A sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus, during the invasion of Ukraine by Putin of Russia
2 Corinthians 3.12 - 4.2
There is a story told in Kiev, (or ‘Keev’ as we’re now learning to say it) of how Orthodox religion came to the Ukraine and then Russia. In the year 987, according to legend, Prince Vladimir the Great, had established a Kingdom for himself, more or less in the landmass of Ukraine today. It was a time of many religions, and expressions of those religions, competing with one another for dominance (much like today, in fact). Prince Vladimir, however, is said to have believed that the choice of a single religion, promoted from his throne, would be a unifying force for his new Kingdom.
So Vladimir sent emissaries to study the religions of the various neighbouring nations. The result was described in legendary terms by the chronicler Nestor. According to this version, the envoys reported of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga there was ‘no gladness among them’. Their religion also included a prohibition against alcohol, which was a problem. As Vladimir is said to have exclaimed, "But, drinking is the joy of the Rus'." Russian sources also describe Vladimir as consulting with Jews. But he ultimately rejected their religion on the grounds that the loss of Jerusalem was evidence that they had been abandoned by God. Ultimately, Vladimir settled on Christianity.
In the Catholic churches of the Germans Vladimir's emissaries saw no beauty. On the other hand, at Constantinople, the ritual and beautiful architecture of the Orthodox Church deeply impressed them. "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, describing a majestic liturgy in Hagia Sophia. The splendour of the church itself was such that "we know not how to tell of it." Their words have echoes of the experience of the Disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Vladimir was no doubt duly impressed by this account of his envoys. But he may have been even more aware of the political gains he would receive from an alliance with Byzantine Empire. Whatever the truth of the tale, Vladimir was baptized, in Crimea. Returning to Kiev, he destroyed pagan monuments and established many churches, including the famous monasteries on Mt. Athos.
This is, of course, just one of the many stories which act as ‘founding myths’ of the Orthodox Church of ‘the Rus’ – the ethnic group who gave their name to the likes of Russia, and Belarus. Arab sources, both Muslim and Christian, present a rather more straightforward, story of political alliances. But I rather like the story of those envoys, reporting back from observing worship in Hagia Sophia – reporting that they couldn’t tell whether they had arrived in heaven. At its best, you see, great worship, beautifully done, has the power to transport us. It offers us a doorway into a different, heavenly reality.
Now, I don’t claim that we achieve such ‘transport of delight’ every time we worship together here – but sometimes, yes, sometimes, I feel that we get close to it. The best of our worship, when the choir and congregation are singing their hearts out, when the organ is thundering, the flowers are blooming, the sun-light is streaming…at those moments we can sometimes feel transported at least into the gateway of heaven. Sometimes, we can even glimpse what it must have been like for those disciples, on the Mount of Transfiguration, when the doorway between earth and heaven was open for a brief while.
The Orthodox Church has a unique perspective on the process of spiritual transformation. They teach the doctrine of ‘deification’, by which we can become more and more like God through God’s grace and divine influence.
Orthodoxy reminds us that we are all made in the image of God (as stated in the first chapter of the whole Bible). So, all humanity is by nature an icon, or an image of God. Awe-inspiring worship, living godly lives, constant prayer for being filled with God’s Spirit, these are all means by which we can become ‘deified’ – more and more like God, in whose image we are made. The shining, transfigured face of Jesus on the mountain, and of Moses before him, are signs to us that such transformation is indeed possible. If Jesus and Moses, our brothers, can shine with divine energy – then we too, can be changed from glory into glory (as Paul wrote to the Corinthians). Perhaps this is something of what Vladimir the Great’s envoys glimpsed in the great church of Hagia Sophia, all those centuries ago. Perhaps they glimpsed heaven in the shining faces of the worshippers all around them.
However, another Vladimir swims into view, when we contemplate the story of the nations around the Black Sea. Vladimir Putin claims to be a Christian. He wears an orthodox crucifix. He attends worship, and he has restored and strengthened Orthodox churches all over Russia. And yet, his most recent actions cause us to wonder whether he has truly taken to heart the Orthodox doctrine of ‘deification’.
For ‘deification’ requires us to recognise the image of God in every other human being. And if every human being is an icon of God, then we must surely treat every human being with the same reverence as we have for God. Only a non-believer could bomb a church (a house of God) without remorse. So what about the home of any human being who carries the image of God. Every bomb which drops on the Ukraine at the present time is a dagger in the heart of God. Every soldier who obeys the command to fire upon his brother or sister in such a conflict as this, is trampling on the face of God.
All of Putin’s rhetoric of recent days has served to dehumanise, and de-deify, those he claims to be in conflict with him. Whether it’s the Western powers, or the ‘neo-nazis’ and ‘nationalists’ he claims have taken over the Ukraine. Such language strips away humanity, and with it, the image of God in each one. If we make our enemy less human to us, it is so much easier to kill him.
Putin is not alone in this tendency, though. We also do it, whenever we label another human-being with a pejorative term. Words like the infamous ‘N-word’, or ‘migrant’, or ‘drunk’, or ‘tramp’ - these are the politest words I can think of (among many much more ugly words) which all serve to mask the real humanity in front us, and to hide the image of God.
So, while we pray unceasingly for the people of Ukraine, today, please join me, as well, in praying for Vladimir Putin, and all those who blindly follow his lead. Let us pray that he will receive a fresh conversion into the faith he claims to follow, and that he will cease his murderous attack on his neighbours – his brothers and sisters. If he will not, let us pray that the power he has to stamp on the face of God will be removed from his grasp.
And let us pray that he, and we, will recognise and respond to the icon, the image, of God in every human life that we encounter. Amen.