” … that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31
To have a simple faith is to invite mockery, it is to leave one open to the accusation of being naive, of not thinking, of not understanding, of being lazy, of being immature; yet, at heart, faith is a simple matter. When asked about their hope of a life to come, most people would probably identify with the words of Charlotte Mew’s poem, An Old Shepherd’s Prayer. Isn’t it a poem that captures how many people would feel? 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’.
It is 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 ebbs 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 it challenges thoughts about what Christians believe about this life and about the life to come.
Belief in a world to come is vague, even amongst Christians. The Church, for the most part 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 heaven.
The disciples would have been astonished. John writes in today’s Gospel passage that he has written his book so that people may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they 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, Jesus’ followers are 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 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 is now believed about life to come? It probably doesn’t get much thought.
There is a temptation to give into the spirit of the age: to deal with the material side of life, and to forget the spiritual side. Yet at the heart of faith and at the· heart of Christian identity there is this man Jesus who, the Gospel says, dies and rises again and who says that people can share this new life with him if they want.
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 people want, but the old shepherd has a hope of heaven. Faltering as he may be in his faith, the old shepherd believes in a heavenly master who calls people to account and who offers an eternal reward.
John writes so that we people may believe and that believing they may have life in Jesus’ name. Peter said Christians must obey God rather than men, it was a belief that would cost him his life. Is it that hope of heaven what is still believed?