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Transcendence & Immanence

(A Sermon preached at St. Margaret’s church, Winnipeg, on the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season 1)
(14 February, 2021)

(the Rev’d Canon) Tony Harwood-Jones

Today is the last Sunday of the Epiphany Season, and a tradition is growing in the global Christian church to call it “Transfiguration Sunday,” and to reflect on the story of how, on a mountaintop in Israel, Jesus was revealed to certain key disciples as a divine being.

I’ve given this sermon a title: “Transcendence and Immanence.”  But, if you are uncomfortable with big theological words, don’t worry; these are the only two that I will use!

“Transcendence” means, “existence or experience above and beyond the normal physical level.”  The God we serve is “transcendent,” above and beyond anything that we can fully grasp, or understand.

“Immanence” means, “existing or operating within something.”  When we use it to speak of God, it is how God works within the world as we know it – on our level.

The scripture readings that are selected for this day, this last Sunday of the Epiphany cycle, are all definitely about transcendence.

We have the “ascension of Elijah.” 2  Elijah has his disciple and friend, Elisha, with him, and Elisha has a sense that this is his teacher’s last day on earth – a sense that is also picked up by various companies of prophets – quite a number of them.  Elijah and Elisha go on a long walk, and, in some ways, Elijah is trying to shake off Elisha, but Elisha will have none of it.  In the end, Elijah crosses the Jordan river, in a most remarkable way, by banging the water with his cloak!  The waters part, and the two of them walk across on dry land.  Not long after this, a chariot of fire and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is whisked away, into the Presence of God.

Elisha had asked for a favour: to have the extraordinary abilities of the prophet Elijah transferred to him, if Elijah is taken out of this world.  It isn’t described in the reading that we had today, but it comes in the very next verse, 3 for, when Elisha goes back to the Jordan river, where fifty prophets are waiting on the other side, Elisha bangs the water with the “mantle” that Elijah had dropped, and the waters once more part.  We know, therefore, that the power of Elijah is continuing in his disciple.

The ascension of Elijah is clearly about the power of God, the mystery of God, magnificently and momentarily being seen in this world, and taking Elijah away.

The Psalm 4 is also very much about Transcendence.  The “refrain” – verse 2 of the poetry – reads, “Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.”  And, a few lines later, it says that God “…calls the  heavens and the earth from above, to witness the judgment of his people” – because this glorious God is going to judge the people of this world.

The next reading5 is a selection from the second of St. Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth.  It has this line: “The glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  Again, transcendence.

In the passage that was read, there is also a rather disquieting assertion: unbelievers, it says – those who choose not to accept the Gospel message – cannot see the transcendence.  Worse, such unbelievers are described as, “those who are perishing.”

Refuse to believe the Gospel?  You will not see the transcendent glory of God, and you will perish!

The final reading – the Gospel reading 6 – is the story of the Transfiguration itself, and I’m pretty sure that most of you know the story well: Jesus and three of his disciples go up a mountain, and He is transfigured.  We suddenly see the radiance, the awesomeness, the majesty of this person, their rabbi, their friend.

And then – even more spectacular, impressive, and awe-inspiring – Moses and Elijah appear to be standing beside Jesus, in conversation with him.

Here I must confess that I learned something, in preparing this sermon – something that I had never seen before, though it’s really quite obvious to any Bible student:  Moses is a symbol of the Mosaic Law – the Torah, the Law of God.  Elijah is preeminent among the prophets.  Surely you’ve heard the phrase, “The Law and the Prophets” – a phrase that embodies the whole of God’s revelation to and through the People of Israel, in the years leading up to the time of Christ.  In effect, we see the transfigured Jesus standing between the Law and the Prophets – as it were, the fulfilment of them.

This experience is so majestic and awe-inspiring, that it got Peter babbling!  The text says that he and the disciples were “terrified,” and Peter’s mouth just started going, with some thought that he might be able to build a church around these three figures!  But the Voice of God comes into the scene.  It doesn’t say, “Shut up, Peter!” but it does say, “Listen to Jesus!”  “This is My Beloved Son.  Pay attention to – listen to – him.”

There is no doubt that this gives us a picture of the transcendent… the person who, although in human flesh, is the almighty power behind the entire universe.

The point, therefore, of these Scripture passages, is to emphasize the amazing glory of God, who, as creator and sustainer of the entire universe, is more awesome, striking, and glorious than anything we could ever know in our day-to-day world.
If we were to encounter God as He truly is, it would be like being dropped into the middle of the sun.  God made the sun, and many, many, more like it, and if we aren’t burned to a crisp in that process, we would be on our knees – in awe, and even terror!

