Sermon, All Souls’ Day, November 2nd 2011
As Marjorie said in her sermon last Sunday, the question of what happens to us when we die is one of the most challenging and puzzling we face. Needless to say, there are a variety of answers that all depend on your beliefs. If you are a Hindus or Buddhist you believe in reincarnation with the form of your reincarnation much depending on how well you have behaved in this life. If you are an atheist then it’s lights out and there’s an end of it. And if you are a Christian, Jew or Muslim then you believe in an after life focused on some kind of resurrected body. But even within the same religion there remain very different views on some key questions concerning the afterlife.
The most obvious difference in Christianity concerns whether or not all of us will be saved and in particular precisely how salvation actually works. This last point represents something of a fault line between evangelical and catholic theologies. Broadly speaking evangelicals see salvation as a once-for-all event in that the moment you proclaim Christ to be your personal saviour you are saved. According to this line of thinking you face a pretty bleak and damned future if you haven’t made a decision for Christ by the time you have died.
Of course there are many evangelicals who will always humbly acknowledge that God’s grace works in ways that we can never fully appreciate and understand but there remain many hard liners. My cousin, who went to live in the southern American state of Georgia some years ago, was shocked to find people in her church telling her with complete certainty on the occasion of her father’s death that he had gone to hell on account of being an atheist. Oddly enough she doesn’t go to church any more.
Those of us who hold to a more catholic theology take a much less gloomy view. In this tradition salvation is much more a process than something achieved in a moment and tonight’s reading from Wisdom suggests just this. It describes the righteous becoming purified in a process that strengthens them and readies them for union with God. And it contains an explicit warning against passing judgement on anyone who has gone ahead of us to their grave:
“In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died
And their departure was thought to be a disaster
And their going from us to be their destruction:
But they are at peace”
In the Catholic view of salvation we are progressively drawn towards God and this is a process that doesn’t necessarily finish when we die. That’s why you’ll hear prayers for the dead in a church like this that’s in the catholic tradition whereas you’d be very unlikely to hear such a thing in an avowedly evangelical church. And in the end of this process we are not just united with God – we actually come to assume his likeness.
The theologians of the early church like Tertullian and Origen made much of this point. They made an interesting distinction between our being made in the image of God and possessing his likeness. The way they saw it, however sinful we are we are still made in the image of God but that by God’s grace and by the work of his Holy Spirit we can grow into his likeness.
Well, the obvious question is HOW? And in this evening’s gospel reading Jesus gives us a vital clue in these words:
“Very truly I tell you, the son can do nothing on his own but only what he sees the father doing; for whatever the father does, the son does likewise “
What Jesus says about his relationship with his father – that he can do nothing on his own without seeing what his father is doing – is absolutely true for us as well, for we only grow and develop as individuals by copying what we see others doing, usually and certainly in the first, formative instance, our parents.
In the West in particular we labour under this crazy illusion that we exist as autonomous individuals, that we are masters and mistresses of our own fate and that we alone shape it. And yet the truth of the matter is that we are only who we are by virtue of not only of the God who created us but by the people who have shaped our lives and whom we have wittingly – or mostly unwittingly – copied.
Copying the behaviour of others is the very stuff of human existence. If it weren’t so we’d never learn to talk or walk or learn to write or drive or cook. Everything we do and our inmost attitudes and values have come to us by way of other people – for good or ill.
Over the summer we had some prime examples of copycat behaviour. First of all there were the riots as people copied each other in looting and general mayhem in countless locations across the country using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. By the same token an entirely benign copying went on that used the same technology as other people, dismayed by the rioting organised mass clean-ups in a show of real social solidarity.
Jesus’ acknowledgement of his total dependence on his father contrasts with the difficulty that we often have in acknowledging how much we copy others. I guess that pride has something to do with this but it’s probably also because copying the behaviour and attitudes of others is so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t notice it. After all, it’s something that we have been doing almost since the moment we were born and thereby hangs the problem, for in so far as we are all weak, fallible and fallen we inevitably copy a great deal of what’s wrong as well as what’s right from each other.
Worst of all of course, we copy from others the sin of pride in all its manifestations. This is the sin that says we can only be happy when we judge ourselves superior to others in some way – whether it be because we are richer, cleverer, more powerful, more successful, more beautiful, better dressed or whatever. This desire to be defined in opposition to others, as over and against them, is ultimately the cause of all exploitation, conflict, wars and injustice. Indeed, I fear that it lies at the heart of so many of our current woes with often the richest and most powerful seemingly believing that it is their right and their due to grow ever richer and more powerful compared to the rest of society.
And of course Jesus came to tell us that this copycat pride doesn’t just cause distress, particularly for the weak and the vulnerable – it’s actually bad for us, for all of us. Why? Because fundamentally we are social beings. This is one of the key insights of the Book of Genesis which we are going to be studying this Advent. Before Adam and Eve overreached themselves and set themselves up in rivalry with God everything was in harmony but their pride destroyed all that.
There is a wonderfully touching bit in the story when God, having created Adam but before he’s created Eve says “it’s not good for man to be alone”. At first he looks for a help meet amongst the animals but finds none so comes up with the neat solution of fashioning a partner from Adam’s spare rib. Adam’s joy when he wakes up to find Eve standing there is unbounded – “Here at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” he says and they subsequently become “one flesh” not just physically but spiritually as well. In other words, Genesis is telling us that we are only complete as individuals when we are in harmony – not in rivalry – with others and that as a society we only ever truly prosper when all prosper. This, I think, is the real significance of the Holy Trinity – one God yet comprising three persons who are complete by their relationship with each other and their total, benign regard for and joy in each other.
This is the context for understanding Jesus’ ministry, a ministry that was focused entirely in freeing, healing and nurturing bound, foolish, misguided and suffering human beings. It was a ministry that eschewed all the trappings of earthly power and cared not a jot for them. “’You say that I am king’ he says to Pilate ‘but my kingdom is not of this world’”.
It’s a ministry that never could and never can proceed by threat or force or domination but only ever by example and persuasion.
Looked at this way the Christian life is nothing other than a life-long process. It’s one that involves us unpicking the habits of rivalry and domination that we’ve copied from others and that harm both us and them in equal measure. It’s about getting rid of these habits one by one and in so doing discovering our true selves sure in the belief that as we do so we will grow into nothing less than the likeness of Christ himself.
For be assured: the way of pride, envy and rivalry leads to death while Jesus’ way of grace, forgiveness and generosity leads to life in all its abundance. After all, ours is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and he is the God not of the dead but of the living.