Sermon at Saint Matthias’ on Sunday, 22nd February
“Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” Mark 9:5
On 2nd December 1985, I remember going to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for the Advent carol service. It was a fine afternoon; the last beams of a watery, winter sun shone through the windows and ,as the light died, the air was cut by the voice of a boy chorister. The service was an occasion of astonishing beauty, a moment when we were gathered up from our mundane, worldly existence and taken up to a higher plane. The Irish Times the next day reported that the service was such that even the darkest and dimmest parts of the city seemed to be filled with light.
Such occasions are all too rare.
Saint Peter knew that it was not too often that you were captivated by the glory of God. He and James and John had gone up with Jesus to a high mountain and there they saw Jesus in his glory; his face shines like the sun and his clothes become as white as the light, and then Moses and Elijah appeared.
Peter knows what a moment this is and he wants to hold onto it; he wants to make it last. “Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”, whichever of them passed the story on to Saint Mark knew how strange this must have sounded because Mark notes, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened”. It was a strange offer; where would Peter have found materials and how would hand-built shelters have compared with such glory? But it was an offer that came from a heartfelt desire to remain in God’s presence.
The moment intensifies as God speaks, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and then it is past, “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus”. A few brief seconds in which they experienced God’s glory; an experience so profound that twenty centuries later we still read about it.
A sense of the holy, a sense of the profound, a sense of God being present: these things are not easy to find in our own times. Church services are meant to be a meeting place with God, yet I wonder how often we ever go home from church being able to say, as Saint Peter did, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here”?
Perhaps in times past it was easier to have a sense of holiness, a sense of the numinous, a sense that we were in the presence of God, but we seem to have lost that capacity. Maybe it’s because we have become much more secular as people; maybe it’s because we have become fragmented as a community.
Being secular, we accept the beliefs and philosophies of the modern world. We don’t expect to meet with anything which is beyond our rational, scientific explanations. We don’t come to church, or live our daily lives, with the expectation that we are going to meet the divine. Our education tells us these things do not happen, so we do not expect them to happen. Secular thought has driven out the superstition that marred societies in centuries past and that is still a danger in parts of Africa, where everything is ascribed to ‘spirits’, but it has also driven out a sense of the supernatural.
Secular as individuals, we are fragmented as a community. It is not that we are not friends, not that we don’t care about each other; it is that we have our own ideas and tastes and preferences and that our thoughts regarding the church and spiritual life are probably very different from those of the person sitting in the next pew.
When we read the New Testament, we read about a community that agreed fairly much about spiritual things. There are some disputes about the way things are done, but on the whole they agreed about how they might meet with the presence of God.
There are still parts of the world where everyone would agree about the worship in which they would find God. Visiting Tanzania ten years ago, I attended a confirmation service in an African village. The crowd was huge, they didn’t fit inside the building; they peered in through the windows and packed the doorways. The very traditional service was punctuated by spontaneous singing and chants and by people dancing in the aisle. The service lasted four hours and the singing and dancing continued afterwards in the streets. There was no doubt that the people would have agreed with Peter, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here”.
We do not have that sense of unity about what it is that brings us close to God. Some may have gone to that carol service and found it remote and formal. Some prefer rock music to medieval chant; they search for the spontaneous and the personal. Some would want neither the ceremony of a cathedral, nor the stacked electronic technology of contemporary worship, but the quietness of a church in the early morning. Some like ordinary Anglican parish worship with the hymns that have been sung for generations.
It is a challenge to try to create an atmosphere in which people sense God’s presence when there is no agreement as to how that atmosphere is to be created. People have very different preferences; in an age of individual choice the church cannot simply impose (or it can, and empty its pews).
How do we, as secular people, as people very divided in our thinking, create a church where someone coming in might have a sense of the risen Lord?
Maybe the answer lies with ourselves. Perhaps part of the answer lies in being prepared to accept that other people’s ideas are as important as our own. Perhaps a bigger part of the answer lies in being open to God’s presence. The story of the Transfiguration involved just three of the disciples, why not all twelve? Perhaps it was because the three concerned were more open to God’s presence.
When we come to worship, when we say our prayers, when we go about our everyday lives, do we take seriously the possibility that, like Peter and James and John, we too might encounter the divine?
God never imposes. Jesus could do few miracles in his home town because the people just did not believe; they could not accept the possibility that God might be present there with them.
It is up to us. It is our choice whether we accept the possibility that we might meet with the holy God; it is our choice whether we accept the possibility that, with Peter, we might say, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here”.
It is our choice.