Monday, 20 June 2016

Life in Christ: 'O lively life, that deathless shall persevere'

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral. Readings, Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39

‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’.
So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him’ (Luke 8.39)

+ In nomine Patris…

If you picture in your mind a prisoner or captive you will perhaps see someone with hands and legs bound, or in a cell behind bars.

It is a sad reality of human society that some people are imprisoned for punishment, or for their own protection or that of others. Either way imprisonment is a pitiful image. Even more shocking is when someone is held as prisoner of conscience or the victim of a miscarriage of justice; imprisoned unjustly, as Jesus himself was.

Imprisonment means deprivation of liberty, the restriction of movement and of seeing the world in its widest perspective. Imprisonment narrows down how we experience life. In contrast astronauts tell us about the wonderful experience of tasting fresh air, the vibrancy of colours away from the confines of a sterile, enclosed confinement on a space station. Something Tim Peake will be experiencing about now.

But we can also say that we are not only imprisoned behind bars. Imprisonment can be a metaphor deployed to describe a situation where one feels trapped and unable to leave and to be free. This is what Rowan Williams calls, ‘life shut in on itself’.

The political rhetoric of the European referendum debate illustrates this metaphorical use of imprisonment. For some people membership of the European Union is a prison in which the UK is trapped and fettered, where it is not able to be free to make decisions and pursue its own path. For others, precisely the opposite is the case. Remaining within the EU is a liberating position where free trade, freedom of movement and basic human freedoms can be protected.

The decision, as they say, is yours. But whichever way you decide please do decide, and when Thursday comes, if you have that right, do exercise your vote. All of us, whether able to vote or not, must pray for discernment in the decision making and have trust in the outcome, even if it’s not the one we want.

Both our readings today also illustrate the imprisonment and liberation image.

The gospel reading tells us about a man, a loner, calling himself Legion, who clearly has what today we would know as a serious mental illness. He went round naked, something shocking and unacceptable then as now.  And there in the tombs he was ‘kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles’. He was in quarantine, living in the cemetery, held at a ‘safe’ distance from where mainstream people live.

All his associations are with death, dead bodies and fear. In his nakedness he represents on the one hand the innocence of Adam before his rebellion, but also the discomfort that the naked body can present: vulnerability and suspicion. Because of this suspicion he is bound by chains, not free in any meaningful way.

We instinctively recognise life lived differently, lived freely and without inhibition. The coverage following the horrible and untimely murder MP, Jo Cox, tells us that she lived a life not shut in on itself but opened out in service to others, the poor overseas and those in her constituency, which ultimately took her life. It is the costs of living life open to others that generates the sort of society that we all cherish, and for which Jo Cox is a martyr.

Life in Christ shapes this way of living, and, if we live out that way of life and adopt its habits, we infect, in the best way, those around us. The call from this morning’s readings is to live ‘life in its abundance’ (John 10.10).

As well as being a man who has real needs for compassion, reconciliation and freedom he is a metaphor for life outside the resurrection, life not lived in Jesus Christ. Away from Christ he and we live a manacled, lifeless life contaminated by death, exposed and vulnerable.

Jesus Christ goes to the tomb for us and with us, is stripped of his clothes and dignity with us and for us, and is bound for us and with us, in order that, like with that disturbed man, we might be led out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land.

So we begin to digest what this might mean for us, this liberation, removal of the shackles, this taking hold of ‘the life that really is life’ (cf 1 Timothy 6.19). The task of digesting what life with and in Christ means is tackled by St Paul.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul speaking of the liberating power of faith says: ‘Before faith came we were imprisoned under the law until faith would be revealed’ (Galatians 3.23).

Let’s be clear though, Paul is not talking about the criminal or even civil law. He’s talking about the Law revealed to the people of Israel. The Law for Jews was and is the way in which they remain faithful to the promises of God.

For Paul, the question is how might those who are not part of the People of Israel, who are not Jews, can live in covenant with God. It’s a hard question for him because as a Jew, a good and righteous Jew, the Law and its observance had been the way in which he was right with God.

For Paul it is faith in Christ that is the key that unlocks the Law so that all people may be brought into relationship with God as God’s children. The way of life that binds us now to God, is life in Christ.

This is the paradoxical relationship that the second collect from Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer talks about: ‘whose service is perfect freedom’: how can service be perfect freedom? Paul answers by saying that by being in Christ, we are no longer bound to God through what we are compelled to do or not to do, but through our relationship with God in Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit, a relationship formed in faith and love.

This action of liberation is seen when a person moves into Christ, as Paul puts it: ‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28).
We are not prisoners or free people, but persons in Christ. Those who respond in faith are heirs according to the promise, the promise of Jesus Christ at the heart of the Gospel of life in all its abundance: as a poet put it, ‘O lively life, that deathless shall persevere’.

It’s little wonder then that when Jesus said to Legion, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’...he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him’ (Luke 8.39)