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And Jesus was transfigured before them – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: And Jesus was transfigured before them.

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 11 February 2024, Sunday next before Lent

Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9


What do a world expert in the science of spintronics, the designer of a machine to make envelopes, an epidemiologist, a journalist turned museum manager, a biochemist and administrator, and a pair of comedy writers have in common? I have two answers to the question. And I’ll give you the less important one now: this past week, they were the seven recipients of honorary degrees at the graduation ceremonies of the University of York.

Without wishing to diminish the undoubted honour paid to these remarkable people by the university, and distinguished though all seven of them are, their new doctorates are, nevertheless, not the most important thing that they share in common – a fact with which Professor Charlie Jeffrey, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, would, I hope, agree.

For, at a dinner to celebrate these honorary doctors, the VC gave an impactful speech in which he reminded his audience about the core purpose of the University of York, which, when it was founded sixty years ago, identified its vocation to take a lead in ‘ameliorating human life and conditions’ through research, teaching, widening access, and seeing its members (whether student or staff) as ‘citizens of the world’, ‘regardless of class, creed or race’.

Or, as Professor Jeffrey succinctly rephrased it for this age which thrives on soundbites, ‘the University of York exists for public good’.

And Jesus…was transfigured before them.

Some 1900 or so years before the founding of York University, Peter, James and John had a remarkable experience ‘up a high mountain’. An experience that came at a turning point in their relationship with Jesus – an experience that came to throw some much-needed light into an atmosphere of darkening gloom.

For just under a week before this morning’s dramatic story unfolds, Jesus has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi – a city mired in the demands of loyalty to what you might call human things, not divine things: named to proclaim the godlike nature of the Roman emperor, and built on top of a shrine to the pagan god Pan. In this, very specifically chosen location, Jesus had demanded to know who they believed him to be. A question to which Peter gives the clear and strong answer that Jesus is the Messiah. So far, so good…

But Jesus muddies the waters and darkens the mood, by immediately explaining that the nature of this messiah-ship means that he must ‘undergo great suffering’ and be killed – the first of three predictions of his passion and death interspersed through the second half of Mark’s gospel. And – as you doubtless recall – Peter’s horrified response to this is to ‘rebuke’ Jesus – only to have Jesus ‘out-rebuke’ him back, denouncing him in front of the other disciples as being ‘Satan’, and telling him that his mind is set ‘not on divine things but human things’.

And, to stress the point yet further, Jesus shocks and embarrasses his disciples by calling a vast crowd to gather round, so that he can explain as clearly as possible that those who wish to follow him must do so by taking up their cross, and being ready to ‘lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel’. ‘For,’ Jesus demands, ‘what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’

That is the context, the backdrop, without which you cannot really understand what was going on when Jesus led Peter, James and John up that mountain, and was transfigured before them.

And the question – the real question – is what exactly was is it that the three disciples saw atop the mountain.

For as we recite the Creed in just a few minutes time, we will rehearse our belief that Jesus, the Christ, is fully divine (‘true God from true God’) – and also that he is fully human (‘was incarnate…and was made man’). And this morning there will be many preachers talking about how, in this moment when Jesus was transfigured before them, the three disciples are given a pure and unadulterated glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, bursting through the gloom and the darkness of imminent suffering and death. A glimpse, if you like, of post-resurrection divinity, given to refocus their attention, and encourage them to journey to Jerusalem and to Good Friday.

But that’s just not good enough. If this mountain-top moment is, as it were, when the chocolate coating of Jesus’ humanity is somehow melted away to reveal the divine, luscious caramel filling inside, then we have got something wrong.

Rather – surely – in this transfigured moment, as the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus to be the beloved Son, we are seeing the glory of what humanity was created to be. It is too easy just to talk about the glory of divinity as Jesus shines with unique brightness on the holy mountain. It is too easy, as it were, to say it is just God being God. But, in Jesus, in the act of Incarnation and with all that Incarnation offers and demands, in Jesus we understand God not just being God, but God being human – fully and properly human.

