The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      14th February 2021
The Transfiguration and Human Rights
Andrew Penny

Last week, Jeremy explained that these two Sundays before Lent focus first on the glory of God the Father, creator of the world and today on the glory of the Son, God incarnate. Jeremy examined how our ideas about the creation have changed in the last fifty years, as we have gained a different perspective on the world, most dramatically symbolised by the earthrise photo taken by astronauts in that revolutionary year 1968.

Today I want to look a little at an equally important shift in modern thinking which again has no apparent link to Christianity (and still less, the Transfiguration), but which ultimately derives from Judeo-Christian ethics and is given meaning and context by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all of them foreshadowed on that “high mountain”. I am talking about the prominence, indeed centrality, which we now give to the concept of Human Rights.

The question, Who is Jesus?, whether express or implied, is so common in the Gospels, that one could say they are not so much biographies as explanations of who he was. One of the great turning points in this explanation comes in the town of Caesarea Philippi where asks the disciples who people say he is. The answer is that they think he is one of the prophets, or perhaps John the Baptist. Jesus presses Peter who “confesses” that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. Jesus goes on to explain what being the son of God will entail-ultimately execution on a cross.

The Transfiguration follows closely on this incident, and mirrors it; Jesus is placed in glory between Moses representing the Law and Elijah, most famous of the Prophets, but he shines out as greater than them and as at his baptism, a heavenly voice calls out: ”This is my son, the beloved; listen to him.” As at

Caesarea Philippi, the sequel to this revelation is that like Elijah, Jesus must suffer and die before coming back from the dead. The idea of suffering is almost implied in the idea of being the son of God; sonship or filiation, implies obedience and service (it’s a concept incidentally central to French Law) The Glory of God, the resurrection, comes after, and through, the ultimate sacrificial service of the crucifixion.

Jesus is transfigured with Moses and Elijah; they as the Law and the Prophets, are the ground from which he grows, but his life as man on earth has a different emphasis to the teaching of the Law and the inspiration or admonishment of the prophets. The great overarching story of the Old Testament is God’s relation with his people; it is the nation of Israel that is the great protagonist after God himself. There are, of course, great individuals in the Old Testament, but their greatness is relative to the extent to which they advance the nation towards the Promised Land and a society in harmony with God’s Law.

The Gospel is also concerned with the re-establishment of that ideal society as the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven and that is the thrust of some of Jesus’s teaching; his actions, however, are almost entirely concerned with individuals. He heals the sick in personal encounters, personal even when in huge crowds. Much of this teaching, albeit to crowds, is about personal integrity, which he values above convention or social acceptability. He is particularly concerned for the poor and the outcasts or those on the edge of society- those whose individual attributes or behaviour distinguish them make them unacceptable to the community.

None of this is, of course, entirely novel; right back in Genesis, we are told that man was created in God’s image; each human being whatever his or her apparent imperfections is valuable, a creature that reflects all creation.

Jesus’ teaching about society, however, does nor start, as in the Old Testament, with the nation or the community, but with each God-like individual. It is the respect for those individuals, however difficult it may be to accommodate them, however they may seem to be misfits, which forms the bond which keeps society together. And society is necessarily inclusive; if the individual comes first why should anyone be excluded? This doesn’t mean that society is a free for all; the kingdom of Heaven is built on respect, and respect needs to be codified in rules. This is the essence of the concept of human rights.

As Jesus becomes human, so his characteristics transfer to human beings. We are all children of God, we can all share in his resurrection, but equally we must all take up our crosses. Being children of God entails duties and obligations, which for some will be hard and harsh. For all they will be a challenge; if we are godlike, we must like God try to extend His creative love in the world, whenever the opportunity arises -and we must look for those opportunities.

When the European Convention on Human Rights was introduced into English Law, there were complaints from conservative quarters (conservative with big and little Cs) that there was too much emphasis on rights and not enough on duties. The source of Human Rights is in continental, and notably the Napoleonic Civil Code with its emphasis in principle rather than precedent, but equally its emphasis on filial duty. It derives ultimately from Jewish ethics, and the belief that man is made in God’s image, but amplified by the Christian

interpretation of that belief, based on the life of Christ, and the service and selfless love which that entails.

At the Transfiguration the glory which that service and love might bring was glimpsed by Peter James and John. In the crucifixion and resurrection, it was there for all to see. It involves us and it transfigures us; we belong to a worldwide society that matters and is eternal because we all individually matter, we all enjoy eternal life, and we are all called to be obedient and filial children of God. Amen.

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