A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 17 May 2020
One of the things that can happen to us in extreme situations is that we find ourselves reacting in ways that are out of character. Some of these ways may be lovely. A greater friendliness and sensitivity to those around us, or a courage and resilience that we never knew we had.
But other things too can bubble up and these may not be quite as welcome. Aspects of ourselves can suddenly become magnified and there aren’t the usual things around for us to bump into to steady us. We’re not quite the person we thought or hoped we were!
T S Eliot, in one of his lesser-known and very short poems, has a terse description of the human predicament. He refers to us shivering and fluttering between disparate aspects of ourselves, ‘Swinging between hell gate and heaven gate….’ is how he puts it.
And in the next line, the last of the poem, he writes: ‘And the gates of hell shall not prevail.’ That makes me want to shout Alleluia!
It’s a phrase that Eliot has picked up from the gospels, and it’s a wonderfully hopeful phrase particularly when thinking about the vagaries of the human heart: ‘And the gates of hell shall not prevail.’
In our first reading this morning Saint Peter refers to the hope that is in us, writing: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.’
And to express the key role that hope plays, in religious art it’s depicted as an anchor, because elsewhere in scripture hope is referred to ‘as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure’.
That’s what hope does – it steadies us when the waves crash across our bows – it ensures were not blown off course quite as much as we might otherwise be. That’s why when Eliot writes: ‘And the gates of hell shall not prevail’ I want to shout Alleluia!
Our gospel reading also talks about what’s in us, and it takes us to an even deeper place. It refers to another Advocate, Comforter, Counsellor, Helper – it’s hard to know which word best conveys the meaning of the Greek word that Saint John uses.
But whichever word is used, ‘You know him’ we’re told, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’. And that’s not all!
In the next paragraph what’s in us is referred to again: ‘I am coming to you’ Christ says, ‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’
Somewhere in the back of our minds we may recall a phrase that Saint Paul uses when he also talks about Christ in us, the hope of glory.
I’ve only ever shaved my head once before in my entire life and that was when I was a troubled adolescent. The gates of hell were perilously close to me then, and shaving my head was all part of the turmoil I was in.
But the gates of hell did not prevail then – and, in the words of the song that we shall soon sing, here in the love of Christ I stand.
Maybe singing gets us a little closer, or perhaps silence is best. Because we’re right on the edge of what’s possible to express in words.
Saint Paul refers to the riches of the glory of this mystery!
Christ’s risen presence, full of life and joy and hope!
Maybe you too feel like shouting Alleluia!