19 August 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Ephesians 5. 15-20; John 6. 51-58
We believe in life before death.
Some years ago, Christian Aid introduced this statement into its annual campaign. It succeeds in being unobjectionable, challenging and subversive in equal measure. The statement is unobjectionable because it’s impossible to dissociate oneself from its sentiment without appearing at best rather odd or at worst utterly misanthropic – who doesn’t believe in life before death? The statement is challenging because it confronts us with the uncomfortable reality that for many of our brothers and sisters in the global village life is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And – for Christians at least – the statement we believe in life before death is subversive because it offers a much-needed counterpoint to the final statement of the creed which we have just proclaimed together: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the life of the world to come.
I think that a helpful way to sum up the thrust of Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading would be to use that statement from Christian Aid. Jesus says to his fellow Jews, those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. Not ‘will have’, but ‘have’ eternal life. The life that Jesus is offering his listeners, and us, through fellowship in him is not limited to a future heavenly existence after death, as we might mistakenly assume from that final statement of the creed. In fact, this fellowship in Jesus entails nothing less than a creative collapse of the distinction between this life and the life of the world to come, between time and eternity. Our participation in the divine, in other words, means that life before death and life after death become one and the same thing. Believing in Jesus means we must affirm our belief in life, abundant life, before death as well as our belief in the life of the world to come. To affirm the latter without the former is to affirm only half the Gospel.
One writer on this passage says we are to understand from it that Jesus is the one who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible: just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, says Jesus, so whoever eats me will live because of me. As followers and imitators of Jesus, that task of sustaining the world, of making living possible for others, falls to us. One of the great and humbling encouragements for me of the last five years has been seeing within the Priory community this task being fulfilled in many ways. So, contributions to, and congregational volunteering with, the Baby Basics Project in Bradford help to ensure that life for vulnerable mothers and their babies becomes just slightly less of a struggle; our links with the Skipton Food Bank through the collection point in the Tower and through more congregational volunteering means that life for families who lack what most of us take for granted becomes slightly less challenging; and, looking beyond our immediate neighbours, the support you have given to our curate Jonathan and his family in their fundraising for the charity Mary’s Meals and the welcome the Priory community continues to give annually to children whose lives are overshadowed by the effects of the nineteen eighty-six Chernobyl nuclear explosion are both examples of a commitment to sharing the fruits of the abundant life we enjoy because we believe in life before death for all people. There are many other examples I could have cited and, no doubt, many of which I am unaware.
There is a cautionary tale to be found in a second century Jewish rabbinical text about the consequences of not sharing the fruits of abundant life. It is said that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were so possessive of their wealth and the fertility of their lands that they refused to share their good fortune with poor or needy travellers. To terrify any residents who might want to show compassion on the needy they enacted a law making it illegal, on pain of death, to sell or to give food to strangers. One day a young girl took pity on a starving stranger and fed him daily some bread which she had hidden. When the stranger was still alive after a few days the matter was investigated and the young girl’s compassion revealed. Both she and the stranger were put to death. But before she died the young girl cried out to God for justice to be done to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. You can read about their fate in Genesis chapter nineteen.
We do not have to believe in the literal truth of that rabbinical tale, nor in the gruesome end of Sodom and Gomorrah described in Genesis, to take the point. Actions have consequences. Among the consequences of the compassionate and life-enhancing work I have seen at the Priory will be fewer vulnerable mothers and babies in Bradford, better fed families in Skipton and Malawi, and children in Belarus who feel more cherished and cared for. Through this work we are able to celebrate life more abundant and to understand the reality of life before death; life made possible because of the living bread which we shall share this morning in bread and wine and which incorporates us all, wherever we are, into the seamless eternity of God’s transcendent glory.