The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      17th November 2019
Love beyond death
Handley Stevens

Words from the Creed: We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  


This month many of us have been immersed in the shock and awe of Verdi’s setting of the Requiem and Elgar’s setting of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius.  Meanwhile our Sunday worship, from All Saints and All Souls through Remembrance-tide to next week’s Feast of Christ the King, has invited us to raise our eyes and our hearts beyond the trauma and mortality of life on earth to the ultimate prospect of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  


Jesus’ own teaching about the end of the world was probably influenced by his acute sense of the crisis which would claim his own life.  By his life and death the kingdom of heaven was breaking into the world.  He challenged his followers to urgently embrace this dramatic new reality.  But he also seems to have recognised, as we saw in this morning’s gospel reading, that they would have to wait for the final act in the great drama of salvation.  The young church clearly expected Christ’s second coming to occur relatively soon, within the lifetime of many, but they were warned not to follow those who would claim to know that ‘The Time is near.’  By the time this morning’s relatively late epistle was written, it was beginning to be accepted that there might be a longer period of waiting, so it was wrong for people to give up working to provide for themselves and their dependents.  According to the book of Acts, one of the last things Jesus said to the disciples was that it was not for them to know the times that the Father had set by his own authority (Acts 1.7).  And we are still waiting.  How long, O Lord, how long the chorus sang in quiet resignation at the end of Gerontius.  What then are we supposed to mean as week by week ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’  


The only thing we can say with any degree of confidence about the life of the world to come is that it will be a realm within which God’s authority is absolute and all-embracing.  We shall be received into God’s Love, for that will be the very air we breathe; and as we breathe that air we shall be made whole.  There will be a party, and what a party!  But in the searching light of God’s presence there will also be truth and judgment, leading to painful but healing reconciliation, for there will be no room in heaven for the pretences and pretensions that we build around ourselves. We do not know how this will be done.  Both Verdi and Elgar give us more than a sniff of fire and brimstone, though I refuse to believe that God will condemn anyone to an eternity of Hell.  The soul of Gerontius is consumed yet quickened by the very glance of God as his guardian angel sings the triumphant Aleluia for his salvation.  Nothing that is sinful, all the things that I am or should be ashamed of, including the pride that may have concealed them from myself and others, none of that can survive in the presence of God.  I shall feel naked, diminished, but also cleansed.  I can only put my trust in the love of God in Jesus Christ who has reached out to me, and will not allow me to perish utterly.  I hope that is what Jesus meant when he promised in this morning’s gospel that in the great apocalyptic crisis that he foresaw, ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ (Luke 21.18)


I do also believe that as we are received into the great cloud of witnesses, we shall be welcomed by those whom we have known and loved on earth, and we in our turn will be ready to welcome others as they too are gathered in.  As St Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians, we shall all be changed, but that does not mean that we shall become unrecognisable to one another in the essence of our personhood.  This much we can infer from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As a human, Jesus did experience death – an excruciatingly painful death – but because He was one with God, death could not take away his life.  After his resurrection he met with the disciples on several occasions, and they bore witness to the fact that he was utterly alive and thoroughly recognisable as the person they knew and loved.   Once they had grasped the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, the physical presence which they had experienced spasmodically could be withdrawn; yet they still knew he was alive and present with them.    


And we are in the same situation as they were.  If the Spirit dwells in us and we dwell in the Spirit, our experience of life and death is utterly transformed.   As we saw so movingly in the silent film of Joan of Arc, the Spirit which dwelt in Joan’s heart and soul was steadfastly triumphant even when the flames of a cruel martyrdom claimed her body.   Most of us will never face a physical challenge like that, but when our faith is challenged by events, or perhaps when we are mocked or patronised by others for our faith, the Spirit dwelling in our hearts enables us to remain standing;  and in Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘having done all, to stand’ (Eph 6.13). 


How is it that the Spirit can give us such life?  St John teaches us that God is Love, and those who dwell in Love, dwell in God.  This profound truth lights up every corner of our lives, and in particular every aspect of our relationships, not only in this world, but as a key to the life of the world to come. Because the love that flows from the heart of God can never die, the friend who is touched by that love here on earth, even as it is mediated through our imperfect hearts, is touched by the very essence of eternal life.  It is in and through the love of God, as we have come to know it in Jesus Christ our Lord, that all that is good and all that is true in our own ties of affection for one another, is blessed to go with us into the life of the world to come.  In the words of the hymn, ‘this is the precious stone that turneth all to gold, for that which God doth touch and own cannot for less be told.’

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