Sermon given at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2018
The reassurance of the whole story - but the challenge of our part within it
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon in Residence
Sunday, 29th April 2018 at 3.00 PM
In our age of anxiety (and we are an anxious age!) what brings many into a church is simply the quest for reassurance.
It is to be found here. Not least because what is found in the faith represented here in this building and its timeless rhythms of worship is a sense of completeness. There’s a complete story of the world and our life in it (a ‘metanarrative’, in contemporary jargon) offered here. That doesn’t mean a closed story. Christian faith still includes much mystery and many bewildering empty spaces within the story it tells of the world and our place in it. But it does give a clear overall shape and meaning to it; an overall shape which is reassuring. It’s the story of an infinitely good creator God who brought this whole drama of life into being, who is guiding us, guarding us, forgiving us, through all its baffling contingencies - and who will finally bring it all to a good end. So whatever we’re experiencing in our own small part of it now - good, bad or just baffling - the overall of pattern of the whole story is assured. Life, love and justice will triumph. This is the pattern of life which faith sees vindicated above all in that pivotal part of the drama which was Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
It is an overall story of life which reassures more deeply than science. For science, even with a hoped for theory of everything that Stephen Hawking sought, still does not, as science, offer overall meanings of life, only overall explanations. It reassures more deeply than philosophy too. The consolations of philosophy, as Hegel famously said, are like ‘the Owl of Minerva which spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’ (meaning that philosophy can only understand all history at the end of it; after the day is done). Whereas the Christian narrative, rooted in that pivotal story of Christ, believes it really does already see the end from the beginning.
This is such a compelling narrative that even many who cannot conceptually believe the truth of it still seek the reassurance of it. They seek the feeling, the aroma, of consolation and completion which religion offers in its rhythms of prayer and worship, whether or not they accept its doctrines. The flocking of people to Cathedrals and other places with this sort of worship, even in post-christian semi-secular times, is an indication of this. We shouldn’t underestimate this. Such religious feelings, regardless of actual belief, can still have cognitive significance. They can be a testimony to the truth of faith even where there is no belief.
And so, in this Abbey, as in every Christian church, we daily rehearse, celebrate, and try to inhabit, this story - glad to offer this reassurance. Tonight’s second reading, from Revelation, the last book of the bible, was part of this: it was a proclamation in a previous age of anxiety of just this sort of reassurance; that there really is a good end and completion being worked out through all that happens; that there is a new heaven and earth, a new Jerusalem, being created through all the contingencies of life – with our own name written into it…
And there, with that reassurance, I would like to leave it. But cannot quite. Because, of course, within this whole story there is also challenge not just reassurance.
Not least in that same reading from Revelation. Those seeking shelter and reassurance in the churches then were also warned to ‘wake up!’ – and to listen not just to general reassurances of faith but also to what the Spirit was saying to the churches about their own particular part in the story. This is something we shall hear increasingly over the next few weeks of regular readings, until it erupts fully at Pentecost: there is a Spirit of God who does not allow us just to settle down to familiar prayers and stories telling us about the whole story but who also calls and addresses us in particular, personal, specific ways; who challenges us to participate actively in this story.
Where and how does God speak in this more direct way? Well - ‘He blows where he wills’, we’re told. And that is not always in church. In one of the finest ever books written on the Holy Spirit, a former Bishop of Winchester John Taylor describes a moment sitting in a railway carriage watching a flaming English sunset and the long shadows it cast over the passing fields. That was the moment for him when he experienced being directly addressed. He described it like a personal ‘current’. As if in the light of the sunset someone was addressing him very personally, and powerfully.
I think I have occasionally felt such a current myself, sensed myself being addressed by God like this through the natural world of sea and sky. But especially I have sensed it through people. I recall experiencing a similar jolt watching the worn face of a tireless worker in a shelter for the homeless. The Spirit of God spoke. It was a challenge about how much personal encounter, with God and people, matters…
Such moments of personal address happen also in church in worship, of course. But wherever they happen, what is key and common to all, what authenticates them, is this: they are times when God is experienced not just as a general idea, nor as remote author of a general reassuring story, but also as a present person, calling us by name to be part of this story; and to participate in what matters within it.
Be reassured. The consolations and completions of religion, that whole story given already in Christ, remain true. They are here to be enjoyed. They are true. But be ready too for these more personal promptings of the Spirit; for the personal call. That too is part of the whole story we need to hear…