Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 15th April 2007
” … that by believing you may have life in his name”. John 20:31
My Nan died in February , 94 years of age, in her own bed in her own farmhouse, on the farm where she had lived for the last seventy-two years of her life: a good end to a good life and a going home to the Lord to whom she talked each day in her prayers.
Nan had been frail these past few years, spending much of her time in her bedroom. Its ceilings are much lower than I remembered as a child, but the view from the window is unchanged; her neatly kept front garden, the cast iron railings between the garden and the road; across the road fields rolling away into the distance; to the left the entrance to the farmyard; to the right, across the road, the house of the Becky family. One evening last summer, as I sat there, even the sounds were familiar, cattle and tractors and voices.
I sometimes wondered what my Nan thought about things, she gave away even less than my Grandad, and that wasn’t much. I knew they never voted, my Grandad once said that their votes would simply cancel each other out—which in Somerset would mean that one voted Liberal and the other voted Conservative, I used to try to guess which, I suspect my Nan was the Tory.
Lying in her bed those summer evenings, I wondered what memories she pondered, what hopes she still treasured. The words of Charlotte Mew’s poem “An Old Shepherd’s Prayer” capture how I think I would have felt, had I been in her place. Published in 1929, it’s written in Cornish dialect
“Up to the bed by the window, where I be lyin’,
Comes bells and bleat of the flock wi’ they two children’s clack.
Over, from under the eaves there’s the starlings flyin’,
And down in the yard, fit to burst his chain, yapping out at Sue
I do hear young Mac.
Turning around like a failed-over sack
I can see team ploughin’ in Whithy-bush field and
meal carts startin’ up road to Church-Town;
Saturday arternoon the men goin’ back
And the women from market, trapin’ home over the down.
Heavenly Master, I wud like to wake to they same green places
Where I be know’d for breakin’ dogs and follerin’ sheep.
And if I may not walk in th’old ways and look on th’old faces
I wud sooner sleep.”
I used to love that poem. It was almost possible to see the scene. The old shepherd with white hair and gnarled hands, lying in an iron bed with the hand-sewn quilt over him. The jug on the washstand beside the bed. The breathing being wheezy as his strength ebbed slowly away and he hears all the sounds including the bark of his collie sheepdog called “Mac”. “Young Mac” because there was probably another “Mac” before him, long since departed this life. Young Mac is chained up in the yard because his old master is no longer fit to control him. The old shepherd’s wish for heaven is for rolling green hills and old friends and for work to do like he’s always done, and if heaven is not like that, well, he would just rather not wake up.
It is a very evocative poem and I think it challenges our thoughts about what we believe about this life and about the life to come.
Belief in a world to come is vague, even amongst Christians. Pope Benedict caused a stir in talking about Hell not because he said anything new, but because he talked about something beyond this life. The Church as far as the media are concerned is about the here and now, it’s about getting on and doing things, it’s about numbers, about being relevant, about having a good image, it’s not about talking to people about dying and eternal life.
The disciples would have been astonished at us. John writes in today’s Gospel passage that he has written his book so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in his name. The old shepherd would have understood what John was saying, he has no doubt about the life to come, his only concern is what this life might be like.
In the Acts of the Apostles we see Jesus’ followers being prepared to give their very lives for this hope of heaven. They are summoned before the Jewish Council who have forbidden them to preach about Jesus and Peter stands up and says, “We must obey God rather than men”. The words we read from Revelation are even bolder in their expectation of this hope of heaven. Jesus will return in glory, he is the beginning and the end, the one who was, who is and who is to come. No timidity there. No blurring of the message. No vagueness about what they are hoping for.
What is it that we believe about life to come? I suspect we probably don’t give it much thought. I wonder if most members of our parish ever think about such a life. Does what we say Sunday by Sunday get taken seriously?
There is a temptation to give into the spirit of the age: to deal with the material side of our life, and to forget the spiritual side. Yet at the heart of our faith and at the· heart of our identity there is this man Jesus who dies and rises again and who says to us that we can share this new life with him if we want.
There is a sense of embarrassment when we talk in such terms. If someone got up at the Easter Vestry next Sunday or at a Synod and said, “Isn’t it great that we can live forever?” there would be a cringing sensation and we would quickly go back to talking about the accounts or the church hall or whatever.
The old shepherd in the poem is very far removed from Scripture, in his hope of heaven as being like a village in the West Country where he is known for training dogs and keeping sheep. The Bible doesn’t say that heaven is going to be what we want, but at least the old shepherd has a hope of heaven. Faltering as he may be in his faith, at least the old shepherd believes in a heavenly master who calls us to account and who offers an eternal reward.
John writes so that we may believe and that believing we may have life in Jesus’ name. Do we believe this? Are we prepared to stake all that we have on our hope of heaven? Or do we feel uncomfortable with such language? Do we prefer our church to be about the things of this world?
Peter said we must obey God rather than men, it was a belief that would cost him his life. What is it that we believe? What would we give for what we believe?