Past, Present and Future.
Sometimes Christianity can have a reputation for being “stuck in the past” - “out of touch with today’s world” - which at first sounds a bit weird because people get very excited by the past.
At the high brow end of the market we have “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing up the bodies” - two Booker Prize winning best sellers set in the Machiavellian court of Henry VIII. At the pop culture end of the market we have Game of Thrones - yes not the real past. But this franchise which has raked in $3.1 billion is explicitly inspired by England’s Wars of Roses. High Culture, pop culture, people are attracted by the mystery of history, this world so different and yet so the same as ours.
So why do people accuse us Christians of getting “stuck in the past” - the answer is because sadly they can be sort of right. Sadly we can get stuck in the boring bit of the past.
In 2003 I arrived as a 30 year old vicar at Holy Trinity Church. Some people in the Church said they liked “Traditional Hymns” - so alongside more modern things I made sure we sang some good old Victorian tunes - and they didn’t know any of them. When I asked them which tunes from the 1950s- the tunes which when they had been children had been all new and shiny and exciting and now they thought of as “what we have always done”. In the same church - the walls were beautifully wood paneled, the wood being taken from the Victorian pews which had been removed many decades ago. Yet when we suggested removing not all the pews but a couple of rows at the back to make a coffee area, people faced agony about removing something that had been there forever. The ancient pews, as I said, had been cut down and used to line the walls. The ones they sat in had only been there 50 years…..
On all saints day we can learn not to get stuck in the past - by going back deeper into the past. On all saints day we celebrate the heroes of faith not from 50 years ago, but from 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, 1500 ago. Rather than assuming things were like 50 years ago when everyone assumed this was a Christian Country we can look heroes like Cuthbert or Aiden or Augustine who first brought Christianity to this land when there were no (or few) Christians here. Or we can look back at heroes like John and Charles Wesley in the 18th Century - when the industrial revolution meant meant that millions of workers had moved from the countryside to the towns - still nominally Christian but completely disconnected from the church, John and Charles didn’t expect people to come to Church, but preached Jesus at the factory gate or the mine shaft entrance. Or we can look back at heroes like Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian - Christians witnessing in the multifaith world of the Roman World - where intellectuals had lost faith in the official state paganism, but a multitude of foreign religions like Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Christianity had to compete in the multi-religious marketplace.
Times can be tough now as we go through a pandemic that the world hasn't seen the like of since the Spanish flue of a hundred years ago. But it’s not the first pandemic the world has seen and as we look at figures like Fr Charles Lowder minister in Wapping during the Cholera outbreak of the 1860s or Cyprian who ministered during a third century plague in Carthage - we Christians see that what we are going through is not unprecedented but that Christians kept their faith in Jesus and kept serving their fellow men and women during these times of pandemic
The spirit speaks through Scripture - BUT ALSO THROUGH HISTORY and the heart
Often when you get a new cult there story goes as follows “once upon a time in the days of the bible and book of acts the Holy Spirit was at work - but the moment Acts 28 finishes, the Holy Spirit went and took a tea break and for 2000 years he didn’t come back until he descended on our glorious founder…”
But mainstream Christianity teaches the Holy Spirit has been at work in every generation. The book of revelation talks about heaven being“ a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” but it could equally add “a great multitude from every century and generation”
The beatitudes in Matthew 5 -
“3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit... 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, ….5 ‘Blessed are the meek, ….6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,....7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, ….8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, ….10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,...”
This is an instruction manual for how to live as a follower of Jesus - and just like in any instruction manual you will often have that little box with a case study in it - people like John Wesley or Augustine or Martin Luther or the Blessed Virgin Mary - they are case studies in how to live it out.
They didn’t get everything right just like we don’t get everything right - “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22) - but as St Paul puts it “be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1) - their case study, their lived example of how they followed Jesus in the past can help us follow him in the present.
Past, present and future.
Present- As Christianity becomes a minority religion, being a Christian can seem quite lonely. Yet are never alone. Not only do we have the example of 19th century missionaries who went ten years without seeing a single convert - we also have their support.
In our reading in Revelation chapter 7 we see the Christians worshipping in a huge crowd in heaven “they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple,” (rev 7:15). Jesus’s promise in Mark 12:27 is "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” Hebrews 12:1 talks about us being surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” - Saints are not just part of our past, they are part of our present.
Some of the oldest Christian graves are found in Rome in the Catacombs. On the gravestones of these second century tombs they would have inscribed “rest in peace and rise in glory” but they would also inscribe “Ora Pro Nobis” - pray for us.
Note that these early Christians didn’t divide dead Christians into different categories - of ordinary and blessed and saints - Just like St Paul in Ephesians they thought of all Christians as Saints. But like St Paul in Thessalonians they saw that category as including Christians in heaven as well as on earth. So since they knew Auntie Mabel had been faithfully praying for them while she was alive, on her tomb stone they asked her to keep praying for them in heaven.
We are never alone, Nor is it even just us and God, because with his saints and angels we are always part of a great multitude that no one can number/
Present, past and future
For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel--that wonderful hall with the ivory roof and the west door all hung with peacock’s feathers and the eastern door which opens right onto the sea, in the presence of all their friends and to the sound of trumpets, Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them onto the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, “Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!”
“Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve!” said Aslan.
So ends The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s an that echoes Matthew 19:28 where the apostles are told by Jesus that in heaven they will “sit on 12 thrones” - but also echoes the reading that the Church of England picks for today from the Apocrypha, from the second book of Esdras ‘These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.’
On this day after a second lockdown has been announced - the future can seem very uncertain. But while the short term future can seem very uncertain, the bible’s promise to us is that the future is not at all uncertain.
Heaven is pictured in many ways in the bible - is 2nd Esdras as a Coronation, in Revelation 7 as something like the Last night of the Proms, in Luke 14:15-24 as a wedding feast, or in the parable of the Prodigal Son as a coming home to where we truly belong.
We know that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth - but until that day the saints, the Christians who have gone before us, are with God in heaven.
Past Present and Future
Past - The Saints speak to us from the past giving us case studies of what it means to follow.
Present - The Saints are with us in the present, a great cloud of witnesses praying for us at the throne of God.
Future - The Saints presence with God now points to the future that we shall one day share. They may have taken an earlier train but the destination is the same.
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