The thin line between this world and the next.

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September 23, 2017

Every day in my e-mail, I receive a brief meditation from one of the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican order based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  A few days before our Robert died, the monk’s reflection focused on the word “paradox.”  It went like this:  “There’s a paradoxical quality to living as Christians.  We are called to live in this world for a time, fully engaging its joys and sorrows, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being—as if this is the only world that really matters. And we are called to live in anticipation of the life to come, as if it, too, is the only world that really matters.”

 Robert loved intellectual puzzles, and would no doubt help us grapple with this paradox.  Here’s my take on it:  The present world, with its joys, pains, and sorrows, is indeed transitory—it is passing away—but in God’s eyes it has eternal significance, as a centerpiece of his beloved creation.  This world is caught up in a plan God is working to bring to fulfillment, and God calls us, his children, to share in this work of helping restore creation to God’s intended purpose.  Therefore, as we engage in this life fully and lovingly, for God’s sake, acting as Christ’s hands and feet and voices, we participate in what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  In other words, the line between this world and the next is blurred, to say the least.  Because of God’s presence and activity, the temporal shares in the eternal.  We already have access to the world that lasts.  Even as we sit here, and especially as we come to this Holy Table and feast together, the apparent gap between this world and the next is bridged, and we are united with Robert and all the saints who have gone before us, in a common life, rooted in God’s own life, rooted in a love that never ends.

How do we know this?  Isn’t this too good to be true?  If Robert were dealing with these questions, I imagine he would first refer us to the holy scriptures, the word revealed through many centuries of experience.  In the Old Testament, which Robert loved to read and often read from this lectern, we see a God who is anything but aloof from his beloved creation.  In the prophetic writings, an activist God calls to account his people who often failed to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.  This God is so involved with creation that the psalmist depicts him dramatically manifesting himself in nature.  In Psalm 29, for example, the God of glory is upon the mighty waters; he thunders; he has a powerful voice that breaks the cedar trees, splits the flames of fire, and shakes the wilderness.  Such poetry conveys well the Israelites’ sense that both heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, that his loving presence fills all creation.  As Psalm 139 says, “if I climb up to heaven you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.”

The New Testament wonderfully and fully confirms these truths.  There, we see God as so involved with creation and especially with the people he made in his image that he actually came among us, as Jesus the Messiah, a human being who was and is “God with us.”  In him, we see the intersection of heaven and earth, the one who showed us by his life, death, and resurrection what God intends for us and promises us.  As we read today from St. John’s Revelation, he came to make the whole creation new, defeating all that threatens fullness of life, including death itself.  As St. Paul declared, nothing can separate us from the love of God which we have in Jesus.  If he is ours, eternal life is now, even in the midst of suffering.  We enter that life in baptism, and in Holy Communion we celebrate the present, as well as the future, victory of life over death, in and through our Lord, who died and rose again.

As if this weren’t enough testimony, Robert would no doubt point to signs of God’s kingdom, of God’s purpose being fulfilled, in our world today, despite its obvious brokenness.  He, for one, took seriously the prayer Jesus taught us, asking that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  His prayer led him to action, to help the homeless, the hungry, and others in need—in scriptural language, he lifted up those who are bowed down.  Using God’s gifts for God’s purposes, Robert acted in faith, hope, and love, witnessing, time and again, to the power and love of God, whom we know in Christ.

Robert lived fully in this world, with an eye to eternity, and he would urge us to do the same.  One of the best expressions of our paradoxical situation at the intersection of time and eternity is found in T. S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” which is especially meaningful to those of us, including Robert and Matilda, who visited that holy place in the English countryside as part of our pilgrimage this past summer.  I close by reading its last section, which points to the mystery of life and love, and to the victory which we celebrate today.  Interestingly, it was written about the time Robert was born, when war was raging in Europe.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.  And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.  And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone:  and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration.  A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.  So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

          With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

          We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.