‘We must be saved by that final form of love
which is forgiveness.’ (Reinhold Niebuhr)
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 3 November 2019
We’re beginning a period in the church’s year of remembering. This morning it’s All Saints, this evening it’s All Souls and next week is Remembrance Sunday. And November seems a particularly apt time to be doing this, with the light fading and the leaves blowing off the trees encouraging a more reflective mood in us.
As we remember those who have gone before us, whether heroes of the faith or those who’ve been close to us, the Christian faith offer us an ultimate hope in the face of death from which we can draw strength and comfort.
Robert Peston, well known as the former BBC economics correspondent, was interviewed a year after the death of his wife, a young woman in her forties. Asked how he thought about her now, he replied that, although he was not conventionally religious, he had a strong feeling that she was still with him. And when pressed whether he had any explanation for this, his eventual reply was the one word: ‘love’.
Human love is such a powerful force that its echo, as it were, can and does produce feelings like those described by both Robert Peston and many others who have suffered bereavement. And of course the Christian faith talks not just about the power of human love, but divine love!
A moving passage about death that I’ve quoted before, comes from one of my university lecturers, Geoffrey Lampe, who knew that he was dying of cancer. In 1980, shortly before his own death, he was invited to preach at the University Church in Cambridge, on ‘Preparation for Death’.
There he said:
‘…at the heart of our life is unfulfilled hope, a
promise and an assurance of the transformation of
ourselves into the image of God in which,
potentially, we have been created. That
transformation cannot be completed in these few
years of life; and if these years are all that there is for
us, such glimpses of God as we now have are like a
springtime without a summer to follow it. Here is
real ground for fear, and we need trust and hope as
our preparation against it.’
There is an appropriate time to accept death, an acknowledgement that rarely comes easily, that everything that can be done has been done, or that someone is now no longer with us in the way that they once were.
But there’s also an appropriate rebellion against death, that death makes a mockery of life and all that we hold dear. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it famously when he wrote:
‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
And that points us in the direction that Geoffrey Lampe has suggested – that at the heart of life there is unfulfilled hope – that the glimpses of God that we now have are like a ‘spring time without a summer to follow’ if death were simply the end of it.
However enduring the power of human love is, Christian hope goes beyond that to talk about the enduring power of God’s love – because that alone can include an ultimate hope that gives meaning to the whole of both life and death.
In both of the Creeds that we use regularly, the Nicene Creed that we shall say this morning and the Apostles’ Creed that we shall say this evening, the closing phrases refer to this ultimate hope that includes an ultimate healing.
Each time we find ourselves reciting one of these two creeds, and particularly when reciting the Apostles’ Creed, the words we use refer to the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come – but also to the forgiveness of sins.
The forgiveness of sins, involving as it does the healing of relationships, is a significant dimension to the ministry ofhealing.
We’ve been offering the ministry of healing here at St Mary’s as part of our normal Sunday worship for the last 8 years! It’s become a valued part of our normal, regular ministry as a church.
Hands are laid and prayers are said as we sit on the benches after receiving communion.
This or a similar prayer is used:
‘May Christ bring you wholeness
of body, mind and spirit,
deliver you from every evil,
and give you his peace.’
I know that a number of us can testify to the importance of this ministry in our lives and we’re grateful to God for this. Few of us though who come to receive this ministry say anything at all about what our needs are, and I’m not suggesting it should be otherwise!
But when I was helping elsewhere, people were quite used to saying what their needs were when they came for prayer and the laying on of hands. And what I found particularly striking was that time and again people spoke about broken relationships and the desire for forgiveness.
They knew that healing is about wholeness, as the prayer we use suggests – a peace with ourselves, a peace in our relationships with others, a peace in our relationship with God and ultimately a peace with all creation!
So there’s a future dimension to this ministry – hope, healing and forgiveness are all of a piece – and our Creeds point to this by including alongside the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.
I end with some words of Reinhold Niebuhr that express much better than I can what I’ve been trying to say!
‘Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing truly beautiful or good makes complete
sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous,
can be accomplished alone;
therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the
standpoint of our friend or foe,
as from our own standpoint;
therefore we must be saved by that final form of love
which is forgiveness.’