Journey's End

Sunday 22nd June 2014
The First Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Woodmancote
Deuteronomy 11:1-15
Acts 27:1-12

When I lived in the Caribbean I was shocked by the small number of its inhabitants who could swim. The locals attributed this to a prohibition by slave owners but I thought this improbable 150 years after abolition; but we might be equally surprised to know that swimming competence only became compulsory in the Royal Navy during the 20th Century. I suppose you could argue that fear of drowning made sailors fight more intensely but I doubt that was the reason for the  late implementation of something that seems so obvious.

With few exceptions, the sea has been perceived throughout history as a means of commerce but an enemy of survival; even the seafaring ancient Greeks were deeply equivocal and the Bible doesn't have a good word to say for it; from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, the Israelites saw the sea as a threat. This is primarily because, according to Jewish cosmology and topography, the fundamental act of creation was to put the waters into check, below the earth, above the earth, and around the earth, an arrangement which was temporarily undone by God when he loosed the flood on a wicked world.

Our First Reading from Deuteronomy recalls the story of the liberation  of the Chosen People from Egypt, departing on foot, passing dry-shod through the Red Sea and then saved from recapture by the drowning of the Egyptians, one of the most dramatic accounts of water in the whole of ancient literature. Yet it did not stop the chosen people, bored with manna, hankering after the flesh pots of Egypt. Yet we should not allow the subsequent unfaithfulness of the wandering tribes to obscure the faith with which they set out, bellies full of lamb, baggage full of donated jewellery, ears ringing with the wailing of Egyptians bereft of their first-born, marching in an untidy column with a fiery pillar at their head; they knew the theory of the promise but had no idea how things would turn out in practice.

Setting out on his journey to Rome, Saint Paul was perhaps a little more clear about the practicalities. In spite of the juridical procedural mess which he underwent from the time of his arrest in Jerusalem to the moment when he appealed to the Emperor, as he set out, he knew that he would be committed to trial on a capital charge which, on the basis of the law, could not hold but which might lead to his execution because of the vagaries of evidence and the high statistical chance of corruption. As it was, he was almost certainly murdered extra judicially, along with Saint Peter, during Nero's persecution.

We are accustomed to journeys starting out in hope: our 19th Century novels are packed with young men taking to the open road but we know when we begin to read that the convention of those times was that the morally upright would triumph in the end; our 20th Century fictional adventurers have fared less well. We also know that every political project which starts out in hope ends in disillusion: Tony Blair's anthem, Things Can Only Get Better, at the Royal Festival Hall or David Cameron and Nick Clegg's optimism in the Rose Garden of Number 10. We have heard the inaugural speeches of American Presidents and watched their endings: Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's plunge into Vietnam, Nixon's disgrace, Carter's embroilment in the Iran hostage crisis, Obama's legislative impotence. N wonder we go back to the novels which end happily; there is only a certain amount of realism that we can take before we begin to lose faith in society and ourselves.

But look again at the two journeys in our Readings: after all their struggles and reverses, always self-inflicted, God kept his promise to the Chosen People who passed from slavery in Egypt to a kind of freedom in their own land; and Saint Paul achieved his God given objective of reaching Rome where, we are told in the last sentence of Acts, he was left alone to preach The Word.

So what of our journeys? Well, I hardly need say that they often do not take the course we plan, littered as they are, with setbacks and surprises, but are we clear about the end point? Do we really know what we are doing? It's only a straw poll but in the course of planning this sermon I asked some people what they were looking forward to, and none of them mentioned being re-united with God in what, for the sake of shorthand, we will call "heaven". There were many references to grandchildren - the survival of  the species which is part of our DNA - and many, understandable,  hopes for a pain free death; and a couple of respondents wanted to get more or less trivial projects finished, or reach a certain round number of years; but for no Christian to mention the end point of the creaturely life was quite remarkable and this leads me to the core question:

If we are setting out on a journey in faith; faith in what?

What is faith all about if not in God's promise, made absolutely clear in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, that we should be saved. Well, we use the word "saved" often enough but, still, we need to ask saved from what for what? AT which point there's no point saying "sin" because that only puts the question back one level, i.e. if we are saved from sin, what does that mean? By the time we reach today's Reading we have been told all we need to know in the Gospels and in Acts up to this point. What is it that we still don't know? What is it that could be made clearer? Why is the promise so difficult to accept when we have the whole of  the witness and inheritance of Jesus; when God has kept every promise?

Between now and the time we take up the story of Jesus at the beginning of Advent, it might be a good idea to think and pray about what being a follower of Jesus means for us, about the meaning of the journey's end. When most people in our  society were Christians, many of us could get away with  doing very little; but now we must be the leaven in a largely un-Christian society. But if we don't believe, and know what and why we believe, then the beer won't brew and the bread won't rise.