Yes… transcendence.

BUT… the Christian message is also loaded with immanence.

The basic Christmas message: the God of the universe, the almighty God, chose to become born as a human baby… a baby that you can cuddle, and sing to, and hold in your arms, and feed some nice mashed food!

The God of the Universe – a helpless baby human!  That’s the Christmas message.

Then, we see in the story of Jesus’ friendship with a trio of siblings – Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – the time when Lazarus gets sick, and dies, and Jesus stands at his grave and cries!

Meanwhile, early in the story of Jesus’ ministry, he goes out to pray in the wilderness, and he’s tempted to break his promises, and to get egoistic and command the attention of the world… he was tempted… as we all can be from time to time.

He was accused by his contemporaries of being a party-goer, who loved to eat and get drunk! 7  I enjoy particularly the King James version of the Bible, which translates the original language of this accusation as, “…a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber”!  Indeed, he provided the wine for a wedding in Cana!  Surely he was a “party-animal,” if ever there was one!

Most important of all, in the story of Jesus’ life, the crucifixion… HURT !  Surely a divine being could say, “I’ll just command myself to not feel anything”!  But he didn’t.  In fact, if you read your Scriptures, you’ll know that people on the ground, around the cross, said, “C’mon!  You’re the divine guy!?  Do it!  Jump off!  Heal all the holes in you!”  He hurt.  He even felt like God had deserted him, for he quoted Psalm 22: “My God!  My God!  Why have you forsaken me!??”

Jesus, the divine being living a human life, was just like us.  Immanence.  God, at our level.  God, our friend!  “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…” 8  A person with whom we can be comfortable, and safe.

Immanence – the fundamental Christian message that God has come down to our level.

The church’s history has been a history of lurching between transcendence and immanence.  Think back into the Medieval period, where the church, trying to be faithful to its Lord, began to elevate, in its consciousness, the people who were spreading the Gospel and administering the sacraments, until the senior one of them all – the Pope – became almost a God-like figure!  As well, the language of religion, theology, and worship, was a language that hardly anybody was speaking in their daily lives – in the store, or on the street, or at work.  Day-to-day lives were conducted in Italian, or German, or French, or English, but in church it was this ever more mysterious and holy language: Latin.  It lent a powerful sense of awe and distance – transcendence – to the human encounter with God.  Not to mention the clergy, who, by being celibate, lived lives that were different from, and separate from ordinary human everyday experience.

Along came the Protestant Reformation, and in many ways it was a reform that insisted upon the immanence of God!  Common language!  Translate the Bible into the language we speak to one another!  Clergy!  Married, raising children!  Ordinary, just like regular folks!  Some Protestants eliminated clergy, as a distinct class, from their community altogether (though you might want to note how some Evangelicals treat their preachers today – almost like television celebrities!).

The Anglican Church tried to hold these tensions – between transcendence and immanence – in some sort of balance.  The language of worship, Scripture, and theology was in the common everyday English of their time.  Clergy could marry and raise families.  And yet, no lay person could administer the Communion.

I was ordained Deacon fifty-six years ago, and I will never forget the ordination ceremony, where, once I had received the laying-on of hands, we continued with Holy Communion, and I was given the chalice to administer it to the people.  This was the first time I had ever touched a chalice of consecrated wine!  I was now an ordained Deacon, and, as such, was permitted to handle the chalice.  I remember to this day how absolutely awed I was in that moment.

Further, in my direct dealings with my Bishop, I was expected to call him, “my Lord”!

But, in my time, an enormous shift towards emphasis upon the “immanent” took place.  It happened in many denominations that had had careful and ordered liturgies.  It shifted from an altar – distant, far away, awesome, raised above the level of the people – to a table in the midst of the congregation.  Indeed, although many people today call this whole space in which we are sitting, a “sanctuary,” when I was starting out, the only place so named was the space directly around the distant and elevated altar.  Below – where the ordinary people sat – was called “the Nave” – from the Latin for “ship.”  But, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, people began to move the altars down into the Nave (indeed, to this day, the resultant table is called a “Nave Altar” in some churches).  This was done to make the atmosphere of worship more immanent, approachable, ordinary and accessible.  As well, many churches got rid of the pews, that have us sitting in rows, so that we could sit or stand around  the Nave Altar – where we could see one another and the table of the Lord in our midst.  At this time the “exchange of peace” was introduced, where, instead of us all being on our knees in front of an awesome and distant altar, we were to go and hug, and high-five, and extend Christ’s love to one another in person, because we were all the equal “ministers” of God, at the table of the Lord!

