’s word to you.  What I do hope is that each one of us is listening to each reading in anticipation that it will say something to us before I even my mouth to preach.

            Is there a word or a phrase that catches your attention?  This may well be a flash of glory.  Ponder that word or phrase for moment.  Write it down if you can or even take a pew Bible home with you with your bulletin marking the text.  Ask me about it during coffee hour.  Why did this word or phrase catch your attention?  What do you think God is saying to you through it?  What might God be asking you to do?

The Prayers of the Community as a Means of Grace
            To some people prayer seems more like shouting into the wind rather than entering into conversation with the Holy One of Israel who caused all things to come into existence and who has entrusted us with the stewardship of these gifts.  To others, prayer has more in common with sending to heaven a shopping list of wants rather than the more difficult task of discerning the presence and activity of God in us and around us.

            I confess that I do not know what effect prayer has on the eternal purposes of God.  I do know that prayer changes the one who prays.  Prayer orients us to God’s purposes and opens us to God’s grace working through us.  God responds to our new-found awareness of the needs and concerns of the world by offering us the means to use the gifts we have.  We discover new avenues and ways that seemed obstructed are re-opened.  This is God’s work, not ours, but we are the agents of God’s purposes.

            As the leader of the prayers gives voice to our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings, listen carefully.  Perhaps a name catches your ear, perhaps a special need or concern stirs your imagination even if for a moment.  This is a flash of glory.  Ponder it.  Consider whether this is one way you or I or this entire community can act so that the hope of glory can be aroused in our lives and the lives of others.

God’s Table as Means of Grace
            We come to the table for many reasons, for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal, for grace and glory. [2]  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Augustine of Hippo spoke of the bread broken and the wine poured as symbols of our present identity as Christ’s body and of the persons we are called to become through the work of the Holy Spirit. [3]

            Too often Christians have become embroiled in debates about what the sacraments are rather than the more important question:  What are the sacraments for?  The sacrament of the Table is a means through which God transfigures us, even if only for a moment, and reveals to us, in us and through us
  • that true life is grounded on thanksgiving to God for all good gifts around us;
  • that, when we remember the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the power of his story to re-create, redeem and renew us is unleashed;
  • that we live, move and have our being through the work of the Spirit;
  • that we, who are many, are one body for we all share the bounty of creation; and,
  • that this meal is a foretaste of God’s reign of justice and peace when all God’s children shall be free.

            As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we do not leave ‘alleluia’ behind, even if we do not sing or say the word.  Lent, with all its disciplines of self-denial and self-renewal, is filled with glimpses of the glory that awaits us, not just in the future, but in every moment of our lives.  Through the means of grace, community, word, prayer and table, you and I experience, even if only briefly, moments of transfiguration, when we see ourselves as we truly are:  God’s children, Christ’s sisters and brothers, the Spirit’s agents.

            May the day come soon when we become fully who we are.  May the day come soon when the heavens and the earth are filled with the glory of God --- human beings fully alive in the image of God, in the likeness of Christ, in the wisdom of the Spirit.

[1] The General Thanksgiving, The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 129:  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”

[2] cf.  Eucharistic Prayer C in The Book of Common Prayer (1979). 372.

[3] Leo the Great, de Ascensione II 74.2:  ‘What was visible in our Redeemer has passed into sacraments.’

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