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Heaven on Earth?

In the centre of the font the heart of the 'Star of Bethlehem' grows
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 23rd November 2014

Sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Sub Dean

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ephesians 1.15-end; Matthew 25.31-end

On Thursday evening I did one of those odd things which occasionally comes the way of the clergy: I blessed the city of Salisbury's Christmas lights when they were about to the switched on, a task I shared on the night with a mixed cast including Eastenders hard man Phil Mitchell, the mayor, Santa Claus, and an elf.  I then watched from close range the impressive firework display fired from the top of the Guildhall, including a few which misfired and dropped short, but with no great drama, and then returned home.  I happened to watch BBC news that evening, by when the lead story on South Today had become the disaster at Salisbury council's firework display.  From triumph to disaster in about 3 hours, and no matter that they were barely recognisable as the same event.

Today brings us to the feast of Christ the King, and with this Eucharist two New Testament readings which draw us into that image.  The first was from the opening of Paul's letter to the Ephesian Christians, with its astonishing description of Christ in cosmic terms: 'in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things.....'.  This is very much the image of Christ in the vast Edwardian stained glass scene in our north eastern transept, an image at which I look every day from my seat at Evensong and which will quite soon be seen afresh when we remove the scaffolding with which it has been shrouded for 5 years: the vast, majestic figure of the crowned, bejewelled and berobed Christ, surrounded by the adoring saints in light.  I say that Paul's conception and language are astonishing, because they were written within a few decades of the lonely and decidedly unglamorous death by execution of the person of whom he writes - and Paul was someone who knew people who saw that death, and were ashamed at their part in it. Ephesians has reversed the process of the TV news: from disaster to triumph, and not just any triumph, but the mother of all triumphs.

By coincidence, our guest at supper on Thursday, before I'd seen how the event in which I had just played a modest part would be reported, said that her sick husband was currently unable to follow the news because it was simply too ghastly to cope with.  And there is much really awful news - of violence, atrocities, religious hatred, awful diseases - and it can't all be ascribed to the predilection of news editors for bad over good news.

Now I should tell you that I've always had a real concern about the way in which Christian religion can part company with reality and slip into the realms of fantasy and illusory self-gratification; providing a gloss which hides rather than handles the bad things which happen in life.  This can mean that Church life and our devotional life have no relevance to either the nightmares of the world or even the sheer mundane ordinariness of daily life.  To me the feast of Christ the King has a whiff of this - taking refuge in the cosmic Christ, when so much of the world's experience is more akin to that of the victimised Jesus.  So I approach this feast with some caution.

But in fact, in at least two rather telling ways, today's gospel reading, which again depicts Christ (the Son of Man) as a cosmic figure of majesty - in two ways it takes us intensely close to two major international news stories of the last few days.  On the one hand we hear the righteous sent off to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and the unrighteous sent off to eternal fire, because they either had or hadn't, among other things, fed and given drink to the hungry and thirsty. This week we saw clergy and people of all ages being arrested in Florida because they continued to provide food to the homeless and needy as they always had done, and were not prepared to change when a new law required them to.  In the second instance, it is hard today to hear of the separation of the crowds into two sides, like sheep and goats, without being reminded of the appalling atrocity yesterday, when passengers on a bus in northern Kenya were divided and those who could not meet the religious test applied were summarily slaughtered.  That is an image of decisive and shocking separation which will live with me for a long time.

Our worship does not exist in a vacuum: it is a faltering but worthy attempt to unite heaven and earth, the life we lead with the enduring life which is far beyond us but in which nonetheless by God's grace we are rooted.  The story of the final judgement which Matthew's gospel gives us in this parable of Jesus, this story in fact does the same thing.  Because for all its cosmic setting, and the stark finality of the scene, what is striking about it is that the incidents to which it draws attention are so transient, so disregarded and apparently unimportant.  Those who are rewarded and those who are condemned are both surprised - 'When did I do this?'.  All they have been doing, on either side of the great divide, is carrying on normally.  They have not been acting with their eyes on this final, eternal and dread judgement.  They are being divided on the basis of a great many tiny decisions, momentary and quotidian judgements of their own: do I offer help, do I cross the road or do I pass by on the other side?  Is it to do with me, or nothing to do with me? Little things we decide and forget all about - but things which ultimately mould our lives for good or ill.

The cosmic Christ of the parable is in fact pointing us back into our everyday lives, and into the life of God's world.  Do we care?  Does it matter?  The decision is yours, is mine: we each judge ourselves every day, again and again.  For the moment in which we live, every moment in which we live, is eternity.  The choice is ours.