Archbishop’s sermon at Lichfield Cathedral
Sunday 7th November 2010
Sermon delivered by the Archbishop at Lichfield Cathedral during a visit to the diocese of Lichfield.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Some of you of a certain generation may remember a wonderful film made of Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, in which the great Margaret Rutherford played a slightly mad spiritualist medium. The theme of that play was, in a nutshell, a man who is haunted by the ghosts of both his previous wives. It’s that kind of sitcom situation which the Sadducees place before Jesus at the beginning of this morning’s gospel reading. They are trying to make the idea of eternal life look stupid. “Imagine,” they say, “All the problems that would arise if the unfinished business of this world were simply projected into the next.” The tangles that would have to be sorted out, the unacceptable choices that would need to be made, the dramas, the comedies and the embarrassments – surely belief in eternal life is absurd.
And Jesus’ response, in effect, says, “Yes, indeed.” Eternal life understood like that is nonsense because eternal life as more of the same, as an unfolding for all eternity, of the crises, the choices and the embarrassments of this life, is a nonsense. Coming at eternal life in that way suggests that the promise and hope of eternal life is really about us, whereas in fact, it’s about God. Moses speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now, he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him, all of them are alive.
Eternal life is being alive to God here and hereafter. God says to Moses in the story that Jesus refers to that he is the God of Abraham – meaning he is the God, not only who used to love Abraham when Abraham was alive, but the God who loves Abraham now, who engages with Abraham now, who calls Abraham now. The relationship God has begun with Abraham is a relationship without end because God is without end. To him, they are all alive.
And that is the heart of our own faith in eternal life. As we seek to share the good news with the society we’re in, we’re not trying to persuade them that there is an endless sitcom to be evolved after death, that eternal life means we go on forever and ever pretty much like this. What we’re trying to persuade people about is that the God we believe in is a God who never lets go of those he has made. The God to whom all are alive because he has breathed life into them, and once he has laid his hands on their lives and left his imprint and breathed his breath – that relationship will never disappear.
So, our hope of eternal life rests on what we believe about God. That God in creating us breathes life into us, something of his own life and that God, once he has breathed his life into us, will always regard us as alive and hold us in his love. And in that sense Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live before him. And so do all those who have left us the legacy of faith in this place as we look back over a long and wonderful history, but also in the lives of each one of us as we look back on those who have made God real to us. They lived because they were alive to God; because they were alive to God, they kindled the flames of faith in us. In kindling that flame of faith, they passed on that hope of eternal life.
Our good news for the world is in living lives that look as if they are in touch with God, that look as if God truly has breathed into us something of his own nature, something of his own passion for forgiveness and reconciliation, something of his own unqualified reckless generosity, something of his own readiness to stand with the suffering, the forgotten, the poor. That’s what the life of God looks like, the life that we see lived out in Jesus in his death and resurrection. And when our lives show that, they show eternal life because quite simply, they show who God is. The life of God that will never die. And when we are alive in relationship to God, and when we show it in those ways, then we show much more effectively what the hope of eternal life means than by getting into the sort of arguments that Jesus’ opponents want him to get into.
We live because he lives, a phrase that we come across in different forms in the New Testament. And that mysterious passage that we heard read from Job this morning, “I know that my redeemer lives,” seems to say much the same thing. What is the hope that Job has? Not that things will get better, or that things will go on forever, but just the hope that comes from the knowledge that there is one who is alive who will never take his eyes from him and never drop him out of his hand. A belief not about us but about God. So to be on fire with the life of the Holy Spirit, to be given and devoted to the task of sharing that kindling flame with a chilly world, we are to live in such a way that our relation with the life of God is clear.
Week by week, for many people day by day, we come and renew our relation with that life here at the Lord’s table. Because here is life and fire. Here is the reality of Jesus Christ, the humanity in which God’s life was most fully lived, offered as food for our humanity. Here is eternal life. And when we come and receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion it is to deepen, to recreate in us, the relationship we have with the life God has breathed into us. It’s to have the seed of Christ sown in us, the passion in every sense of Christ planted in our hearts and our wills and our hopes. It is to anticipate the life of heaven – which is why for so many Christians to take part in Holy Communion is seen as the beginnings of Heaven.
Here we are, brothers and sisters, starting Heaven this morning. This is what Heaven will be like. Not in the sense that Heaven will be a very, very long service in the cathedral (although some people have occasionally talked as if that were true) but that Heaven is sharing in the life God breathes into us and sharing it with those others for whom we are making it real and who are making it real to us.
At the Holy Eucharist, as one of the hymns says, “Alpha and Omega to whom shall bow all nations at the doom is with us now.” This, wonderfully and gloriously, this at The Lord’s table, this is the end of the world. This is the beginning of the New Creation. This is where life begins again and again; God’s life, eternal life, that life of reconciliation, of generosity, of selfless identification with those in need, those on the edge of things, those who feel they have no value. And as we go from this table, it is that life we carry in us and that life we wonder at and delight in and reverence in one another.
We prayed in this morning’s collect for reconciliation for the families of the nations divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin. And we pray that prayer at this time of the year deeply conscious of the legacy that war has left over decades and centuries and millennia. We remember those who have been the victims of the conflict, the ravages of sin and violence in our world over the last century. We are conscious, painfully, rawly conscious, of those who day by day in our armed forces elsewhere in the world face the risk of death. Conscious of the societies in which they are serving, shadowed day by day by death and horror. That’s the world we are in, that’s the chilly world that needs the fire of God’s love. It’s that world in which we seek to show what eternal life is, now, beginning today. To him, all of them are alive. To God, past, present and future, all is alive. And we, to communicate what God is and who god is, we need to be alive with that life in word and in work.
In this visit to the Diocese of Lichfield, I’ve been greatly privileged to see something of what it is for God’s servants and God’s children in this family of Christ to be alive to God. I’ve seen that aliveness to God in work with young offenders and people at the end of their lives in a hospice, and in a centre for the homeless. People who are alive to God and are making others alive because their relationship to God shapes who they are, what they do and what they give. And in their aliveness, others come alive too. Eternal life is not a set of abstract speculations about the future; certainly not the grimly comical picture that the Sadducees sketch out so as to trip Jesus up. Eternal life is visible and tangible. Here and now we can see what Heaven will be like, what heaven is like because it is where God is and so it is where we are now. We hold gratefully, joyfully to that faith and if we do so and seek to be brought alive to God, day by day, then the fire of the Spirit is set free once more. The face of the Earth will be transfigured.
In the name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit, Amen.