Easter Day, 2012
St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea
Christ is risen! And today St Paul tells us, “You must look for the things that are in heaven” (Colossians 3.2).
He is recalling the words of the Lord himself, who said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice” (Matthew 6.33). So we could be forgiven for thinking, at first, that we ought to disregard this world, oblivious of its sins, its problems and even its joys, while we scan the spiritual horizon for signs of another world, another reality. After all, St Paul goes further. “Set your affections on the things that are above,” he says, “not on the things that are on the earth.”
But looking beyond the world to look for heaven is to miss the point: the event and its effect are here and now. After Jesus has told us to seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice, he goes on to say that the Father will add to us, what we need and lack today. “Take no thought for the morning,” he says, “for the morning has enough evils of its own. The morning will think for itself.” What does this strange saying mean?
Well, so much of what Jesus says to us – and we have to imagine we are not looking back over history so much as standing there among his first hearers – is about the sheer force of living that belongs to him as God – the living that is God among us from the first moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, Mother of God; and the force of living that human birth, life and death could never contain; the force of living that would come into their own, unbounded and free of death, in their natural outcome: the Resurrection. So, when Jesus speaks of seeking first the “sovereign rule” of God, he knows that it must needs come to light by taking the force of his living through suffering for our sakes, because that “suffering Servant” is inseparable from what God could possibly look like, inseparable from the form that his kingdom could possibly take, and inseparable from the effect that God’s justice must take, when he appears in the world - truly God among us. Some who had expected a Messiah wanted Jesus to be an all-powerful earthly king; others a magician, or a military hero. But “God among us” appears in the way that is characteristic of the God who takes human flesh – born in a stable, a wanderer, a convicted usurper, a discredited holy-man, a disproved leader, consigned to the Cross and physically destroyed. This God neither fits not suits people’s expectations; but he alone is the Lord. Thus he knows that he will die of the sufferings to which he subjects his life, because that, too, is inseparable from how God will appear before his people. He also knows that the next morning - the “morning with enough evils of its own” - he will lie dead, beyond reach on the Sabbath, apparently inert and powerless. Yet beyond that, he knows, too, that the morning will think for itself; and by the following morning something of his own will be “added” to all humanity – eternal life. He will rise again, and all will be changed. “Destroy this Temple,” he says, “and I will rebuild it in three days” (John 2.19).
So it is that the angels say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Mary Magdalen has come to seek the dead among the living. She does not yet realise she should look for the things that are in heaven. Inadvertently she runs away from them. She finds Peter and the other disciple and they run together towards the empty tomb. Still they do not understand. Still they search for the dead body among the lives of mortals in the world. But St Paul, writing later with all he had heard from these people still ringing in his ears, from St Mary Magdalen and her encounter in the Garden, from St Peter and St John, and with his own vivid memory of the Risen Lord’s blinding impact upon him on the road to Damascus - St Paul sees where the living of Christ is to be found. He says, “Your life is hid with Christ in God”.
In other words, heaven is not another world, a mere after-life, a better place beyond the clouds: heaven is not there if it is not here and now. It is not some Utopia that we have to try and live up to. That is fantasy, make-believe, a counsel of despair, because we know we can never achieve it. Instead, the heaven that lies beyond us is begun as the heaven that is truly within – in the midst of life we are in the Lord, risen from the dead. And this, our life, is hid with Christ in God. So it is that the bearing of Christianity and the kingdom of God on us and the world, come not from outside of it, with a merely external pressure, but from inside humanity itself. The kingdom of the resurrection is not a Christian pipe-dream, but nature’s true state of affairs now, to which the world must reconcile itself, or lose itself in unreality and futility.
