Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 16th November 2008
‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night ‘. 1 Thessalonians 5:2
I started teaching RE to a second National School class last week. Having struggled with Sixth Class for the last ten years, I decided to take on Fifth Class for an hour a week as well. I learn more from them than they ever learn from me and it was fascinating on Tuesday to watch their reactions to the idea of heaven which was part of the lesson from the textbook.
It simply didn’t mean anything to some people. “Do you mean living after we die?” asked one.
“Yes”. I said.
“Do you really believe that, Mr Poulton?”
“Yes”. I said.
Which conversation prompted me to take from the bookshelf C.S Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce. The title comes not from the breakdown of any human marriage, but as a counterweight to William Blake’s 19th Century book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis, a lecturer in English at Oxford, believed very firmly in the divorce of heaven and hell. It’s a story about belief and unbelief; about holding onto your faith when it’s not fashionable to do so. It’s one of those books that makes you ask, “Well, what is it that I do believe?”
In the story, a spirit from heaven meets a ghost from hell. The spirit is a young student who carried on believing the Christian faith, even when it was not fashionable. He is considered a narrow-minded stick in the mud, but he will not let go of his beliefs. The ghost is a very polite, very charming bishop who refused to accept traditional Christian beliefs. He lives in a town full of ghosts; it is dirty, grey and it is always night time. The people are bad-tempered and miserable and there is nothing to give them hope or encouragement.
The student and the bishop find themselves on a bus that shuttles between Heaven and Hell—the bishop had always refused to believe in such things and had mocked the student for such old fashioned faith.
“Why my dear boy you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”
“But wasn’t I right?”
“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure, I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological . . .”
“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?”
“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”
“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”
“’Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”
“We call it Hell.”
“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”
The book always makes me smile; it has a reassuring quality about it in a time when there is not much reassurance to be found. Saint Paul would have rallied around behind the student. ‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night‘, says Paul to his readers in Thessalonica.
The first letter to the Thessalonians is attempting to reassure those who would read or hear his words that their faith was not in vain, that the day would come when they would be vindicated. The letter was written perhaps around the year 51, some twenty years after Jesus death and resurrection and the church has been living in expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. Things have not turned out as they might have expected and perhaps some have begun to drift from the faith. There is a need for reassurance.
Perhaps we all need reassurance at times. Whether we are like the Christians in Thessalonica in the turbulent days of the early church; or we are C.S. Lewis’s readers in the dark days of the 1940s; or we are people living through very uncertain times at the beginning of the 21st Century; we need a sense that life has a purpose, that it is going somewhere and that the God in whom we believe is at the end of things. We need to be able to answer eleven year olds who ask us whether we really believe the words we say.
We live in times of secular fundamentalism; where people believe that they know all there is to be known; where Saint Paul and all he represents are considered to be nothing more than the remnants of a superstitious past. Even the church gets caught in this process, becoming apologetic for talking about spiritual things.
If we become apologetic for belief in a spiritual world, what have we left to offer? If we do not share Paul’s confidence in a coming day of the Lord, whenever that day might be, then what do we believe?
We live in times called ‘post-modern’, a term which seems to mean whatever people want it to mean, but in practice means that old beliefs and old absolutes do not apply anymore for many, if not most, people. Without the absolutes; without a belief in heaven, and in hell; without the old faith; the Christian Church has nothing to offer. Reduce our faith to what is acceptable in a secular world, and what do we have? A nice set of stories; some nice buildings; some nice traditions and customs; but nothing that would change someone’s life.
Belief in the day of the Lord is important because unless we are heading somewhere, we are heading nowhere; and if we are heading nowhere, then our belief is nothing.
‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night‘ says Paul. Isn’t that hope? Isn’t that reassurance?