Saturday, 26 November 2011

Advent Sunday 27th November 2011

He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead that we may rise to the life immortal

What difference does this Cinderella of Christian truth make to us.

I say Cinderella because the doctrine of the Second Coming must be about the most neglected of doctrines. It gets eclipsed by Christmas, which now covers Advent and beyond, and is tinged with such sentimentality that many preachers get scared off attending to the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell.

The first benefit of the doctrine of the Second Coming is it puts us in our place!

What you are before God - that is what you are and no more. The doctrine that He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge us warns us to avoid the error of valuing ourselves overmuch by what others say about us.

No one can take away or enhance who we are before God.

This is a very difficult truth to take on board and get into our hearts of hearts. The blame or praise of any other human being is of no matter compared to God's praise or blame. If what we find others think of us inflates or deflates us overmuch we’re not fully centred on the Lord.

Fear God and there’ll be no one or nothing else to fear!

The second benefit of the doctrine of the Second Coming is the reminder it gives that once we accept the love of Christ there will be no need to fear his judgement. As St Paul writes to the Romans,'There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (Romans 8.1).

The universe will be ended by Jesus Christ and he is the one who first came to reveal the Love that moves the sun and the stars in Dante's immortal phrase.

If all through our Christian lives we have been looking to Jesus his appearing 'in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead' will be consummation not condemnation.

In Lent we read Bishop Tom Wright’s commentary on Matthew's Gospel. The former Bishop of Durham writes about the Second Coming in his book Simply Christian. There he encourages us to see the Lord’s return as less about our being snatched up into heaven than about the New Jerusalem coming down in which Jesus will reappear as King of Heaven.

Bishop Tom sees Jesus now as present, I quote, hidden behind that invisible veil that keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture and our work with the poor, where the veil seems particularly day that veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place.

If the first benefit of the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming is to put us in our place and the second is to remind us that place is one of being loved, the third benefit is to open up a vision of the purpose of all things so as to spur us on.

This world isn't just here! It’s God's world made for God’s purpose! The kingdom of this world is to become the kingdom of our God and of Christ, his Son.

He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead that we may rise to the life immortal.

God’s a personal God who’s created a world where personal beings who bear his image stand not at the centre but, in Teilhard de Chardin's phrase, as the 'structural keystone’ of the universe.

Almighty God made the universe to put in the centre of it his Son, Jesus Christ.

The first Coming of Jesus was into the womb of a holy woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, demonstrating that we human beings are no mere compartment of the animal kingdom but are capable of union with God.

His Second Coming will occur when human beings, drawn to Christ and his Church in the Spirit, have completed the divine plan 'to bring all things together in Christ'. (Ephesians 1.10)

Materialists, ecologists are inevitable pessimists when they look at how the world is going. Christians though see in world events a forward movement. As Christ waited for the holy woman to be his Mother he now awaits a holy people to be his Bride so that as heavenly Bridegroom he can one day embrace his church so that we may rise to the life immortal.

Christ awaits the purification of his church for this consummation just as he had to await a woman for his conception. The purification of the church is inseparably bound up with the evolution of the created world that moves forward in history engaging through Christian mission with the good news as it spreads from pole to pole, news of the salvation which is God's gift in his Son Jesus Christ.

I could go on - what riches there are behind the doctrine of the Second Coming - but we need to land this exalted vision here into some practicalities.

To summarise, it is a benefit and not a bane to know there is judgement. Many unbelievers may be unbelievers because they resent deep down the idea of a God who sees all they do and to whom they will one day have to give account. We should not resent it - and if we do we should repent of our pride!

In Advent season we provide a number of occasions for deepening repentance, our sense of need for God. Tonight we have a special evensong with conscience examination. The sacrament of confession is also available tonight, on Christmas Eve and by appointment.

Next Sunday after the 10am all age eucharist the ministry of prayer for healing will be available to individuals, something the PCC has agreed we provide after every all age eucharist. Such prayer for physical, emotional and spiritual needs can be very helpful. On Tuesdays in Advent we have an extra Eucharist at 10am and our Wednesday evening 630pm worship is going to include a time of silent reflection.

In these ways and in our own individual prayer and bible study we can engage with the wonder of Advent season as it speaks to us of the love and judgement of God in Christ and his purpose for the church and the world.

The Lord is concerned with our lives and with all we and his concern is one of pure love! As Christians we are in the words of St Gregory the Great one in him who is everywhere. That union in the Holy Spirit is to be manifested when the world reaches its consummation and God is all in all in perfect love with the saints.

It is a glorious truth that no one can take away or enhance who we are before God - the love he has for us is will be everlasting!

As we welcome that love in Holy Communion this morning let’s hold in our hearts those we know who know not the Lord Jesus praying they too will open their hearts to him and experience the love of the Lord!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

All Souls Day 2011

How do we see death?

The right instinct for self-preservation would see it as our enemy. Much of our physical life and energy is taken up in looking after our bodies and protecting them from harm. There is, alas, little attention given in modern medicine to facing up to death on this account, since, at a natural level, when a patient dies it is seen as a defeat.

As we mature in spirit a new perspective opens up and we ponder death as the stranger it is. In that pondering there lies a quest for meaning, not least when those we love are taken from us. There is strangeness especially in sudden death or the death of a child. Death puts a strange, uncomfortable question to every one of us so that death has become in the 21st century as unspeakable as sex was in the 19th century.

