A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer on the third Sunday before Lent, 17 February
I hope you are getting to know our art exhibition, Ladders of Light. At the launch, Dean Nick said, ‘We live in difficult and uncertain times.’ He added that virtually every sermon he’d heard here had said that we were living in difficult and uncertain times. So let me begin this sermon by saying that we are living in times that are simple and sure.
How so? I am not like the character in the Ladybird Story of Brexit, who says, ‘Someone will work it out. They usually do.’ I am not like the person who wrote to the paper about the catastrophic fall in insect populations – something that should frighten every person here – saying that if it meant no midges in Scotland then that was fine by her. No, I take my cue from St Paul. He writes to a confused congregation in Corinth, some of whom deny the resurrection of Jesus. Just see where that leads, he says: if our faith is for this world only then we are not just confused but pathetic too. But in fact – there’s a simple and sure phrase – in fact, says Paul, Christ has been raised from the dead. He ends the chapter by telling them to be firmly fixed and unshakeable.
Luke in the gospel reading shows Jesus mobbed by a crowd – the destitute, the disturbed, the diseased – that draws from him an extraordinary remark: all of you who are poor, or hungry, or in tears – you're all blessed. How so? Jesus does not sentimentalise suffering. He does not say, look at it from another angle and there’s something mysteriously wonderful about your plight. He says, in effect, your circumstances are bad, but you are blessed – because circumstances will change: you will laugh, your bellies will be filled, in that coming empire of love and justice called the kingdom of God. And the opposite will be true, he says, for those who are profiting from the way things are now. Jesus too is simple and sure: not ‘may’ but ‘will’. But when? And how?
Since that springtime in Galilee when the Kingdom really seemed to be dawning, there have been many moments – and more than moments – when it has seemed that things are changing. You will have your favourites, according to preference. Nelson Mandela’s release, perhaps, or the fall of the Berlin wall; Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis, or perhaps Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’. But it never quite happens. Often it doesn’t happen at all, and it never happens in that sure and simple sense of Jesus’ words. Difficulty and uncertainty always regroup and make a comeback.
We like to pretend it ain’t so. Notice how public figures talk about ‘delivering’ everything, as though the one sure sign of leadership is a simple list of tasks completed, done, dusted, ticked off. Consider the promise to ‘deliver’ Brexit. Really? Could Henry VIII ever have said that he had ‘delivered’ Reformation? That would have been a surprise to the Puritans a century later. Guiding a nation is not just about ‘delivery’, because a nation is not very much like a parcel or a pizza; and it has a never-empty pending tray.
If completing and finishing often evade us in public life so they do in personal life. At a meeting last week a colleague asked, ‘What are we actually trying to do in the Cathedral? What do we hope will happen for people who come here?’ ‘An encounter with God,’ I blurted out. More subtly, Dean Nick quoted St Irenaeus: ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. ‘Is that our hope,’ he asked, ‘that people will become more fully alive?’ The phrase caught on. It’s a good phrase, because it suggests that encountering God is not something utterly separate from other experience, but that God is there to be encountered in whatever makes you more fully alive. The Irenaeus Test. Expect to hear more of it.
Fully alive. We can all know moments – and more than moments – like that, but some stuff persistently blocks us: the tragedy that leaves a scar on the memory, the circumstances that stand in the way of a person flourishing as they should. Think of the children who will not survive the coming week in Yemen. No full bellies or laughter for them in this life. (And no comeuppance for those who, if they don’t exactly laugh at their fate, hardly care either.) and think of anyone you care about who has died. There was more for love to do, but death stole the opportunity. No time to say a last ‘Sorry’ or ‘Thank you’ or ‘I love you’. Those things cannot now be heard in this life; and if this life is all there is, they can never be heard at all. Paul’s words come back to us: if it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ then we are of all people most to be pitied.
So what more is there? Heaven, says Jesus. Our luminous ladders put me in mind of heaven: Jacob’s ladder linking heaven and earth, heaven that leaps down the ladder to invade earth in those ‘fully alive’ moments, but also the heaven that will bring the blossoming of all the life that gets choked in the here and now.
Searching for a quote about Jacob’s ladder I found myself rereading Desert Ascent, a novel about a monastery in the Sahara that is occupied by soldiers commanded by a pitiless sceptic. ‘No eternity, no soul, abbot,’ he says. ‘No point to your silly little religious games.’ Peter the abbot acknowledges to himself the sheer recklessness of belief in the beyond, that ‘spectacular future beyond the little horizons of our threescore years and ten’. ‘Of course I believed in it,’ he says, ‘And again, of course I didn’t.’ In the abbot’s view, ‘It is the task of the church not only to out-love the world but to out-imagine it’. The Christian story of eternity was certainly imaginative. A good story, no question. But was it a true story?
I don’t propose to try to prove that it is – what would count as evidence? – or to speculate on the mechanics of eternity. My point is rather is that, if ever you truly encounter God, in that ‘fully alive’ moment you catch a glimpse – taste the first fruits, in Paul’s phrase – of something that is fuller still, fuller than life itself. Fuller than this life anyway.
And there’s the reverse case. ‘To look at Jesus on the cross,’ says Terry Eagleton, ‘is to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body.’ No shortage of evidence for that, and some feel they have to stay there, on Good Friday. Others, though, cannot help feeling a defiance, a refusal to believe that this can be the final truth about us, because what we truly know of God in this life can’t really be true if this life is all there is.
As I said, no proofs, but there are witnesses. Witnesses like Philip Hamblin, an elderly man in my church in the 1970s that the youth group interviewed, who said – in a sure and simple way – that just now he was less interested in where he had been in this life than where he was going. Witnesses like John Donne, who in fourteen devastating lines puts death its place. His last couplet is also sure and simple:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Note Terry Eagleton: the quotation is from ‘Lunging, flailing, mispunching’, his review of The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.