Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 5 June
5 June 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
There’s no escaping it. The world will end. Both science and common sense tell us this. So too does Christian scripture. 'The first heaven and earth will pass away'. When it will be no-one knows - but it will happen. The universe will stop expanding and implode - or keep expanding and die a heat death. Or an asteroid will collide with us. Or like Noah’s day some environmental disaster will overtake us. One way or another the world will end - and it will end for us anyway, simply when we die.Stopping to think about this too much is not to be recommended. It concentrates the mind on difficult, even depressing questions. If it is all to end, what then is it all for? If all this daily effort of living, striving, loving, just disappears; if it is just mist on a cold window pane destined to fade to nothing - is it worth anything? Better to push such questions firmly out of our mind. But we can’t always do that. Even if some pest of a preacher doesn’t ask them, something as simple as a shaft of nostalgia can awaken them, and make us stop, think, ask. Where do our lives and memories go? Do they just disappear? The answers we hear are not always hopeful: a poet thinking about past experience described it as ‘an air that kills…a land of lost content/ I see it shining plain/ happy highways where I went and cannot go again.’ Tough-minded empirical philosophers tend to come to much the same conclusion. In the face of our own death and the death of the universe, we simply have to accept, says Bertrand Russell, that ‘man’s origin, growth, hopes, loves, beliefs, are but the outcome of accident, and no intensity of thought or feeling can preserve them: all the labours and achievements of the ages must inevitably end in the debris of a universe which is itself finite…[so] only on the firm foundation of despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built’.
But there are other answers, better, truer ones, I believe. The Swiss Catholic theologian, von Balthasar, who has also thought deeply about both scientific and human experience, comes to an entirely opposite conclusion. The fact and nature of our experience, he says ‘is astonishing beyond measure’ [and] ‘nothing within the world explains how this world could have generated persons with [this] capacity to experience this world as we do’. In short, the extraordinary quality of our human experience of this world cries out for some transcendent explanation of it: some other power, some God, who brought it all into being for some point and purpose…and who would not just let it end pointlessly. Some further reality, some eternity, is called for - where the worst of this world and our lives may well disappear, but where the best is somehow kept, not allowed to fade. Precisely the vision of the new heaven and earth we heard in Isaiah and Revelation. Which was not just the hope of an improved life in this world for the persecuted Christians of the early church. The language was more extravagant, the vision more radical: it was the vision of a wholly new state of being in which time, space, and bodiliness are transformed to such an extent there are no more natural cycles of decay, no more crying or pain or death. This really is a new heaven and earth, beyond this one
But is this hope really possible? It is - if in faith we fully enter the meaning of those stories of Christ’s resurrection and ascension we have been celebrating. Stories of a man who did pass through bodily death to enter a new dimension of reality. Stories which may seem only superstitious supernaturalism if we look only at the outward form of them - but which become strangely compelling when we see the real focus of their meaning: which is not just about one man but, through him, about the nature and character of God: a God revealed in this man to be of such profound love that he would not want anything he made to be finally extinguished, wasted, binned. And a God able to act on this love: for in these stories of Christ we consistently see God as a divine alchemist, able to take the raw materials of this limited life and turn them into something fit for eternity: water into wine, sickness into health, death to life: signs and symbols in a few events to show this is an ultimate possibility for all things.
Such a hope is also more possible to believe if (with reason, not just with faith) we update the science on which those sceptical empirical philosophers based their despair: when we listen to a science which now tells us that although physical matter may indeed just pass away, the energy within it is more fundamental still, and can survives in other forms of existence; a science which also now tells us that what we perceive as linear time which does just pass away is not as we think: time and space may actually buckle and bend into much stranger forms… allowing us to imagine that what happens in time really could pass into an eternity.
So - look more deeply at the meaning of those stories of the transformed body of Jesus, and look at this new science, and such things do become possible. Possible that through the portal of death, yes, all the aching bloodiness of this world is ended, but all the good experiences of this bodily life are kept: ‘kept in heaven’, as the epistle of Peter puts it. Possible that every loved person, every struggle for justice and reconciliation, every good experience, the sight of open skies or the music of birdsong and Bach, all this can pass through death to be given back there as an eternal experience to enjoy, not just as a faded memory. ‘Happy highways where we can go again’. Here may even be a hint of the whole purpose of this world: perhaps its material, transient, painful nature, is the only kind of world which can also generate these sorts of unique valuable experiences of our senses, our deepest loves and loyalties, which can then pass into an eternity of a new heaven and earth.
Is this hope for us all? God alone knows. But it is certainly there for all to hope for. It is also there to transform this life too, here and now. Because of course if the best things of this world do have this eternal potential, they matter more now, not less. The motivation to live well and fully here and now is all the greater if this life is not just a fading asset but generating the very stuff of eternity. Far from making this world worthless and pointless this vision of another world is invigorating now: a bulwark against cynicism and despair. Yes, this world will end. But another always dawns. And so that means we always have hope and purpose now. A great gift for us - and a great gift to offer an often tired and cynical world.