Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2017
Start Date 28th May 2017 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…the wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion eat straw like the ox.. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning, crying and pain will be no more…no-one shall hurt or destroy.’

A vision, a hope, held out by Isaiah and John for two millennia and more. We heard it again this morning. How far away it often seems from reality. Late last Monday evening in Manchester reality was death not life. Young children and adults slaughtered and traumatized in the bomb attack. A deliberate targeting of young lives enjoying life; an act to inflict destruction, mourning, crying, and pain, not take them away The complete antithesis of God’s new heaven and earth, the apotheosis of inhumanity. Unqualified evil. Another act of savagery in the catalogue of carnage which has disfigured human history from earliest times to present day.

And there will be others. So, what happens to this vision of a new heaven and earth? Does it fade in the face of this? Does it lose authority? Lose credibility?

No. The vision will not go away. First because it was never anyway just about reality here and now. Its language and imagery belong to a category called apocalyptic, which uses deliberately extravagant language, subverting normal expectations, asking us to picture impossibilities for this world—a wolf lying down with a lamb, a life without death, a world in which even time itself is transcended—in order to signal that this vision is not just about this world. It’s about a wholly new heaven and earth beyond space, time and history, where everything really is radically transformed. That’s what this vision is imagining. And that is credible: even science now tells us that current space and time may finally buckle and bend into a wholly new state of being; tells of other dimensions which could incorporate the best of this universe but also entirely transcend it. Heaven, eternity, is credible; by faith in Christ’s ascension it’s demonstrable; and that’s what this vision is partly about; and it’s a reason why it can remain undimmed—as hope for the next life, even though we don’t see it now.

But there’s another reason too. What lies wholly beyond this world does also keep calling to us, and changing us, within this world. Like a distant source of gravity pulling things near at hand towards it; like a distant bright light shining through a sullied pane of glass to illuminate both sides; like a distant powerful personality drawing us into its orbit, so the new heaven and earth, and God who is its source, is not just distant but also making its presence felt here and now; constantly, tangibly, and even in those events of this world which are its very antithesis, events which seem to mock and discredit it. Because of course what happened last Monday evening in Manchester was not just another entry in the world’s catalogue of carnage, evil, and inhumanity. It was also another event in the world’s catalogue of courage, compassion, extraordinary human solidarity. It created acts of faith, hope, and humanity, even greater than the acts and web of evil which precipitated it: those immense efforts of emergency services and medics; those continued costly and dedicated efforts of security services; the instinctive selfless generosity of passers-by, taxi drivers, of so many so-called ordinary (but actually extraordinary) people of Manchester. These were all events of the new heaven and earth, already here…

Such narratives of the great goodness which so extraordinarily raises its game whenever evil strikes, have become familiar; a repeated litany, because they surface in so many, all too many, events; from Palmyra to Paris, London, Marawi, Mosul, Manchester. But it is absolutely right to repeat the litany. Not because acts of courage and kindness mitigate all the pain; or completely compensate; or wholly redeem it; or obviate the need for justice and reckoning (God alone can do that in eternity). No, we repeat them, hold onto them, because at the very least they remind us of the immense good also in humanity; but more than that, precisely because they are also the signs of the reality of new heaven and earth here and now; potent signs of its reality, not just as a destination at the end of time, but as a force at work now; signs that the God of eternity, the God of life not death, does reach into this life too…

By no means all at the heart of these narratives believe they’re responding to God. Not all believe an eternal reality is reaching into our world to inspire them. They’re just responding, magnificently, out of their humanity. But John the seer who saw a new heaven and earth had no doubt. What is moves us all is divine. And eternal.

And what that means finally is, of course, that it must also ultimately prevail. For if all this goodness is fed from an eternal source, it just cannot finally be defeated. It is a matter of metaphysics, not just motivation.

On the day after the Manchester bombing the Australian High Commissioner, speaking at a service here on the 100th anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, expressed his deep sympathy. And then he said this: but know too the savagery is futile. He was right. It is futile, because the new heaven and earth is real, both in eternity and now…

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