This week we have remembered two clouds: a cloud of glory and a cloud of shame. The cloud of glory came on Thursday when the church calendar remembered the Transfiguration. This is the story in the gospels when Jesus takes a few close companions up the mountain and while he is praying he is transfigured, they see beyond the outer appearance to the inner glory of God within. It is couched in all sorts of imagery which is reminiscent of Moses’ encounters with God on his mountainside: face and clothes shining, and there is a cloud from which God speaks (Luke 9:28-36). We were given a cloud of glory, a symbol of mystery, awe and wonder. In this moment of transfiguration on the mountainside, we are invited to enter into the cloud of mystery with the disciples and see something of the fullness of God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
But history has given us a darker cloud on 6th August too. Thursday was also the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later, 70 years ago today, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. It is estimated that 129,000 people died in those raids and many, many more suffered life-changing injuries, the consequences still seen today. When I mentioned this in various places and services on Thursday and Friday I was struck by the response. It wasn't a particularly representative sample but there was an audible revulsion and sense of horror that these bombs had been used. The awesome destructive power triggered a sense that they must never be used again. I found this interesting given there had been debates back at the General Election about Trident. This group, at least, have a strong feeling that these weapons are evil and it is unthinkable to think of using them, let alone to do so, knowing what we now know. I’ve heard military strategists refer to Trident as yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s problems. But the technology cannot be uninvented, so we have had to live in an age with a weapon no sane person would dream of using. And an insane one wouldn’t be deterred by knowing others have it.
Speaking in a radio broadcast 70 years ago today, the US President, Harry S Truman said:
“I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb ... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us ... We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
That is a heady mix of facing the stark reality of what they have done while thinking God thinks this is OK. I don’t think there are purposes that can be linked to God that justify the use of such weapons. They are dreamed up from evil intent and fail the test of just war theory: they are not proportionate and noncombatants are not protected.
So we have today two clouds, one of glory and one of shame. How do we allow the former to remove the latter? Our readings gave us some clues that are worth heeding.
Firstly, our gospel reading has been working through, over these last few weeks, the long passage in John’s gospel where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with very meagre provisions and then teaches about himself as the true bread, the bread of life. And we heard the third section today (John 6:35, 41-51); there will more over the next two weeks. It has Eucharistic overtones to it; John does not give the Last Supper in his gospel. This is as close as he gets to expounding a theology of Communion. John doesn’t give us the Transfiguration either, but this teaching is close to it. Referring to Jesus as the bread of life, he requires us to look more deeply into who he is, into who he brings to be among us. John is after all the gospel that begins with a long prologue expounding that ‘in the beginning was the Word’ and that Word came among us ‘full of grace and truth’. The bread of life is Christ among us, inspiring, nourishing with his grace, with his love, with his transforming presence. To understand what that means to counter clouds of shame, the glory revealed gives a new commandment to love, brings forgiveness and reconciliation, comes to save not condemn. This is a radical new way; radical because it takes us back to the fundamental principles revealed in the Bible, often overlooked or forgotten, but they are there.
The new commandment to love, the radical way of love and peace, challenges us to look around and see beyond outer appearances to the inner glory within each person, to see the gift and blessing that we are to one another and are to be to one another, and the world. If we serve Christ in those we meet, as an unknown guest, then we see his glory in them too and that should change how we behave, because they too are beloved children of God, heirs of grace and the reason for his coming; meeting them is to stand on holy ground. Christ came to draw us into the heart of God, that we may become divine, to quote an ancient writer. There is within each of us the seed of glory. Our life is special coming as it does from the desire of God’s will and purpose. That should affect us. The divine devotion at the Transfiguration changes how we see one another as well.
The reading from Ephesians (4:25-5:2) gave a list of virtues to replace vices. Falsehood replaced by truth, making no room for evil intent when angry, honesty to replace theft, using our words to build up rather than breed hatred, putting away bitterness and wrangling and being kind to one another instead. Beneath all of this, holding it up, is the appeal to be imitators of God, living in love as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us. The way of self-giving, gracious love is to triumph over hatred and death. The cloud of glory is to triumph over the cloud of shame.
When there are threats, whether that is violence or hostile words and bullying, a fight or flight response is triggered within us. Self preservation wants to find safety and that might mean running for cover or making a stand where we either survive or are overcome. There are plenty of passages in the Bible where protecting and entering the struggle to overcome oppression is taken for granted. This is why we have a theory of Just War; a desire to limit when violence begets violence. But even if a violent response is assumed or required, it is not a place to stop. And it is not to be the first response either. There is a better way and when we seek to be a follower of the Way of Jesus we learn that love overcomes hatred and the tools used for weapons are turned into implements to feed, to bring life rather than death. Love triggers a very different response.
When Jesus says that he is the bread of life feeding on him, following him, being filled with the grace that was within him and displayed on the mountainside at the Transfiguration, changes how we are to behave if we are to honour the glory within. The cloud of glory is to dominate and drive away the cloud of shame.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th August 2015