Exodus 34:29-25, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12 -4:2, Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)
Diplomats are usually known for moderate language. Yet on Wednesday of this week, at the security council of the UN, the warning from Ukraine to Russia was of a very different order. As they met to consider ways of working towards peace in the region, Putin set out a strategy that would prove challenging to the very UN charter to which all member nations, including his own, sign up. Sergiy Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, then addressed his Russian counterpart, Vasily Nebenzya, with these words:
There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.
Purgatory is a foreign concept to most Methodists, but we do hold to a principle of accountability; particularly for those who are entrusted with great power and responsibility.
So, on this Sunday on which Christians (in the west) mark the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is perhaps helpful for us to pause and consider how this feast of the church helps us to prepare for the days of Lent. And especially with the unfolding conflict in Ukraine, I find the words of Charles Wesley helpful:
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise!
The hymn ‘love divine, all love’s excelling’ is as far removed from purgatory and hell as is imaginable. But then its primary focus is on Jesus, and the great transformational work which results in the lives of those whose hearts and minds are focussed on God. It is drawn from 2 Corinthians 3:18, yet its roots go back to Exodus.
Exodus 34 recounts the story of the second moment when Moses receives the two tablets of stone on which are etched the words of the covenant (he smashed the earlier version). To indicate the profound effect that being in the very presence of God had on Moses, the writer describes his face as so radiant that he had to wear a face covering. This was because those who saw him knew that his glowing face reflected something of the divine presence, and they were afraid.
If Exodus sets the divine encounter on a mountain, it comes as no surprise that when Jesus went to pray he took Peter, James and John with him up onto a mountain to pray, They were to witness a profound change in Jesus, as well as the appearance of Moses and Elijah in his presence. I guess they too were a little overawed and suggested the customary tents/booths/tabernacles, one each for the three gathered in discussion. Being enveloped in a cloud and hearing the voice of God, left them terrified. Yet on this occasion, the voice of God confirmed the message at Christ’s baptism, that this was God’s Son.
Moses was a real leader, faithfully remaining in the wilderness with the people he led for many years, but unable to enter the Promised Land. In all that time, he spent long hours in God’s presence being equipped for his most difficult tasks.
Jesus too was a real leader, not only setting the example for those who follow, but equipping his disciples to walk in his light. Interestingly, verse 31 actually describes the conversation between Moses, Elijah and Jesus (and the disciples nearly miss the whole thing). There is a subtle – and not altogether helpful – shift in the text when it talks of Jesus’ departure. OK, it is helpful in terms that we understand the journey which Jesus is on will lead to suffering, torture and death. But the word used is ‘exodus’. The Exodus, the escape from Egypt, which is still the foundational story of freedom and redemption from the despotic power of the Pharaoh for the people of Israel. And the days of Lent will be for us a reminder of the exodus, the journey to freedom and resurrection by way of the cross.
Days ahead may seem dark, but we are invited to look to Jesus for that transformational power in our own lives. Being changed from glory into glory is both a gift and a privilege, because it brings a sense of accountability. Accountability for the way we live our lives and accountability for our neighbours – here and further away. It is not a time to fall asleep in ethical or spiritual terms, but to consider every option available to us. So, we are invited to pray for those who find themselves under the yoke of oppression, from others or from their own binding passions. In the meantime, a prayer for peace in Ukraine: https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/prayer/prayer-for-peace-in-ukraine/