‘They were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.’
And for the disciples, sleepy and confused, it was the beginning of a departure for them, too, the beginning of an exodus - the word Luke actually uses in this story. They had seen something that drew them away from what they were used to; they had seen into a depth and mystery in the life of Jesus that would take them to a very distant place. After he resurrection, Jesus says to Peter that one day his discipleship will mean that he is led where he doesn’t want to go. He too must complete his exodus, his journey to the cross and beyond.
So much of the history we celebrate today is a history of journeys, a history of exodus. Bishop Justus, probably as reluctant as Augustine himself to settle among the savage English, kneeling somewhere near this spot to receive his commission as an apostle, his marching orders for the exodus; John Fisher, travelling from the securities of the late Middle Ages, form the life of a learned ascetic and benefactor of his beloved Cambridge, into the wilderness of Henry VIII’s bloody and paranoid court - and his enemy and successor, Nicholas Ridley, refusing to flee to the Continent when Mary came to the throne, and accomplishing his exodus in the fires at Oxford - the passionate Protestant united with Fisher the papalist in the ultimate witness of martyrdom. And today, another missionary bishop, ten years into his office here, bringing the strangeness of the gospel to those who think they know it already, bringing the renewing word from a younger church - Bishop Michael too is familiar enough with the cost of exodus.
If we understand the transfiguration properly, Luke’s story seems to say, we shall understand it as a call to ‘go out’ with Jesus in his exodus, to go beyond the walls of our culture and our safety zone to where the cross is to be found. It may be an exodus in which we are challenged first as individuals, concerning what cost we are prepared to bear for Christ’s sake, in our use of our resources - our giving of money and skill, our willingness to simplify our lives for the sake of justice for all or for the future of our environment, our readiness to give personal time to be still with God in worship. It may be an exodus for our church community - facing change, tackling the need to speak to people we are a bit afraid of, whose language we don’t quite know, on the other side of town, or the other side of the age divide; the exodus of leaving behind some of the patterns of over-dependence on clerical leadership so as to take up the disciple’s cross and commission that is ours. And there is the exodus that faces all of us, as we come to terms with the reality that the world is not under our control, that we cannot solve the appalling problems of our day by simple bursts of well-meaning activism in national or international affairs; we must go out into the strange desert land of patient, prolonged work, listening, watching, and slowly transforming, inch by inch, the landscape of human wretchedness under God’s patient guidance. The exodus also that takes us into the isolation of witnessing for God’s faithfulness and justice in a world where so little notice seems to be taken of the need for dependable relationships, trustworthy structures, in family life or social life
Jesus transfigured tells us that in the depth of his vulnerable human life, even in his very mortality, is a liberty and beauty that can change everything; his cross is the hinge upon which a forgiven future opens, and we can live in his light. But we learn it fully not by words not even by the overwhelming vision that is given, but by following him, like Peter, James and John, to Gethsemane and witnessing his prayer and struggle there, knowing that this too is where glory is laid bare. We see his glory, and we follow his leading. We see the beauty and we trust him even on the way to the cross. We go out beyond the walls and we encounter a world that can, despite everything, be transformed by his inexhaustible mercy.
Transfiguration, exodus and mission: that’s where the movement leads us. The vision, the cross of conversion and discipleship, and the new land to be settled and humanised and made to reflect God’s glory, the new land of a human heart and a human society which have not yet learned how to be properly human. The disciples stumble down the mountainside and the first thing they meet is a human tragedy, a person possessed by powers that seek to destroy him. Those self-destructive powers are still there to meet us and test us to the limit. And Jesus says that they will not be cast out without prayer and self-denial - without the prayer that is offered in his name and power, and our taking up the cross and challenging our own greed and idleness. If we can pray and fast, if we can set aside the vocal agenda of our own needs for safety and reassurance, there is a path for Christ’s action into the world, a place for the Spirit to kindle and connect. But not without exodus.
Transfiguration and exodus. The great servants of God we celebrate were, like St Paul, obedient to the heavenly vision: they saw and they followed, despite the cost. And where they went in their exodus they brought the vision to others - as Paul once again puts it, the ‘death’ of the apostle, the apostle’s readiness to go out with Christ on the way of the cross, means that life is at work in the whole community of believers. For each one of us, that abides as a promise: our exodus, our Yes to the leading of God into strange and hard places, means life. Refuse the exodus, and you’re stuck in comfortable slavery, and all those to whom the word would have been brought by your Yes are stuck as well. When the future is bleak and you can’t see how to cope with the big and hard decisions, ask how many people might just possibly hear the good news and catch the vision if you can tackle what seems hard and engage with those who seem strange.
Because we are here to thank God for all who have made the good news both good and new for us - Justus and the first missioners, stammering in an unfamiliar barbarian language, Fisher and Ridley, shaping their teaching into the terrible language of suffering and death; all those who have stepped over the boundary to meet us in love and show us the vision. May God equip us to go out on our journey with Christ crucified and glorified so that future generations in this place will have cause to thank God for us in turn - not because we have succeeded or achieved in our own regard, but because we have tried to walk with Christ and breathe the air of his Spirit, to keep the landscape of our humanity open to his marvellous light.
© Rowan Williams 2004