15 October 2017

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 15 October 2017

Often you have heard me talk about the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”, the Resurrection now and not just after (Matthew 6.10). We often think of this life as preliminary, but this is the life that Christ came to take flesh in, to heal and suffer in, to teach and experience in, to die and rise again in. Here is where we touch the substance of things unseen (II Corinthians 4.18 & Hebrews 11.1). “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” said Christ (Luke 17.21): “I confer on you a Kingdom” (Luke 22.29). “The Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” said Gabriel to His Mother (Luke 1.35). “The Lord of hosts is with us, in the midst,” King David (Psalm 45/6.6, 8), and Gabriel repeated it: “God is with us” (Matthew 1.23). Here is where it begins; here is where it begins to go wrong; here is where God begins to put it right.

So Heaven is no mere after-death survival either. Our culture, which has given up believing in Christ (so that it has the mental space to believe not nothing but anything), is hooked on the idea of menacing forces from outside, ghosts, zombies, demons. It has got itself into thinking that the realm of the Spirit is shadowy, untrustworthy, menacing, and leeching on us for itself. To them an after-life is not only a pale imitation of life, but a bleak imitation. Either that, or an aimless rest upon the clouds. But is that all there is?

Saint Paul, as you can trace through his Letters, realises more and more what is happening. He speaks of Christ filling the universe (Ephesians 4.10), and being all in all (Ephesians 1.23), being exalted above the heavens (Ephesians 1.20). He concludes, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2.20). Today, he tells us of someone caught up into Paradise (from the Epistle, II Corinthians 12.4). Let us assume he was speaking about himself and those bewildering weeks of blindness and confusion he spent at Damascus, as Christ penetrated his entire soul and psychology. He describes how Christ entered into his soul only through the crucifixion of everything he thought he was about, his bringing down, his weakening, his suffering. “It’s too much to bear,” says Paul: “Take it away” (II Corinthians 12.8). But the process of “God-With-Us” has begun. The Kingdom is upon him, the power of the Most High overshadows him; until Christ filling the universe is not just about the great beyond above the stars but the great within. Paul sees it how it is: “My weakness is how the power of Christ dwells in me” (II Corinthians 12.9).

Paul regards his elation at this with trepidation lest it make him conceited. He tests it for tempter’s power, but the experience of the Cross assures him it is true. We too may thus recall the exaltation, the inspiration and closeness to God’s Kingdom that we are given to feel, sometimes in prayer, sometimes with others in the world, sometimes in worship. We sense going out of ourselves and being held onto by something new and beyond. Sometimes, then, we understand what Paul says means: “Set your affection on things above…where your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.2-3). It is interesting that Paul keeps coming back to this instinct of being caught up in Paradise, because it was what the Lord said to the thief beside Him on the Cross: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43) It was not a promise for then, but the revelation of how things now are and always will be.

How can we be living fully here, but unforgettably beyond in the Kingdom, too? It is the result of a two-way process, begun when Christ came first the other way, out of the Kingdom and into here, when He entered into His creation and took upon Himself our flesh. Consider our souls’ release from our body’s confinement into the realm of the Holy Spirit, the finite opening into the boundless, and then consider the entry of God into a self-confinement within human nature, the Infinite opening up the earth-bound with eternity. The Fathers speak of how He becomes human, that we might become divine, an exchange of characteristics that at last are put into balance and corrected relationship, by the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. St Paul regards it as an all or nothing deal, the prize of which is so valuable that everything is put on the line: “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich” (II Corinthians 8.9).

No wonder the thief is told, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. For everything, from the womb of the Virgin to the passion on the Cross, is about the release of Christ’s power to fill the universe and at last to fill humanity. The Cross and Resurrection catch the thief into Paradise, as they will catch the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Thomas in the Upper Room, and Paul on his way to meet the fulfilment of his whole world on the road to Damascus.

As Christians, then, we constantly set our affections on the things that are above. We live by the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ, Who has gone before us and opened up the way that broadens into the Father’s House. But we also know that this world and we are not there yet; and the moments when we “Lift up our hearts” to the Lord, in the world as much as in the Liturgy, are rare, even though they keep us going. But we do not lose touch with that underlying reality to where we actually are: the conclusion that Paul came to, that it is “not I who live, but Christ who lives within me”. And it is not in my strength or proficiency, but by my weakness and my blessed need of God that the power of Christ does not just come to me, but dwells here.

This is a lifetime’s work, and every Christian knows the will’s destructive attitude to the gift that has been placed within us (I Timothy 4.14). But, while we remain sinners far off, Christ runs to meet and embrace us (Luke 15.20 & Roman 5.8). What was released on the Cross to catch us up in Paradise keeps coming and coming. Observe the Divine Liturgy, as the priest and deacon come in and out, to bring us into the action of prayer, to draw us up when the Living Gospel comes in our midst and Wisdom takes us with Him into the Kingdom, to involve us on the path to Calvary when the gifts are brought for sacrifice. But see, too, when the priest in the Name of Christ comes through again and again to breathe peace, and ultimately to communicate the life of Christ Himself into the world, into you, so that You in this Temple are communicated into heaven, into the living God.

We go away from the Temple and we return to the world. But it is never from a high point to a low point; for always “God is with us”. Everywhere He goes before us, everywhere He dwells in us, since it is not we who live but Christ Who lives within us; and our life is hid with Christ in God. Everywhere we see this, when there is self-giving with no hope of a return, when enemies are loved, when the undeserving are forgiven, when the harsh become merciful (cf. the Gospel, Luke 6.31-36), and when those who think the world of God is a pale imitation of this reality are caught up from the bleak prospect of death, to a hope they never realised was already theirs. A fine English hymn says it all:

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
In every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim,
Thy being and Thy ways.

Not in the Temple crowd alone
Where holy voices chime,
But in the silent paths of earth,
The quiet rooms of time.

So shall no part of day or night,
From sacredness be free,
But all my life, in every step,
Be fellowship with Thee. Horatius Bonar, 1866