Two years ago, the Holy Father came to Britain to tell the Church that it must give the world a convincing account of our hope in the Risen Lord, in answer to the world’s most fundamental questions. On this ground, he spoke of the bearing of faith and virtue on society and public life. The Prime Minister agreed how vital these considerations are. Quoting Blessed John Henry Newman, Mr Cameron reflected on how society finds its unity and purpose not simply in the coincidence of separate interests making a concerted effort, but through the shared identity and values that arise from a common life and faith. He identified that with Britain’s historic faith and Christian civilisation. Since that time, however, we have seen the exclusion of Religious Education as an academic subject in the new secondary education syllabus for the English Baccalaureate at the 16-plus level. This has led to a marked decline in taking up RE as an option for GCSE, after many years of its growth as a popular subject for serious study. And, because it is not seen as part of the academic core, there has been a consequent collapse in funding, provision and take-up of RE teacher-training, at just the time when society needs to understand better the bearing of religious faith in personal identity, social belonging and international affairs - and to understand better the truth that our spirituality, whatever we believe, is not just a hobby for the religious but an integral part of who and what everyone is. In a supposedly Christian country, the unlearning of this wisdom, something that has been part of our national birth right for 1500 years, is a deliberate secularisation for which there was no mandate, and which will have a destabilising effect on our society for decades. In another sphere, a reasoned quest for all people’s civil equality has been turned into an argument against the definition of marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all other for the procreation of children, which surely no one is interested in undermining. We also see the steadily pursued opposition in local authorities, public services, the world of commerce, voluntary work and even social settings, of the right of Christians to free speech as individuals, and their right of association as the Church for their voice, their values and their service to make its legitimate and respected contribution, just as it has throughout our civilisation’s history. The Church’s protests at these developments are not about lobbying for power and influence from outside, or for bolstering up some historic privileges for our institution like so many other vested interests; nor are they special pleading for the Christians. Instead, they stand as an urgent reminder that the spiritual dimension of all of us is no mere personal sense of other-worldliness, but constitutes an integral part of all human nature, the societies it forms, and the humanity we all share. For our civilisation, this is inescapably Christian. And in this context, our life is not just our own; it is hid with Christ in God. And so the things that are in heaven are to be found in no other place that within us. If the Kingdom of God is not the Resurrection from within humanity – all of us - it is coming nowhere and to no one.
Thus Christ Jesus’ Resurrection comes to us in the last place we were looking – not just a remarkable event in a cave 2000 years ago; not just an isolated incident in the life of one astonishing person; nor an import from outside, however much it offers us an electrifying new existence for all the creation. No – the Resurrection has come not from beyond us, but entered from within humanity. This is why Jesus tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God that has already come upon us (Matthew 12.28); this is why St Paul tells us to look for the things that are in heaven, because he had seen them in Jesus “manifested in the flesh” (I Timothy 3.16). These “things that are in heaven” are all found beginning here, in the reworking of creation, the reworking of human lives, the reworking of sin, the reworking of injustice, the reworking of us as new human creations, through gifts of faith and hope and love. They all begin with Emmanuel, the God among us, Christ with our life hidden in God, or even God hidden in Christ as much as he revealed him, just as he was hidden in that one lost morning, just as Mary at first thought the emptiness of the tomb concealed his disappearance, instead of pointing to his the appearance of a new humanity; just as Christ is hidden among us in his Real Presence in the Eucharist, so that he lives within us who are “his Body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1.23).
So, there is no need to look away from the world to look for the things that are in heaven. For while you are not yet in heaven, yet heaven is in you. It may not easily be discernible from the surface of us. It may not be so readily apparent to us, or to those who know us only too well. But your life is indeed hid with Christ in God. The Fathers used to gaze out from their hermit-caves on the desert and realised that the true desert where God was waiting for them lay within. So here now is Christ risen from the dead to be found; here we look for the coming of the Kingdom to begin its work. Here is found the way to our true homeland; here is where we are transfigured to be glorious like him (Philippians 3.20), not just in spirit, but in every aspect of our selves, our souls and our bodies.
For, as Christ has shown us, in that subtle resurrection, this new life lies not in the emptiness of a tomb, or the great imponderable beyond, but arrives to exert its full effect from within - the last place we expected, but the only place where hearts and minds, and all human hopes and love can be converted, and rise to life - on earth as it is in heaven.
MW, Easter 2012