Sermon for Trinity 13
Sunday 18 September 2011
“To live is Christ yet to die is gain.” (Philippians 1.22)
“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead you must be sure and not grieve: … I am going to God. … I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him.” These words come from one of the great novels of our language, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. They are spoken to Jane by her only friend Helen Burns in a deeply moving deathbed scene. Both were children and Helen was dying of that staple of the nineteenth century novel, consumption. This scene was well portrayed in the film of the novel now on general release which I saw last Monday. I will not ponder on why yet another film of Jane Eyre had to be made – the film critic of The Independent reckons it to be about the 25th – but I am grateful that it reminded me of this scene and the attitude to death it reveals. Bronte depicts the child Helen as not merely not fearful of death but actually embracing it. Jane herself is by no means so sanguine and questions her friend’s positive attitude. Most of us would agree with Jane. We find the idea of positively embracing death’s clutches alien. Far more natural to us are the words of Dylan Thomas concerning his father’s dying that he should, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” At a much more mundane level – confession time coming now folks – as an avid follower of the Aussie soap opera Neighbours I have been sharing the anguish of the terminally ill character Jim, who is being supported by Susan Kennedy, and who simply doesn’t want to die. And yet the attitude of Helen Burns was not unusual in the past. Many of the great martyrs of the faith seemed to go out of their way to attract persecution, suffering and death. Why might Christians have thought this way? The answer is that if we believe that when we die we shall gain eternal bliss and spend eternity in perfect union with God, there seems a strong case for death. On the other hand our faith also teaches us to have a positive attitude towards this life and to regard it as a precious gift from God.
In today’s epistle, the first of a number of readings from Philippians we shall be hearing over the coming weeks, we learn that St Paul himself wrestled with this dilemma. “For me to live is Christ,” he writes, “yet to die is gain. …I am hard pressed to choose between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Phil. 1.22-24) You could, I suppose, argue that it is spiritually heroic to think death and the prospect of heaven is preferable to continuing physical life. We might say that such an attitude was indicative of a strong faith. And yet I’m not entirely sure that’s the whole story. If we went the whole way down that path we would wind up behaving like some of the strange sects of religious history who have actually directly sought death. In the early Church the classic example would be the Circumcellions of North Africa, opposed by St Augustine, who invited people to kill them. In modern times the mass suicide of members of the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, would be another example. Physical life in this world is of great worth and value in its own right and is not simply a brief preparation for the life of the world to come. Indeed it is our Christian conviction that the character of the experience we will have beyond death is in large part dictated by the life we lived in this world. A preacher whom I greatly admired and from whom I learned a great deal, the Congregationalist Ronald Ward, put it like this. When we enter the spiritual realm those who have lived spiritual lives in this world will find it easy to accommodate themselves to the new environment, those whose lives have been entirely materialistic will find it much harder. Most of us are somewhere in between! The virtue seen in death in earlier times was, of course, in part due to the fact that physical existence was far more of a struggle for many than it is for us today. As Thomas Hobbes put it, for the vast majority life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Religion held out the prospect of bliss beyond death compared to toil and pain in this life. In the last two hundred years in particular the conditions of life for many in our world have improved greatly. Christians have often been at the forefront of those working for this amelioration. They have seen the improvement of people’s material standards, their health, their working conditions, their education as an imperative derived from the gospel. We still do. I firmly share the conviction spelt out so cleverly and so admirably in the Christian Aid slogan, “we believe in life before death.”
It is important to assert that, in the verses from Philippians I quoted to you, Paul does not denigrate physical existence. Indeed he says that, “to live is Christ.” In other words, life in this world may be filled and directed by the one who was the centrepiece of his existence. He goes on to say that, “to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” These words emphasise something very important about the Christian understanding of life. Life is always lived in relation to others. Indeed the character of our existence is framed by our relationship with other beings. This should affect our ethical thinking. When we make moral decisions we never make them in isolation. We must take into account the wider community. An important question we should always ask ourselves when making decisions is this, what if everyone were to do this, were to behave in this way? Because “no man is an island”; we are all interrelated. Everything I decide to do has an affect on other people. That is why we need guidelines by which to live, norms of behaviour which have been hammered out and tested by experience over long periods of time. It is so difficult to see the effects of our behaviour on other people. The purpose of morality is not the imposition of arbitrary moral laws, but the application of broad principles which enable us to live together harmoniously in community. That is why we should be cautious of ripping up conventional standards and inventing moral codes for ourselves, though of course it is true that development and progress in morality must occur. But as communal beings we never decide just ‘for ourselves’ – every single individual decision we make affects others whether we realise it or not. In this strange but wonderful passage Paul does in a sense express a desire to die and be with Christ. Yet he knew that because his life intersected with the lives of so many others, he could not simply abandon them out of self-interest. This was a moral imperative for him. He must remain and live life to the full in this world. That too is our calling, to live life in its fullness in this world and yet at the same time to have confidence in the mystery that we call “the life of the world to come”.
Trinity 13 | Sunday 18 September 2011