And, in the Transfiguration, Jesus wants the disciples to understand not just the true glory to which human beings are called, but what the implications of that glory really are.

That is why Jesus has been trying to explain to his followers that not only is he the Messiah… but that the nature of being the Messiah… the anointed one… the Christ… is a self-sacrificial one. A Messiah that exists not for his own good but for the good of the world to which he has been sent. A Messiah, as Professor Jeffrey might succinctly put it, who ‘exists for public good’. A Messiah who understands and who demonstrates what it truly means to ‘lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel’ and to set your mind ‘not on human things but divine things’.

Peter had failed to understand this. And not just Peter, for Jesus’ ‘Get behind me Satan’ rebuke is a public one uttered in front of all the disciples. And it is a rebuke to us – to you and to me – for the many times we set our own minds on human things, rather than on divine things.

Which is why, having explained to all those gathered around him that it will profit them nothing – absolutely nothing at all – ‘to gain the whole world and forfeit their life’, Jesus is transfigured by God the Father. Transfigured so that those who follow him can see just how glorious humanity can be when minds are genuinely lifted above ‘human things’ and set, selflessly, on divine things.

The selfless call to focus on what Jesus calls ‘divine things’ and which the Vice-Chancellor calls the ‘public good’ is, to quote the VC, “a moral compass in good times – and less good times”. And there, inevitably, is the rub. For this call comes, as both Jesus and the VC make clear, at a cost.

Reflecting that “We are now firmly in the latter kind of times,” due, as Professor Jeffrey explained, to ‘the mix of a failed funding system and higher inflation’ we learned that the university (and not just our local university but many others in the country) receives ‘less than 80 pence in funding for every pound [spent] on teaching home students and doing publicly funded research.’

“In other words,” he concluded, “ameliorating human life and conditions is now a deficit making activity!”

As the leader of another major institution in this historic city, I share the Vice-Chancellor’s reflection and lament that we currently find ourselves in ‘less good times’, and that is why it was so good to hear him celebrate not just the seven outstanding honorary graduates, but the DNA-level core purpose explanation that the institution which he leads ‘exists for public good’ – just as, so I fervently believe, does this institution and the entire Church of God.

And in the Church of God, we have known for some while that serving the public good is costly. For if we regard ‘taking up one’s cross’ and ‘losing one’s life’ as being ‘deficit making’ (something with which I think most people would agree) then that cost – as we see so clearly this morning – is at the very heart of the gospel. But it is at the heart of the gospel because this ‘deficit making’ is the only path that leads to true glory.

I am sure that the ‘magnificent seven’ (if I may call them that) looked glorious in their doctoral robes last week. But the fact that they received honorary degrees is a fact of less importance than the simple recognition that what they really have in common is – as the University of York recognized in them – they have each manifested through their life and work a clear commitment to the ‘public good’.

And today, not just in York, but across God’s world, as we live through what many of us feel are ‘less good times’, when ‘public good’ is inadequately funded, and suffering and death are all to visible across the world, even – and especially – now, we get to behold Jesus in transfigured garments even more brilliant than doctoral robes.

And as we gaze on this ‘kingly brightness’, never forget that it is not just Jesus, it is all of us who are called to change ‘from glory to glory’, so that, ‘mirrored here’, our lives might tell of God’s self-sacrificial story of serving the ‘public good’.

Archbishop Stephen tells the story of a vicar preaching on the well-known text in which Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches, abide in my love.”  As the sermon progresses, the vicar exhorts the congregation to invite Jesus into their lives, so that they might fully become who and what God is calling us to be in Christ.

At the end of the service, a little boy comes up to the vicar, saying he is very confused and wanting to ask a question – which the vicar duly encourages. “Well,” says the child, “God is so very big, and I am so very small. If I invited Jesus to come and live in my heart… if I invited Jesus to transform my life…. He’s so big, and I’m so small… if he came and lived in my heart, wouldn’t he burst out all over the place?”

“Yes,” said the vicar, “that’s how it works.” Amen.

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