Sermon for Evensong
Sunday next before Lent – Year B
‘That somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead’
Faith as conformity to Christ
When I was at theological college – rather a long time ago – although we had little vacation time, I remember visiting one of my old colleagues from the Catholic High School where I had previously been teaching – even Longer ago!
It had been a hard time for him and his family and as I remember they had just suffered the loss of one of their parents – either his father or father in law. Given that I was training in an institution for priests, he wanted to talk with me about this, but the one arena he was particularly interested in – I had to admit, I had no knowledge of. He thought that when we were in training, we might be told about what happened to someone after they had died, in more than vague terms e.g. you go to face God/you go to be with your loved ones/you go to heaven/you go to the other place . . .
I had to admit that we hadn’t as it were been let in on some secret knowledge. And until very recently I must admit that I’d ever assumed there existed more than such vague elements of teaching. No details were available, and that was that. Until I stumbled upon a book by a very highly regarded scholar in the Orthodox Church, entitled ‘Life after Death’, and realised that there was a very highly developed teaching in this area which had been prevalent throughout the Church in the first few hundred years of its existence and indeed was still known and taught in fairly small circles to this day – but which continues to shape the practise of Orthodox Christians and their liturgy to this day (Of course Orthodox liturgy hasn’t really changed in any notable way for 2000 years 🙂 )
And I must admit that it gives a very very different view of the matter of death and what happens to YOU, that is to the Soul in the days leading up to, through and beyond death. Amongst other things giving a very well reasoned and highly material defence of the idea that Repentance is not possible post mortem – for as they say and it is obvious when you think about it, Obedience, the fruit or faith and repentance is a bodily process. One feeds the poor, one clothes the naked, one doesn’t sleep with one neighbours wife – all actions or desisting from actions in the body. So, the soul having become disembodied (in the three days following death, the Orthodox church teaches) has no vehicle for enacting obedience and this cannot repent. It is of course nothing more that the development of that old saw, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions . . .’
The author also stated something which at first sight is odd, but upon reflection is quite reasonable, that for the Christian, death is far more troubling a prospect than for the atheist or agnostic. Why? Well for those folk, whether anything ‘lies beyond’ is such a matter of subjective speculation – and indeed ‘surely it’s just like falling asleep for ever’, whereas the Christian lives their entire life knowing that there is something else coming up – something of which they have no experience.
Coincidentally, the same friend whom I went to visit posted at almost the same time as the book came into my hands, an article he’d found. It was of an imagined dialogue between two twins in the womb. One was convinced that there was something beyond – that there was a ‘Mother’ whose life sustained them, and that one day they would pass into a completely different form of existence and ‘see her’ -the other dismissed this all as nonsense 🙂 Which if you think about it is a striking parallel!
As more than a few saints have reminded us, preparing for our deaths is the work of a lifetime . . .
Certainly for Paul, he doesn’t look towards his death and the Resurrection of the dead, as if it is unproblematic. Listen again to his words : For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ [I want to know] the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, [that] somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’
the language is all in the subjunctive mood – Paul is stretching towards something that he has not already grasped, as he makes clear immediately ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’
Not, note ‘Christ Jesus has made me his own, therefore I can sit back and relax – eat, drink and be merry’, no ‘I press on to make the goal [the resurrection from the dead] my own, because Christ has made me his own.’
Now I hope from this it is clear that Paul’s understanding of the Christian life, and ‘the resurrection of the dead’ is Very different from that of many people – including I might say, many within the church. On the one hand there is much shall we say ‘folk religion’ alive and well in this regard. So, for example, when my Uncle died suddenly in his 40s, I remember my aunt talking about how he was now ‘playing golf in heaven’ with one of his old friends . . . the old ‘we go to heaven when we die line. Interestingly though there are many who scoff at such things and yet display entirely the same almost casual line in regard to their death – what is called ‘easy believism’ To wit, ‘you have repented and prayed the sinners prayer – you will therefore go to be with Jesus . . .’ an approach which we must say refuses to take any note of ‘THIS life’ and its significance, and indeed leaves the door open quite literally to a host of demons.
