Sermon: Third Sunday Before Advent, Year C
Text: Luke 20:27-38
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, I opened with a joke about heaven, and at the risk of setting the expectation of a joke each and every week, here is another:
There once was a very faithful priest, who, at the pearly gate was asked by the gatekeeper: ‘Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?’
‘Yes,’ the priest answered. ‘When I was a young ordinand at St Stephen’s House in Oxford, we played soccer against at team from the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not see it so, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now.’
‘Well,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘That is a very minor sin. You may enter.’
‘Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the priest answered.
‘I’m not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘He is having his lunchbreak. I am Saint Stephen.’
These jokes, whilst providing a little diversion, speak of an altogether different heaven to that which Our Lord teaches us. Do we really think, as this parade of jokes suggest that heaven is at all like earth?
The Sadducees tried to catch Jesus out with this faintly ridiculous set piece, about whose husband this all-surviving wife would be: a case of “one wife for seven brothers”, I suppose. But Jesus responds that heaven is simply not on those terms, it is simply better than all that.
The heaven which the faithful departed have gone to, is not a heaven of pearly gates, and St Peter (or even St Stephen) sitting in judgement, but a transcendent glory beyond our imagination.
Jesus Christ is, as St Paul said to the Romans, the Lord of both the living and the dead, that is why he died and rose, and through his victory on the cross, we have an entrance to real heaven; where considerations of whose wife is whose will not matter
This week we gathered to commemorate the faithful departed on All Soul’s Day, and again this afternoon at 3pm in commemoration and giving God thanks for the life and witness of Josie Grace and Reg Fosbury. None of these Requiem Masses should be seen as sombre, mournful affairs, but should be the opportunity to celebrate their life, not their departure. It would not be right for this to be mawkish or sentimental, but an opportunity to remember with thanks and look forward in hope.
This week I attended a conference on the Church’s ministry on Housing Estates. As there isn’t a parish in Gosport which does not feature an estate in some form or other, it was felt that we as a Deanery had much to learn. It was highly productive, and has given us much to think about. We looked at the experiences of urban and suburban settings from around the country, and estates both rich and poor which shared the same sense of isolation and disconnection from their spiritual heart. The Church can offer a way out of that, and can provide a focus where there previously has been none.
But it is clear that the Church cannot do that by simply saying “here it is, come on in” and expecting the multitude to descend. For the Church is not a building, fine though this particular one is, it is the living stones, the people within it. It is not the edifice; it is the faith that houses.
The Church is the church of the living faith, not the mausoleum of the past… And this means that we need to become engaged with modern society, building upon the foundation of the apostles and saints (for as an anglican catholic – that’s catholic with a small ‘c’ – I see Tradition at the heart of what we do) and looking continually towards the prize which St Paul alludes to.
If we fall prey to the temptation to look inwards then this church will die… Slowly and quite painfully and we will only have ourselves to blame. That much is obvious to anyone, and was shown plainly at the conference. But if we look outside we can plainly see what we have to achieve.
Our Lord tells us so clearly this morning that looking outside of ourselves and beyond our comfort zones is what we are called to: we should not be coming to church out of habit, but out of a burning desire to worship God and to challenge the world and society.
You cannot just sit there and think that you are too old, too tired, too wrapped up in yourself to sit by and let this happen. The apostles left their nets, left everything to follow Christ. Mission is at the heart of the Gospel, and we look at the beginnings of an opportunity, which needs to involve us all – not just your priest, or your PCC, or your junior choir, but each and every one of us.
Christ’s message today is that the kingdom of heaven is transformative: that the Holy Spirit works in individuals and in communities to make a difference. I know he calls this community to make that difference. We need to look beyond the building of the toilet at the back, beyond the changes brought about with the coming of a new Priest and see where we can meet that need. We need to move from the passive to the active – for this is what will make this community grow, both in size and more importantly in depth.
So, this church is not a slightly damp tomb, but a symbol of witness, and you are that witness. In 12 months… 2 years… 5 years time what will we see? a vibrant engaged, community who proclaims Jesus Christ to all through the sacraments, or a tired rendition of an old and comfortable favourite. Heaven is truly a wonderful promise for the future, and it probably won’t be much like the jokes suggest it is, but the Kingdom of Heaven begins here on earth: it begins here. It begins with us.