This sermon was delivered the Sunday after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Gospel appointed in the lectionary was the transfiguration, which was what the sermon was therefore originally going to reference.
This week has been a week where writing a sermon in advance has felt like a futile activity, events have been changing so fast.
A week ago, I was reading the passage in the lectionary for this Sunday, and thinking about the transfiguration, and what I could say about it.
The week before that, I was talking to someone over dinner, an ex-politician, and he was advancing the view that the church (and I think he meant specifically the Church of England) shouldn’t get involved in politics.
I guess he would prefer if I did just give a sermon about the transfiguration, why Moses and Elijah were there, what Peter was thinking of when he offered to build huts for them, and all those sorts of things.
But the Church can’t not talk about politics, for several reasons.
The first is that the Church has been a political captive ever since the 4th century AD, when it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. As a result of that bargain, it became a part of the apparatus of government, and has been ever since. Sometimes the church becomes fatally compromised; or, as in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state church becomes a direct tool of state power and oppression. In England, fortunately, these days are behind us; but it still feels two-faced when governments demand the church not get involved with politics whenever it dares to voice an independent point of view. Governments – and leaders – are not always right
The second is that politics – which means the affairs of the village, the poleis in Greek – has always been something that the Church has cared about. Christianity is not a metaphysical religion – it is not about personal enlightenment and one’s own journey. Christianity is about a people who have been chosen by God to make God’s world right again, not by individual effort, but by being a community of God, attempting to live in harmony with God and in the way that God always intended us to live. Politics is the management of the affairs of a community, and the Church is a community, within a community. We are not called to personal salvation, we are called to be a light to the world, so that all the world may be saved. That is a political matter.
The third is that Jesus was political, and if we are called to live our lives like Jesus, that means we must be political too. If Jesus were not political, the Romans would never have bothered to execute him. They didn’t care about Jewish accusations of blasphemy – they cared because he was a threat to their power.
But if we are called to be political, we need to be very careful how we are political. As Christians, we should not articulate a Christian political message because we are socialists or Marxists or communists or capitalists or any other -ists. We need to articulate a definitively Christian political view – one that is rooted in the scripture and in Christ as revealed in the scriptures and in the Holy Spirit.
To come back to my original sermon, what can the transfiguration tell us about the events in Ukraine? What might one, and just one, distinctively Christian political take on the week’s events look like?
A common first question might be – where is God in all of this?
And the answer, as always, is everywhere.
God is in the suffering and the pain, the dying and the mourning, just as God is in the joy and the happiness when things are going well.
We cannot blame God for the sufferings of Ukraine. He is responsible, in the sense that he is responsible for all of creation, but the suffering of Ukraine is inflicted by people on other people.
We cannot blame God for our faulty exercise of our own free will, for our arrogance and pride. It is God who will hold us responsible for those sins.
When we seek a theological response to a war, we should look at Jesus’ actions and words in the Gospels.
Jesus is unconcerned about the word of the law. Putin’s attempts to hide behind hollow legalism or interpretations would be met with the same scorn that Jesus addresses to the pharisees and scribes.
For Jesus, it is about intent – it is what is on the inside that matters, not what is on the outside.
We are all created in the image of God, and therefore when we oppress another person, or ourselves, we are oppressing God as well.
And God affirmed the closeness of this relationship when he chose to become man, and live amongst us.
Indeed, for much of his earthly ministry and life, Jesus appeared almost entirely human. Were it not for his actions it would be hard to see him as God. But he was God, and because of that, wherever he went the sick were healed, the excluded were welcomed back by him, the unclean were made clean.
But occasionally, he allowed his full glory to show though, and this account of the transfiguration is one of those times. Here, on the mountaintop, he allows Peter, James and John to behold his glory. This surely is what John is remembering when he writes in his gospel ‘he dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son’.
But this vision of glory is brief. For most of his ministry, both leading up to this point, and then from here on, as he turns his face to Jerusalem, and his degradation and slaughter at the hands of the authorities, he lives as one of us.
He suffers alongside us, and takes on our pain and sorrow. Everyone in Ukraine who suffers in agony or mourns or trembles in fear at what the future holds has Jesus alongside them, also suffering in agony, or mourning, or trembling in fear and begging God to save him from death.
The transfiguration sits at the centre of Jesus’ earthly ministry – a brief glimpse of the true glory of God, in the same way that Jesus’ earthly ministry sits at the centre of history – a brief glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.
We are shown the vision, and then, all too soon it is taken away from us. Why?
The kingdom of heaven is not within our power to bring in.
Why did not Jesus appear in glory to the powers of the world of that time – to Pilate, and Herod and Caesar himself?
Because those people, who thought they had power, and abused the power that they had, did not truly have power to change the world. The only power that they had was the power to abuse and denigrate and destroy. The same power that Putin now flaunts and abuses.
True power belongs to God, and we cannot exercise that power.
God calls us not to power, but to powerlessness. He calls us not to exercise power over others, but to refuse to do so. He calls us to live as examples, as lights to the world, but not in pride, but in humility.
All we can do as Christians is to say that the exercise of power to compel others is wrong, and to model an alternative way of living – a way of love and rightness in relation to each other and God. A way that we will fail in, because we are human, but will keep on trying in despite our failure, because we have the example of Jesus in front of us.
Jesus came to those who were open to hearing the voice of God. Not the powerful, or the self-righteous, but the weak and the humble. Not the clever, but the naïve.
The kingdom is not about us changing the world, but about God changing us. As Paul says, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.
There is a temptation to want to solve something like the war in Ukraine, but we cannot solve the problems of the world by force, only by example. Example is slow – it won’t stop suffering and pain and death right now.
You could say that his is a totally naïve view, and it is, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Situations like Ireland and South Africa show us that the best path to peace and righteousness is dialogue and forgiveness.
Not that I am saying that inaction is the only theological or Christian response. Jesus wasn’t a knee-jerk pacifist – he knew how broken the world was. But we need to realise that when we take action, we exert power over others, and when we exert power over others, we often hurt them, and we hurt God. Death and destruction are never the will of God. We may feel that we have to act, in order to prevent what are atrocious crimes against humanity, but we have to understand that there is peril in exercising power, and we have to prayerfully weigh up and accept our responsibility for that exercise of power in the eyes of God.