Many stay with death as enemy or stranger. Some though, and here faith comes in, some go on to see death as a friend. If faith means anything, it has to see beyond death to an unseen God who sees all, loves all and desires nothing to be lost. When faith and death meet it is death not faith that is changed. In the words of John Donne Death, thou shalt die.

A Christian is a far sighted one. Someone adventurous. One whose confidence in the victory of Jesus over death spurs them on. One who presses through the false boundaries of unbelief, sin, apathy, fear, sickness and, last of all, death, towards the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

To be a Christian is to be opposed to nostalgia in the sense of wanting to stop the flow of time and change. Christian faith is a forward journey with an eternal perspective that welcomes the challenges and surprises of life with Spirit given creativity since Jesus Christ is ever new.

If you live your life not content with a boring sameness but with what is other than, or apart from, yourself, this fascination draws you forward day by day into the possibilities of God which exceed your imagining.

If you centre in love on what is other than yourself you get prepared to face what is the ultimate strange ‘other’ – I mean death. We come to see death as nothing more than the frame of our earthly life. A frame is the picture’s friend. It shows it off. Without the defining of our life’s duration in time the span of our life would stretch into an infinite void. Without being born and dying we would be ageless beings. No one would be older or younger than anyone or anyone’s parent or child – we would be no one at all!

Who I am in my inner self is what matters ultimately. This is a product not just of heredity and environment but of my own free choices - to love or not to love. By growing love in my life I make of myself, with the Lord’s help, a being stronger than death.

This is what the scriptures are speaking of when they say love never ends. As we heard in the 23rd Psalm if I should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would I fear. You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort. To live with love takes us out of ourselves and into the forward movement of He who is love itself.

Hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. (Romans 5.5) Or, as we heard in today’s Gospel, it is (the) Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.

To live a human life is a process of formation that reaches its end in death in a more profound sense than end-finish. All that we are is moulded in us through our life in time so that we can be taken into our end-fulfilment in eternity.

The best preparation for death is through the inner wisdom of faith that presses us forward to live in hope day by day and to give ourselves in love to God and neighbour.

Three things abide – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of them is love.

Love is the best preparation for death because it takes us out of ourselves and shapes our inner self so we see our physical death as no enemy or stranger but the last friend we encounter on earth.

Saint Francis expressed this neatly when he gave death honoured place in his great hymn of creation: And thou, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath! Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

On All Souls Day the Church invites us to ponder death not as enemy or stranger but as our friend because of this future orientation we hold.

It reminds us that love is the key to facing death.

Beyond contemplating our own mortality and need of God today we are showing love for our own dear dead. To pray for departed loved ones is to enfold them in our love, as we did in their life time, knowing, through the risen Christ, that the love which animates our prayer is stronger than death.

The faithful departed have passed beyond the frame of death into eternal love. The destruction of death destroys everything about us that is destructible but it cannot destroy loving commitment to God and neighbour.

Death, thou shalt die. As we offer prayer for our loved ones at the eucharist on All Souls Day we do so confident, in the love of God, that purifies them and us, building our lives on the unshakeable foundation that is Jesus Christ.

All Saints’ Festal evensong 30th October 2011

We will see him as he is, and all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3.2-3

We shall see him says St John. The Christian hope set forth on the Feast of All Saints is no less than this.

In placing the Blessed Sacrament before us at evensong the Church gives us a focus and a reminder of the vision of God.

As one of our Eucharistic hymns says; O Christ whom now beneath a veil we see. May what we thirst for soon our portion be. To gaze on thee unveiled and see thy face. The vision of thy glory and thy grace.

Tonight at Benediction we gaze on Jesus enthroned but under the veil of bread. One day we shall see him unveiled in heaven with all the saints.

We shall see him and this is a call to purify ourselves, just as he is pure.

Two thoughts.

We shall see him

The vision of God is too wonderful for me alone. This is the understanding we receive from the second reading which speaks of a great cloud of witnesses.

There’s a movement called inclusive church working for women and gays. I would not dare to criticise it, of course, but inclusion in Christianity is something much more profound and far reaching than liberal Anglicanism.

True inclusivity is this – the democracy of the dead! It’s the inclusion through the Risen Christ of witnesses from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages before the throne of God.

Some forms of Christianity are good at throwing a line to unbelievers and drawing them in. They go on to promote their spiritual development as a one to one hotline to Jesus. Today’s Feast presents the drawing power of Jesus not as a line but as a net. The communion of saints is a net that by example and prayer draws us together around the throne of God to worship him day and night within his temple.

We shall see him

My text from St John’s First Letter complements the Hebrews passage which reminded us heaven is something corporate. It reminds us that to be a Christian is to live for the vision of God centred in hope of the heavenly vision of God.

I remember vividly a scene in the play A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More stands before his accusers. He swears to be truthful saying he believes any untruthfulness will lose him the beatific vision. It is the thought of seeing God face to face that sustains him, and indeed sustains many of us in our tribulations.

This is the one true and only blessed life Saint Augustine writes to Proba that we should contemplate the delightfulness of the Lord for ever, immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit…Whoever has this will have all that he wishes…There indeed is the spring of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer, so long as we live.

To believe in heaven is to yearn in that way for the delightfulness of the vision of God. Now, in the silence, as we gaze upon Jesus veiled in the Blessed Sacrament, we have a chance to anticipate this joy which we will one day see face to face with all the saints.