Abseiling for the King
John 17:1-11; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Haslemere, May 2017
It’s very good to be here, and thank you very much to Mary for inviting me.
Walking backwards off the top of a cliff as part of a team-building exercise might seem a rather reckless leisure activity. Doing so as a middle-aged man, with a wife, four children and a Golden Labrador to support, might seem irresponsible. But my first experience of abseiling a few years’ back was nothing if not memorable. My instructor was calm but realistic: ‘When you stand at the top of the cliff and look down’, he said, ‘nearly everything in you will shout out, ‘DON’T DO IT!’ But remember, you’ve got the rope, you’re wearing the helmet, you’re attached to someone at the bottom of the cliff: so just walk back calmly, lean out, and you’ll be fine!’
And I’m not sure about the calmness – but otherwise it happened exactly as the instructor had said. Any bungee-jumper or wild-water rafter or other adrenaline junkie here this morning would think my efforts feeble in the extreme. But to me it felt quite brave, as I stepped out, leant back and duly made my way slowly and laboriously down the cliff face, with my fellow team members generously cheering my every step!
And here in our Bible readings this morning, there’s a sense of potential danger around: a sense that in this period between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, the Church was preparing to step out backwards into the unknown. In our gospel reading – one of the very few windows we have into the content of Jesus’ prayer life – our Lord prays urgently for the disciples’ protection as he prepares to leave them. In our epistle reading, one of those disciples – St Peter – writes honestly and passionately about the ‘fiery ordeal’ that the church is about to endure, and the call to share in Christ’s sufferings.
‘No servant is greater than his Master’, Jesus had taught the disciples earlier in his ministry, ‘If they persecute me, they will persecute you also’. And as a series of ever-more paranoid Roman emperors began to turn their attention on the rapidly growing church, anxious at how the Christian proclamation ‘Jesus is Lord!’ was starting to supplant the imperial proclamation ‘Caesar is Lord!’ – so it became more and more dangerous to be a follower of Christ. It started with restrictions on employment, on family life, on where and when you were allowed to worship; it continued with beatings and imprisonments; it culminated in some of the most barbaric forms of execution known to man – being crucified, as Peter himself was; being thrown to the lions in the Roman arena; being covered in tar, then set alight as a human torch: all that depressing litany of persecution and brutality that has characterised man’s inhumanity to man through the ages.
And it’s not stopped, of course. In my own travels over the past few decades, I’ve been privileged to meet Pastor Richard in Rumania, who was kept in solitary confinement for years on end; and Pastor Moses in Beijing who endured decades of imprisonment and hard labour during the era of Mao Tse Tung; and Pastor Sasha in Donetsk, who spoke powerfully and movingly about the martyrdom of his friends. I’ve met Magdalena, a gifted young woman in the former German Democratic Republic, who told me of how she’d bravely refused to go through the Jugendweihe – a kind of communist confirmation service which included the proclamation, ‘There is no God!’ – and ended up being bullied at school, debarred from University, and forced to work as a cleaner in a hospital where she should have been a surgeon. I’ve met Mrs Yu, the leader of a 1500-strong church in South West China, whose beautiful new church building had been closed and padlocked by the authorities, with the threat of demolition if the Christians refused to pay a bribe and to tow the party line.
And in amidst the cruelty, and sheer injustice embedded in each of these situations, there’s been something about the quality of the faith of the 85-year-old Pastor Moses or the 23-year-old Magdalena that has shone out in the midst of their troubles. There’s even been a sense, in the terms of our epistle reading, that they’ve been enabled to rejoice that they are sharing Christ’s sufferings – a sense, in the terms of my abseiling experience, that they’ve stepped off the cliff only to find that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’.
Of course Christians are not masochists. Of course, we all prefer to live our lives free from persecution, and indeed from sufferings of any kind. Of course, the same trials that make one person break another. But the ‘fiery ordeal’ that Peter writes of – whether persecution, life-threatening illness, redundancy, family crises or whatever else – has the potential to do extraordinary things within us, to turn us from shallow people into deep people, people of wisdom, compassion, faith.
Now at first sight, such experiences – and indeed, some of the wording of our Anglican liturgies – might seem a trifle overblown when it comes to the Church in the West. The encouragement to ‘fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil’ in our baptismal liturgy, for example; or the call to ‘present our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice’ in our service of Holy Communion: such drama seems a world away as we meet in the prosperous, tranquil surroundings of St Christopher’s Haslemere, even a little fanatical for the good old Church of England. We may feel the same about our Bible readings too, especially St Peter’s vivid description of the devil prowling around like a roaring lion.
And there is a danger in such prosperity and tranquillity, of course, a danger regularly articulated in Old Testament and New alike. For the church in such a setting can begin to resemble a pot-bound plant, whose very lack of testing, whose very smallness of vision, leads to its roots turning inwards not outwards, because there’s nowhere else for them to grow.
