Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2023

Hope and Despair

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 21st May 2023 at 11.15 AM

Do you remember Clockwise, the John Cleese film about a headmaster who’s ordered world goes horribly wrong? As a terrible humiliation unfolds there is a howl of frustration from Cleese:

It’s not the despair, Laura, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

Now, if you came to Westminster Abbey hoping for something a bit more highbrow than John Cleese, here is William Blake—who begs to differ.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,

I want to say something about hope and despair this morning, about living with joy and woe. Cleese sets them apart, either hope or despair. ‘I can take the despair.  It’s the hope I can’t stand’. Blake thinks it is both/and. What is to be either/or, both/and?

It is the Sunday after Ascension today. On Thursday, on Ascension, the organ gave us Messiaen in Transports of Joy. That is the register for Ascension Joy and Glory. We have had more glory today. The reading we have just heard, began with Jesus raising his eyes to heaven and praying himself into glory:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you. (John 17:1 )

Ascensiontide is joy and glory. It feels as though all that dark, dismal Good Friday despair is now behind us. Someone I know went to church on Maundy Thursday and Easter Day bt not on Good Friday because ‘it is so sad’. Either/or. One, or the other. I can take the hope. It’s the despair I can’t stand. Ascension surely is all hope.

Well yes, Ascension is indeed full of joy and hope… but… there is a ‘but’. There is a big theological ‘but’ and in Westminster Abbey, we love a theological ‘but’. A theological but keeps us up at night. We need to pause and consider.

As I said, in our reading we heard Jesus praying, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son’. That prayer came and went quickly, but (and this is the theological ‘but’) those words should have stopped us in our tracks. It should have made us look thoughtful. Jesus, the Son of God is praying that he might be glorified. We are more than half way through the gospel and Jesus, the Morning Star, Jesus the first and last, is praying to be glorified. Surely, he is already glorious? Don’t we know that he is glorified, haven’t we been told that? John Chapter 1 told us firmly,

the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory (John 1:14)

Glory in John’s gospel is a big issue and it comes with a theological ‘but’. It will take a moment, but it is important and I need to explain because this is all hope and despair. 

Our reading was part of a long passage usually called The Final Discourse. You will only find it in John’s Gospel. It really is long, it starts in Chapter 13 and we were listening to Chapter 17. It is a Final Discourse because to comes just after the disciples have finished their meal at the Last Supper. Judas gets up and leaves the room and Jesus begins to speal. John wants us to know that the shadows lengthen. Judas summons up the dark.

he immediately went out. And it was night. John 13:30  

Judas betrays Jesus, we creep closer to the Cross. Jesus talks about his death, about ‘finishing’ the work he has been sent to do. This is the idea we have to get straight. Jesus is talking both about now and what is yet to come, about a glory that has been seen and a glory that is yet to be given. That is why he plays to be glorified. It is an utterly fundamental idea in St John’s gospel that if you want to see Christ’s glory you must look at the cross. Glory is not just golden sunsets, waving flags and pageant. Glory burns fierce even harsh. Glory is there even when you think that could never be.  There is glory in a man dying on a cross.  Until you have seen that, known that you do not know what glory can do, you do not know where glory can be. You can sing about the sacred head surrounded, by crown of piercing thorn and see the sadness. Or, you can sing about surveying the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died because you have seen the glory. That hymn comes straight out of John’s gospel.

Jesus prayed,

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you

Glory going both ways—Father glorifies Son, Son glorifies the Father. It is the same glory passing back and forth, reflexive. The glory of the Son and the glory of the Father are the same, they are inseparable. When we see the man Jesus dying on the cross, we see the of a human life fully lived and that is glorious. We also see the glory of God the Father. One glory, one eternal loving passion. Inseparable glory.

We have all kinds of ideas about what glory looks like. We tend to make it powerful, glory strides about in armour with a cape. In Rome you can see the Emperor Titus carved flying on the back of an eagle turning from mortal into a God because he as an Emperor and won battles. Brave Achilles thought he could kill his way to fame. You might, alternatively, think that glory looks like a drive through the covers and a century at Lords, or a Handel aria, or one, perfect rose. St John wants to stare you down and tell you that glory, human glory and the glory of God, look like loving us to death, literally loving us to death on a cross. 

St John thinks that glory, God’s glory, looks human. Glory is human. Glory is human as love is human, human as pain is human, human as dying is human. Blake, on this at least is right, joy and woe are woven fine. It is both / and. We have to speal of life and death, of hope and despair.

When we have finally understood that then we can begin to understand what happens at the Ascension. It is that same broken body scarred by the nails, flogged, crowned with thorns that is lifted up and sits at the right hand of the Father. That tattered and battered humanity is exalted into glory. Because that is what glory looks like. That is what God’s glory looks like. That is what Jesus looks like.

You don’t have to choose, in fact you mustn’t, choose. It is not hope or despair. It is both/and. It is our full humanity that is lifted up and exalted. Ascension gathers up our pain and loss, even our dying, it lifts up out love and moments of selflessness and grace, it lifts it all to the right hand of God. Human living and human dying, all our hope, all our despair, all our beauty and all our human disfigurement is lifted up at Ascension and sits down at the right hand of God. 

We are meant to be what we are fragile, vulnerable, hurt, compassionate, sometimes gracious, often clumsy. That is the recipe of glory. Do that, live that and we are destined for glory in Christ.

I guess this all feels a bit tough, a bit dense. Just try to remember it is both/ and. Hang on to the idea that we are meant to be fully human and that is a complicated business, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful. Glory is in that mix. When people tell you that life is simple, that there is a recipe for happiness or that we can all be successful and have a perfect smile that that is less than the truth. The false gods want us to believe it either / or. They want us to worship fame, money, beauty.  Glory goes deeper than that, burns brighter, blazes fiercer. Speak up for the humanity that is complex, intricate, the one that does not fit a classification, the one that feels joy and pain. Speak up for the life of Christ on the long road to glory.

Enough, another way of saying the same thing, a little of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful poem The Way We Live

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the Lord God of movement, to Absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scarey side:

…Of endless gloaming in the North, of Asiatic swelter,
to launderettes, anecdotes, passions and exhaustion,
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises—pass the tambourine.