The Sense of an Ending

14 August 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Matins, 14 August 2005
Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
The Sense of an Ending

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:1-15; 2 Peter 3: 14--end

For our second reading this morning we heard the last few verses of the Second Epistle of Peter. This short and not very well-known letter wasn't written to the Christians in one particular church. It is a more general letter, written to follow up the first letter of Peter, which was written to Christians in the little churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, in the west part of modern Turkey. It is attributed to Peter, and talks about the transfiguration as though the author were an eye-witness, but most scholars think it was written after Peter's lifetime. The way it talks about the letters of Paul suggests that Paul's letters have already been collected and are already being read as important texts. This is a letter written by a leading second-generation Christian (I shall call him 'Peter') after Paul's time to churches that had received visits and letters from Paul.

The letters we have from Paul to churches (there are also letters to individuals such as Timothy, Titus and Philemon) are mostly to churches in Greece or Rome: two letters to the Christians in Corinth, two letters to the Christians in Thessalonia, one letter to the Christians at Philippi, and one letter to the Christians at Rome. The letters we have to churches in modern Turkey (ancient Asia minor) are the letter to the Galatians, the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians, which depends heavily on the letter to the Colossians, but is richer and longer. In each of these the concerns are subtly different from the concerns in the second letter of Peter. I want to illustrate this from the way the letters end.

Both Paul and Peter are concerned with the end of the world, but this concern is not prominent in the letters we have from Paul to churches in Asia minor. For Peter, especially in his second letter, it is absolutely central. The Christians he is writing to are having a hard time. They are asking why God is being so slow to bring their suffering to an end. Some of their members are saying it is ridiculous to try to go on leading holy lives in expectation of the end of the world. They have become disillusioned and are spreading disillusion in the churches. Peter writes to tell the Christians God knows exactly what he is doing. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and prophets in their own time, warned of hard times to come. God hasn't gone to sleep, or abandoned his people, but in his mercy he is giving more time for people to turn to him.

As he draws his second letter to a close, Peter restates the promise he believes and to which he is encouraging the Christians to hold on: 'According to [God's] promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells' (2 Pet 3:13). This is exactly in line with what we find in the Book of Revelation, which begins with letters to seven churches in exactly the area to which Peter is writing, encouraging the Christians to stand firm in their time of trial. The Book of Revelation then goes on the describe the end of the world and builds towards the point where the Seer says, 'I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more,' adding, 'But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life' (Rev 21: 1.27). This is precisely the vision of 'the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells' which Peter shares, urging the Christians not to slip back into a way of living which will exclude them from God's 'eternal day,' which is to come.

This is why Peter ends his letter by saying, 'Beloved, since you are waiting for these things, take care to be found by him without spot or blemish and at peace. And count the forbearance of the Lord as salvation.' In other words, God has been merciful to you so you have time to get your lives in order. Peter warns again against people who are 'indisciplined' (that is, who have ceased to be disciples) and are lacking in 'determination', so that they misread Paul's letters, perhaps to say that the Day of the Lord has come and gone and Christians don't have to bother with living a holy life any more. Peter warns against such teaching which might cause Christians to lose their own determination to be faithful to the end. The very word he uses for 'determination' is the one used in Luke's Gospel when Jesus 'set his face' to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9: 51). He is telling the Christians to be like the disciples in their determination to follow the path on which Jesus leads them to the new Jerusalem, whatever the suffering on the way.

It is clear that Peter thinks they still have some way to go on this path. So he closes his letter, telling them to 'Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ'. There is to be nothing static about their Christian faith. Whereas there are those who have ceased to be disciples and whose determination has failed, they are to go on learning how to be disciples and to go on becoming stronger in their likeness to Christ.

This is exactly the note on which the letters we have from Paul to Christians in Asia minor also close: 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen' (Gal 6:18); 'I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you' (Col 4:18); 'Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying' (Eph 6:24). This is what both Paul and Peter wanted for the Christians in these little churches. There is no word quite like grace: it means 'strength' - the strength to carry in threatening or difficult circumstances - but it also means 'mercy' - in this situation, the mercy of God, giving the Christians more time to get their lives in order - and it also means 'gift' - they are the ones who have received the good news of Jesus Christ as a gift from God. What Paul and Peter want for the Christians in these churches is for them to go on being faithful to Christ until he brings them to be with him in glory.

What Peter adds to Paul is the sharp sense of what he calls 'the day of eternity' which is just about to dawn. Its glory has already been glimpsed in the glory of the transfiguration. This will be the day of Christ's glory and he wants the Christians he is writing to to be ready for it.

What are we to make of this, so many generations later? It seems to me we can't possibly have the quite same sense that through God's direct action this world is about to end. However, Peter's language makes sense to us in a way he couldn't possibly have dreamed of. We can actually see where danger lies: the danger is that the world as we know it will end through the action of human beings. In the last few days we have remembered the sixtieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima - on the very day we also celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration - and on Nagasaki; and we are now remembering how sixty years ago a terrible World War was drawing to a close. This last week Iran has restarted nuclear reprocessing and President Bush has refused to rule out military action. It seems far from irrelevant to warn of 'the heavens passing away with a loud noise, and the elements being dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it being burned up' - as Peter does. It makes perfect sense to say that God has in his grace given us a little more time to lead holy lives and be found at peace. Both within the church and outside it Christians are called to be builders of God's peace on earth in the time God gives us to live in his way. In the time that remains to us we are called to pray both, 'Thy Kingdom Come' and 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive them that sin against us.' We are called by the words of Peter, whatever happens to us, to be confident that God knows what he is doing - and to say, as Peter says at the very end of his letter, 'To him be the glory both now and into the day of eternity. Amen'

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