Paul’s words here certainly must give pause for thought, yet we see within them evidence that he is engaged on this preparation – that his soul has as it were already set sail towards his eternal destination. Just as that child in the womb knows of nothing else – is very comfortable thank you – lives in a world where its comprehension is seldom troubled by the thought that ‘there may be more to life’, so too Paul had lived such a life. Our reading this evening, following on from evening prayer for last night, begins ‘Yet, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ’. What we may ask were these gains, and the answer is – Paul up to the point of his conversion, had had a highly successful life in the terms of his own culture. His life fitted – and fitted well with his surroundings. In its own sense it was utterly Known, it was secure. He was highly advanced in learning and his birth heritage was impeccable – ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ In the terms of the day, he had ‘lived a good life’. Yet his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus had left all that in tatters. One minute he knew what was what, and the next . . . well his entire understanding of things lay in tatters
Paul of course is understood as ‘the prototypical zealous convert’ – yet his zeal is marked by this deep deep sense, not that he has now ‘got it all sorted out’, rather that there is something which he must pour all of his life into. He is like the woman who lost the coin and is now engaged in sweeping the house from top to bottom to find it, or the man who finds treasure, but knows he must now sell all he owns to buy the field wherein it lies. He is to use a somewhat overused word, now on a ‘journey’ – yet he has a profound sense of his direction. Not to a knew set of ideas, he has as it were all the information he needs – his destination – yet not a place, or a particular expertise be it philosophical understanding or moral accomplishment – he is not trying to get somewhere or to complete some study so that he might be declared a master of the topic. Indeed he seems to agree that all his learning was worth nothing. No his journey is into a deeper and deeper conformity to the person of Jesus Christ
I regard [all that was] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
To return briefly to the helpful teaching of the Orthodox Church in this regard, When we are baptised into Christ’s body the Church – there is as it were two things that happen – first we are washed clean of all that kept us from God, and secondly the image of God is renewed in us. That image is as it were a seed – a seed planted in a garden which has been carefully prepared by the cleansing action of the Holy Spirit. The image, yes, but not yet ‘the likeness’ of God. As a babe carries all the potential to grow up fully into the likeness of a human being, so the one baptised is a babe of God, given the gift of growing up into His likeness.
So we can imagine Paul ‘pressing onward’ seeking to take hold of – to fully indwell this fulness of Life which is his inheritance as Christ has taken hold of him . . .
in the end of course these things are mysteriously veiled. As we have read Mark’s gospel these past weeks we cannot have failed to note how Jesus often tells people not to say who he is – he refuses to perform miracles to prove himself – his transfiguration of which we heard this morning happens only before the eyes of Peter, James and John and as we go into Lent we will be reminded that he will not take the Satanic path of ‘proving himself’ before the crowds. Only the humble Eye of Faith will be granted to see his truth. As Isaiah says, the beauty of Jesus does not reveal itself to the casual eye – there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness. Paul’s preaching is of Christ Crucified – there is nothing to attract in that. And so Paul himself finds himself similarly marred in appearance as his labours for Christ take their toll – yet within a light grows ever stronger.
And it is not just this growth into the life of Christ which refuses to reveal itself. We cannot see beyond – although the Orthodox teaching contains powerful hints which are not without foundation, it is always put in terms of allegory and types and hints. YEs there is more but the experience of it, none can reveal – yet what Paul makes eminently clear to us is that in the light of all that Christ has done for us, in Faith we must needs press on to live more fully into Christ – for He is the Risen one. The Only Sign that is given is that of Jonah. Christ alone is the one whom God has raised from the dead, and it is only insofar as we are conformed to him, that we might know the Resurrection of the Dead.
That journey into ever deeper conformity with Christ is the Christian Life – it is the Way of faith.