Sermon, Parish Eucharist, Sunday 3rd November 2013 (All Saints’ Day)
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1:11-end; Luke 6:20-31
Hope Springs Eternal
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that when I was ordained 6 years ago I was regarded as a bit of an oddity by my work colleagues. I may have looked and sounded like any other BBC manager, but people then became aware of the fact that at the weekend I dressed up in strange clothes and performed odd rituals in a church. If my colleagues ever raised the question of my ordination it was usually as an amused aside, so it was a surprise one day to hear my boss say, out of the blue: “you surely don’t believe in life after death, do you?”
My answer to his question – “I don’t spend much time thinking about it” – was, while absolutely truthful, only half the story and I was all too well aware that I had dodged the question. To be clear, I really do believe that ours is a very this-worldly faith and that our focus should be on how we promote truth, justice and peace in the here and now. But it should be equally clear that the notion of life after death is central to our faith and it’s this truth was I was all too well aware of having dodged. After all, Jesus clearly anticipated life in the world to come. In today’s gospel he promises his followers that whatever persecution and injustice they suffer in this life, all will be well in heaven. In this he was at one with the beliefs of his Jewish forbears. As St. Paul put it with characteristic bluntness in his first letter to the Corinthians ““If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”. Quite simply, if there is no life beyond this one there really is no justice in the world and we really do live in an indifferent universe.
So what was my problem? Why did I find it so hard, as a newly ordained clergyman, to give, in the words of the first letter of Peter “…an account of the hope that is in me?” Well, most obviously, religious faith is rather unfashionable. Militant atheists equate it to believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden and some of this mud sticks. This leaves many people – however much they may dislike it – with a largely reductionist view of the world in which asking the big questions about the meaning and purpose of existence are an irrelevance, the predominant view being that we should just get on with our lives as best we can and accept that when we are dead we are dead.
There is, I think, also an issue with the way we Christians talk about our hope for the future. Christian doctrine posits a new heaven and a new earth, the rejoining of the two in a mighty act of re-creation. It’s a new world in which the dead will be raised and truth, justice and peace will at last reign supreme. For many people this is just too much. A spiritual resurrection maybe, but a physical one too? Come off it!
So what are we to make of all this? Well, what better a day than All Saints’ Day to ask that question? The key point I want to make here is that, whatever hope we have, it is certainly not a cheap one. It’s not naive, it’s not a question of whistling to keep our spirits up. Rather, it’s a hope born of often bitter and cruel experience.
For Christians the most obvious source of hope is the resurrection of Jesus himself. We do not – and cannot – know precisely what happened that first Easter. The New Testament accounts differ. In the gospels it seems that the resurrected Jesus had a physical form, although his resurrected body was clearly radically different from– whilst strangely the same as – his pre-crucifixion body. And yet St. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus was clearly an entirely personal vision. In other words, if there had been a cameraman present on the Damascus Road, he would not have captured footage of the risen Jesus talking to Paul. But if Jesus was not physically present, Paul’s experience of him was such that he might just as well have been, for its effect was to transform the man who had hitherto persecuted the infant church into one who was its greatest and most effective leader. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that we probably wouldn’t be sitting here in church now if it hadn’t been for Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road.
The lack of certainty as to exactly what happened at the resurrection is maddening to many and cited as a reason for dismissing it as mere fantasy. But to do so is to ignore history. For whatever happened, it was real and dramatic enough to convince Jesus’ miserable and disconsolate followers that despite the awfulness of the crucifixion, despite the mockery, humiliation and cruelty, God had had the last word and there really were grounds for hope after all. This experience of hope in the face of bitter disappointment was real enough and, as such, was all of a piece with what we see in so much of the bible, particularly the Old Testament.
This is one of the reasons why I commend the Bible Challenge to you so much. For those of you who weren’t in church last Sunday, the Bible Challenge is an exciting idea of Kimberly and Ross Gilmour’s for us to join as a church in reading the bible together so that in the space of a year we read the whole thing. It involves reading just three chapters of the Old Testament and one of the New each day. There’ll be notes to help us and lots of opportunity to meet socially to share our views and reactions to what we’ve read. My firm prediction is that, if you commit to doing this as so many already have, it will challenge and change you in ways you don’t currently think possible. For the bible is, in many respects, the wisdom of ages. The bible is made up of the reflections and stories of men and women struggling to find meaning in the midst of life’s challenges. One of its dominant, recurring patterns is that of bitter loss, suffering and despair, punctuated by hope.
On hearing that an acquaintance had married for a second time soon after the death of his first wife with whom he had been unhappy, the great 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson was heard to say that this was an example of “the triumph of hope over experience”. It’s a witty line that captures our human capacity for self-delusion, for ignoring reality. But what we see in the bible is something very different – it’s more the triumph of hope through experience. It’s a hope that is real precisely because the sheer awfulness and bitterness of life is not for one second ever denied.
Reading the Old Testament in particular – and I am thinking here of books like that of Job and the Psalms – you see how much of it consists of men and women shaking their fists at God asking: why is life so bitter and awful ;why is there such terrible injustice; why does God seem so absent, so often? And then, in the midst of all this, comes the dawning realisation that there is meaning and purpose after all, that we are – all of us – held if we can but allow ourselves to be so.
From a Christian perspective Jesus’ resurrection is the culmination of this biblical pattern: that of hope and new life experienced through suffering and despair. But that still leaves the question of what, meaningfully, we can say about our hope for the future, that very question of my boss’s that I dodged that day. In other words, do we really believe in the new heaven and new earth foretold in the Book of Revelation and anticipated in today’s reading from the Book of Daniel?
It is vitally important here to remember the proper limits of religious language. To that extent, it’s surely right to see that vision of a remade heaven and earth as an image that gives form and shape to our hope – but no more than that! It’s not so much the thing itself as a window onto what we are talking about. In just the same way, when we call God “our Father”, those words provide us with an image that we find helpful in describing some aspects of our relationship with and to him. But God is not literally our father, for that would be to say that God takes a male, human form and that is clearly nonsense. As St. Paul reminds us “In Christ there is neither male nor female”.
All religious language is necessarily severely limited, for the things of God are beyond our comprehension and immeasurably greater than ever we can imagine. But what Jesus’ resurrection and the countless stories of men and women both in the bible and in faithful lives lived out down the centuries tell us, is that despite all appearances to the contrary, there really are grounds for hope and that justice, truth, mercy and peace will triumph in the end.
Is it easy to have this kind of hope? No, of course it isn’t. And don’t be surprised if your hope is spoiled by doubts – you are in good company, as the bible will show you. But so long as we have just a little faith – faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, as Jesus put it – then we will continue, for all the surrounding darkness, to hope, long, look for the life of the world to come.