Things Can only Get Better

Sunday 28th February 2016
The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
John 1.35-51

No matter whether you have political preferences or not, it is surely not easy to forget the dawn on which Tony Blair became a Labour Prime Minister after 18 years of Conservative Government. As the sun rose, symbolically, one might say, the party faithful sang the campaign song "Things can only get better" which, at the time, struck me as the triumph of optimism over experience. Ultimately, for Blair at least, regardless of the fruits of his period of office, things could only get worse; and they did. He left office Hounded out by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. But, looked at from a longer perspective, when was it otherwise. With the exception of Churchill and Wilson who, respectively, left office because of old age and illness, every UK Prime Minister since the Second World War - and most before it - either lost office by losing a General Election or by being removed by the party of which they were the Leader. And, all over the world, the phenomenon recurs. Fresh people with fresh ideas turn into jaded politicians who have only partially achieved their goals. Such are the demands of modern government that our leaders go grey-haired before our very eyes.

Such was the case, but with a much more drastic termination, with Jesus. Our Gospel Reading today is a lakeside lark full of optimism and even a few clumsy jokes. As Jesus and his followers made their grim journey up to Jerusalem for the last time, they must have looked back on this and other lakeside scenes when Jesus was gathering his new followers about him, telling them not to obey his orders but to "come and see." When I wrote a Passion Play a couple of years ago I succumbed to the contemporary practice of inserting flashbacks and, inevitably, these were to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. What began with comedy ended in tragedy.

Of course it didn't; you know as well as I do that the death of Jesus was not the end but only a transition to the Resurrection. For struggling, sinful Christians things can, literally, only get better; that is the good news which we are supposed to be carrying to everyone.

But we, as part of the Church, have to be extremely careful to remember that we are not carrying salvation to people, we are simply carrying the news of it; and that, further, because God has conferred salvation and creation, regardless of whether people have heard the good news or not, our attitude to those who have not heard should not be one of dismissal but of deep compassion because they have lived their lives without the gifts which we so richly enjoy, which is why the Old Testament is so poignant when we read it, knowing what we know. Imagine living your whole life not knowing the best news you could ever know; and compare that with leading a life where the best news you could ever know is constantly repeated and elaborated. Would it not be fair, in the latter case, to say that the possessor of such good news has better means, as well as better knowledge, to be a witness to Jesus Christ? Surely we are not superior in any way to those who, through no fault of their own, have never heard the name of Jesus? We simply, and properly, bear more responsibility to see that things get better on earth by spreading the good news, not as a set of complex theological propositions but through the promotion of social and economic justice; and not promotion in the advocacy sense only but also in the active sense. If we really want to build the Kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven, just hoping that other people will do the job at our bidding, or interceding, is just not good enough.

The ownership of the means of salvation is a dangerously powerful illusion which has led to a hierarchical Christian power structure based on supposed proper theological understanding and on moral authority, best represented in the Medieval Catholic Church by the Inquisition and in the Protestant Churches by the governance in Geneva of John Calvin, strongly illustrating my point that if you can persuade yourself and those over whom you hold authority that you are the sole means of salvation, people, in fear of damnation, will do anything you say.

How far this is from Jesus who promised eternal life to all those he encountered. There are no conditional doctrinal clauses. Nobody is left out as long as they are humble, repentant Kingdom Builders.

And so, when we say as Christians that things can only get better, we properly mean that they will get better for the whole of humanity because that flaw which was deliberately created in us so that we might, through the exercise of free will, love God and each other freely - a quite distinct idea from God's essence as love - was simultaneously mended in the Resurrection; and that is a vital point because imposing a human time span on God's eternally existent acts of creation and redemption misleads us into writing off those born before Christ and it then leads us, by extension, into presuming to judge who is saved and who is not.

Let me leave us with one final thought. If we subtract all our presumption about the ultimate fate of others, we will have much more mental space and time to work out how we can best spread the good news not just in thought and word but also in deed; we should invert the traditional words of our confession and put much more emphasis on what we have failed to do. Lent is a personal journey but it is also a corporate journey; it is a time of self assessment and self denial but it is also the opportunity for an offering to others who are spiritually and physically less well off than we are.

As Saint Theresa Avilla wrote:

"Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours:
Yours are the eyes with which He sees
Yours are the feet with which He walks
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world ..."

That is at once our privilege and our responsibility.