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"……lose not the things eternal…"


19 June 2005 11:00 | The Revd Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: Romans 8.18-23; Gospel: Luke 6.36-42

Flicking through the stations on my car radio the other evening I came across a fascinating discussion between the arts critic Mark Lawson and the writer David Lodge. In the course of their conversation they got on to the subject of David Lodge's faith which he described as "agnostic Catholic". He said he felt the institutional church fulfilled an important role, and he acknowledged the significance of involvement in the Sunday liturgy, as an opportunity to see oneself in a larger context. But in response to further questioning he said he no longer held any belief in the fear of hell, petitionary prayer, and life after death.

I'm always fascinated by conversations of this sort, because I want to know more about what beliefs such people think they are rejecting or have 'grown out of'. I was not at all surprised at the three areas of faith that Lodge had difficulty with, because they are difficulties shared by many people, including regular practising Christians. But as he went on I became more and more surprised at what he believed - or had believed - about these areas of faith. And I wondered how common his understanding - or misunderstanding might be? In all the teachings of Jesus, how much significance does he give to the fear of hell as the motivating force in following him?

In previous generations there was a style of preaching which put great store on playing on people's fears, and the fear of hell in particular; and perhaps there are still today some for whom this theme is part of their stock-in-trade. But the main thrust of Christ's teaching is not that we should come quaking or cringing before God in the hope that we've done well enough to escape a fiery torment when we die. Rather, as this morning's Epistle reminds us, we are to look forward, along with the rest of the created order, to being "delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the children of God". That for me is the attraction in being a Christian.

When he spoke of his reservations about petitionary prayer, David Lodge voiced many of my own reservations on the kind of prayer that calls upon God to intervene and manipulate events to the advantage of the one praying, as if God were a capricious magician defying his own laws of the universe, to say nothing of his laws of love. Such prayer is a travesty of the model prayer which Jesus himself gave us. The Lord's Prayer acknowledges our responsibility for the coming of God's kingdom and the doing of his will, and asks not only for forgiveness for ourselves, but also that we might be forgiving towards those who have done us wrong. Such prayer puts us at God's disposal; which is the opposite from us imagining that God is at our disposal.

Now to David Lodge's final difficulty: life after death. As with many people, Lodge seemed to regard life after death as the sole and ultimate goal of the Christian life: as if that was the real point in being a Christian, as though this life was merely a trial run for what comes later,

after we die. And unfortunately this view is reinforced by much of the language we use, especially in our prayers and hymns.

Again when we look to the teachings of Jesus, we find he attaches much more significance to how we live this life, now: "thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven"; "I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness (here and now)"; and as this morning's Gospel reminds us, he is particularly concerned about how we treat others and how we conduct our relationships - now. Perhaps one of the chief reasons that there is some confusion about this subject of life after death is the way we understand the term 'eternal life'. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks about 'eternal life', and unfortunately in the older versions of the Bible, this is translated: 'everlasting life', suggesting that it means life that goes on and on. That's not the meaning of the Greek word in the New Testament. The word is actually referring to quality of life, not its duration.

When Jesus talks about offering us 'eternal life' he is saying that by our relationship with him, we have access to an enhanced, enriched way of living: a way of life characterised by generosity of spirit, forgiveness, patience, self-giving love = all those elements which denote life of a special character, life as Jesus showed us how to live it. At our Baptism, we are admitted to this way of life, we are given the Holy Spirit to guide us in this way of living, and of course, here in the Holy Communion, we receive the nourishment of Christ himself - that we may dwell in him and he in us - to enable us to live out this style of life, day by day.

That's the emphasis of Jesus' teaching: that we are united with him here in this life now, and we continue in that relationship after we have died. So yes, there is continuity in the relationship, but it's because we are united with Christ on this side of death: united in such a way that we believe with Paul that, "neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come…, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The Christian life is essentially a corporate experience: we refer to ourselves as 'the body of Christ'. It is of primary concern how we live out that life, in relationship with Christ, and in relationship with one another. Admitted to life in Christ, eternal life, at our Baptism, sustained by our corporate life as members of his church, and fed and nurtured by his sacraments, we pray that in all our dealings in this life, we may hold fast to that special character all our days. As the Collect for this Sunday puts it: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

I'd love to talk some of these things through with David Lodge.
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