It’s not as though such churches are genuinely lacking in challenge. There remains, for example, the considerable challenge of passing on the faith to future generations, which every church must clearly embrace if it is to survive (and incidentally, how good to confirm such a great bunch of Haslemere young people on Easter Eve this year!). But pot-bound churches focus instead on the most extraordinary minutiae, and fall apart over the most trivial of disagreements – you should see some of the letters that come across the episcopal desk! – while Christ longs to take hold of such churches and to transplant them into a far larger, more open space where their roots can grow out and they can be truly fruitful and beautiful in the Kingdom of God.
That’s part of the picture, perhaps; but another part is this: that for many of us – perhaps for all of us – a time will come when the language of living sacrifices and prowling lions feels entirely appropriate – when we do feel under attack, when we are confronting, in ourselves or in a loved one, a challenge that seems, or maybe is, a matter of life or death. And at that point a superficial faith simply won’t cut it; at that point, we’ll have a choice set before us: either to travel the road of anxiety, self-pity, bitterness and unbelief – or else to travel the road of trust, humility, peacefulness and an ever-strengthening faith in our crucified and risen Lord.
One of my brother bishops, John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester, has faced that stark choice ever since his wife Denise died on Easter Day in 2014, following a 12-month battle with cancer. I was privileged to hear John preach in the crypt chapel at Lambeth Palace a few weeks’ later, where he movingly read out some of the last words written by Denise before she died – and here’s what she had to write:
‘I do not know how much more time I have to live my questions out, but I am glad I started asking them even before the cancer came: for, although they cannot be rushed, these are questions that must not be avoided. This is true whether or not you have been diagnosed with a frightening disease … Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed? Get rid of the bitternesses. Mend the bridges. Seek and receive forgiveness. Let yourself be loved. Have you found a lasting hope? Anchor yourself in the eternal and abiding: in God. Feed yourself something stronger than optimism. You are in a constant state of growth and transition, so let change transform you. What are the things for which you will be remembered? Cut the crap in your life. Do the things that matter. Find and exercise your gifts. Are you on a path of true humility? Submit to a truth that is bigger than yourself. Become part of it. Let it be your story.
‘What I have been surprised to discover, as these questions chase and wash over me’ – concludes Denise – ‘is that preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing’.
And here we are on holy ground: because here in Denise’s last words, we come to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about, the heart of what the Church’s mission is all about, the heart of what this act of worship is all about: it’s all about preparing people to live and preparing people to die, which, in the end, are the same thing.
Jesus put it beautifully in our gospel reading: ‘This is eternal life’, he said, ‘That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’. It’s in knowing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – living in a deep, prayerful, trusting, obedient relationship with Him – that we discover how to live well and – in due course – how to die well. Knowing about God isn’t enough. Going to Church isn’t enough. Ask Pastor Moses or Magdalena or Mrs Yu or Denise or Bishop John what is the secret of their radiant courage in the face of whatever life has thrown at them, and they would all say this: The secret lies in knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
For those who haven’t discovered that secret, there’ll always be confusion when it comes to living and denial when it comes to dying. Life may still have its fair share of joys and successes, for some at least; there will still be significant achievements notched up and meaningful relationships formed. But at its deepest level there will be a lack of meaning, a lack of purpose, a dull resignation or perhaps a raging against the dying of the light. It’s no wonder that such people will do all they can to insulate themselves from the reality of death, or accuse those who speak about it with the charge of being morbid. Stepping off a cliff backwards without rope or helmet or someone at the bottom is – let’s face it – a pretty bleak prospect.
But compare that with the robustness of the faith expressed in Jesus’ prayer or Peter’s letter or Denise’s last words or the liturgy of our services of baptism and Holy Communion, and we’re comparing a house built on sand with a house built on rock. And this rock isn’t make-believe, a fantasy, some fictitious story to make us feel a bit better on our occasional, grieving, trips to the crematorium. This rock is the faithfulness of God Himself, a God we can know, a God we can trust, the God and Father of our crucified, risen Lord Jesus Christ.
And so we need to get in training for that day when we will walk off the cliff and into the unknown. We need, in Denise’s words, to start asking the questions before the crisis comes – because although they cannot be rushed, these are questions that must not be avoided: questions like, Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed? Have you found a lasting hope? What are the things for which you will be remembered? Are you on a path of true humility?
And this service, and every service, is part of the training programme to prepare us for that day, to enable us to live well and to die well.
So I finish by repeating some words from our epistle reading this morning: and let’s listen to these attentively and prayerfully, because here is deep wisdom, wisdom to live for, wisdom to die for:
‘Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another’, writes St Peter, ‘for
‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’
‘Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.