Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2013

9 May 2013 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Human beings are capable of the most amazing acts of heroism, of courage and of fortitude. The heroic achievements of others challenge us and can encourage us to believe that we might be capable of more than we had ever imagined.

Like many thousands of others I was privileged to attend an evening of Paralympic athletics in the London Stadium last summer. I have to admit that the experience did not send me with renewed vigour to the nearest gym. But it was astonishing and heart-warming. It was astonishing, because so many people were overcoming serious disabilities to run faster, leap higher, throw further, be stronger than could readily be imagined. It was heart-warming because of the sheer delight and excitement that was being expressed by the vast and diverse crowd of spectators. They—we—were taken up in the moment, and to my mind surprisingly non-partisan, cheering all those who won, whether they were part of TeamGB or not. We were amazed at what our humanity can achieve. And that offers us a challenge—whether we intend to pick it up or not—ourselves to aspire higher, to be and do better at whatever it is we are given to be or do.

We are also surrounded here in the Abbey with almost countless examples of human physical and moral courage and fortitude to inspire us and challenge us. On the West Front of the Abbey, carved in niches above the Great West Door, are the images of 20th-century Christian martyrs. They were placed there almost twenty years ago in the last few years of a century that saw more examples of Christians suffering and dying for the sake of the Gospel and in imitation of Christ than in all the previous Christian centuries put together. Men and women, young and old, from all parts of the world they stand as an inspiration and challenge.

There has been renewed interest in one of our 20th-century martyr heroes, Oscar Romero. He was archbishop of San Salvador during a time of turmoil in his nation when the government of the day was offering physical intimidation and violence to their political and moral critics. Archbishop Romero was shot in a hospital chapel where he was celebrating Mass on 24th March 1980. I remember it particularly vividly as the eve of the enthronement in Canterbury of Archbishop Robert Runcie. Recent evidence of crystalline salt clinging to the garments Archbishop Romero wore under his vestments has been taken to mean that he knew his assassin was there and was overwhelmed by a sweat of fear. And yet he did not flee; he stood his ground; he willingly gave his life in union with the suffering of Christ. I pointed out his statue to Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Now Pope Francis has initiated a process for his beatification.

All this is very well. But we know there is a dark side. The very persecution that Archbishop Romero and Janani Luwum and Elizabeth of Russia and Manche Masemola and all the rest suffered, alongside those many Christians and others now suffering persecution for their faith or political beliefs in parts of the world, speaks to us of the evil, the extraordinary depths of degradation and horror, of which human beings are capable. Cruel, malicious, vicious behaviour appals us and frightens us, whether random acts of politically inspired terrorism or organised widespread corruption or oppression or civil strife, or the simple daily routine selfishness and cruelty in words and deeds of which we are sometimes aware and which we, in our better moments, recognise to be part of our own available repertoire of behaviour, and not only available but deployed.

The glory and the horror: human life; human beings. Such a wonder; such a mess. The early chapters of Genesis tell us of God’s distress and anger at the fact of human beings having turned away from faithfully following his instructions. First, in the Genesis account, after Eve has persuaded Adam to taste of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the couple have lost their innocence, God banishes Adam and Eve from Paradise. Then, in the time of the just man Noah God resolves to do away with almost the whole human and animal creation and start again.

But Genesis tells us that God went on to make a covenant through Noah, that never again would he destroy humanity. God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.’ [Genesis 9] And much later, as St Paul tells the Christians of Galatia, ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ [Galatians 4: 4–5]

The feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, tells us that the Son of God was born into human flesh, born the son of a woman: that God chose to redeem humanity, those under the law, by sharing our human life, by joining our humanity to his divinity. Today’s feast of the Ascension of the Lord tells us that this humanity that we share with our Lord Jesus Christ is taken up into the glory of heaven and there reigns in glory. Our human nature is capable of this, of unity with the godhead, of perfection in heaven. The Ascension offers us an inspiration and a challenge. Thus we can dare to believe that, despite the weakness and wilfulness of our human nature, it is genuinely possible and part of the divine plan that our destiny is in the fullness of time to be joined with our Lord Jesus Christ in the glory of heaven.

We can trust this destiny but we must never take it for granted. God’s gift is not simply that we should believe and trust in him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but that we should become like him: that we should participate fully in his divine nature, that our humanity should be taken up and perfected, that we should be able to enter into his glory. This day, the feast of the Ascension, turns our eyes away from the resurrection appearances of our Lord, away from his life on earth, and turns them towards the forthcoming celebration of Pentecost, towards the wonderful reality that the process on which we are embarked, of becoming like God, does not depend on our goodness or power or strength but on God’s gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And this evening, the Lord invites us to receive the inestimable gift of his loving grace in the bread and wine blessed, broken and poured which are his Body and Blood, a foretaste of heaven, a means whereby he may conform us to his likeness, make us like himself, make us one with himself.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us