Full disclosure here, I confess that I was part of that transition.  Lifetime Anglicans, here in Canada, will know that we changed our service book from the Book of Common Prayer, to one called “The Book of Alternative Services.”  When I was 20, and in university, the Chaplain of the Anglican club on campus was a priest named Paul Gibson, who ended up writing most of the Book of Alternative Services.  He was teaching us young Anglican students how the liturgy ought to work.  He introduced us to an author named Dom Gregory Dix, whose writings on the earliest known worship practices of the Christian community have been hugely influential on the revision and renewal of public worship.

And so, in 1968, at All Saints’ Church in downtown Winnipeg, I led Rock ’n Roll Masses!  All kinds of young people (that was then – they’re now in their seventies!) would gather in the parish hall, with a rock band playing away while we celebrated a modern-language version of the Eucharist – the Holy Communion.  All of which was to the horror and outrage of many people who had preceded us in the church!

So, I confess, I was involved in the immanence side of that tension between transcendence and immanence.  I was totally committed to the view of Jesus being Divine, and, at the same time, absolutely on my level.

In effect, for me the stories of his miracles, his walking on water, and definitely the Transfiguration, troubled me not a little!  Jesus is my friend, my buddy!  I am friendly and intimate with this warm and loving person who is representative of the Divine!  I accepted the kind of Biblical scholarship that suggests the Transfiguration story was actually a Resurrection story, written, after the fact, into the period of Jesus’ earthly life!  Or, I would remind myself that Jesus said – as is quoted in the Gospels – that his followers could, themselves, do the various miraculous things he did. 9  He even said that, with sufficient faith, you can pray and move a mountain, and get it dumped into the sea! 10  Maybe – just maybe – even when Jesus did a miracle, it was just something that all humans could do in this world!  Heck, Peter could walk on water, if only for a minute.

So, I was continually looking at Jesus, and looking at the Christian faith, from the side of how absolutely and wonderfully ordinary, approachable, accessible it is.

The fact is, this life, this Christian faith of ours, must always hold transcendence and immanence in tension.  We will probably always err too much on one side or the other.  But, we need to keep both, always, as essential to our faith.

Yes, God came down to earth and was a cuddly baby, an adolescent with his own mind, a fun guy to be with who brought good wine to weddings.  But… he is the Son of the Living God, and will return to judge the living and the dead.  He is the Jesus of the mount of the Transfiguration.

Today, being Valentine’s Day, provides us with a rather suitable illustration!  Love, between two humans, is not merely bouquets of flowers, romantic dinners, kisses and sex – those very earthly and this-worldly things – are part of it, and an essential part of it.  But, not all of it!  For, if there is no “transcendent,” bigger-than-both-of-us, love that underlies these things, they are merely materialism, gluttony, and physical self-gratification.  That candlelight dinner is supposed to indicate that something wonderful and transcendent draws two separate human beings together.

Today, “Transfiguration Sunday,” is the last Sunday before Lent begins.  Lent – the time when we recognize our sinfulness, and the many ways that we fall short of being the type of people that God would have us be.  So, on this day, we recognize that we are the brothers and sisters of an extraordinary, Divine person – Jesus – who, in addition to being our friend, and who loves us and walks beside us, is completely and absolutely the awesome Divinity behind this universe, where driving about in fiery chariots with Elijah is a normal and everyday thing.

This person – this awesome Jesus – our friend – will return to judge the living and the dead.  And, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” 11   Let us always keep that in mind, as we reflect on the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, and prepare for 40 days and 40 nights of repentance for our sins.

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© 2021, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


1   This is a transcript of the actual words spoken in church.  Footnotes are here, in this text version, merely to assist in study and reflection.  They were not part of the spoken message.
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2  2 Kings 2:1-12.
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3  2 Kings 2:13.
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4  Psalm 50:1-6.
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5  2 Corinthians 4:3-6.
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6  Mark 9:2-9.
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7  Luke 7:34, and Matthew 11:19.
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8  Here I’m quoting a well-beloved song, entitled, “In the Garden,” written in 1912 by the American songwriter, C. Austin Miles (1868–1946).
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9  In Matthew 10:5-8, Jesus sends the Twelve out on a mission, and says, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.”.
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10  Mark 11:23; Matthew 21:21.
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10   This is a direct quote of Hebrews 10:31.
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