A Sermon from Sherborne

Easter is always

A sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods, on Sunday 14 May 2017

Someone wrote a letter to me the other day that began, “Now that Easter is well and truly over…” – and I nearly put it in the bin there and then. Easter wasn’t well and truly over. It had hardly begun. For the Christian, Easter is always, and every Sunday is the day of resurrection. That is why this last week, as I have officiated at no fewer than four burials, at each service I have been able to read with perfect confidence St Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth that “This perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?

 “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Or, as St John puts it in today’s Gospel, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s hose there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”

An early 17th century memorial in my last church began with these lines:

Impartial death, which stops the breath

Of kings and beggars and all mortal things….

For each one of us, death is the one absolute certainty of our lives, and if we are wise we shall learn to say with Job:

Naked I came from the womb,

Naked I shall return whence I came.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord.

But it doesn’t stop there, and we Christians must have the courage to proclaim that death must not be a taboo subject, the great unmentionable, but that it is “swallowed up in victory”. We live in an age of conspiracy about dying, and doctors, nurses, relatives, clergy and even the dying themselves all get drawn into the plot. The former Russian Orthodox Archbishop in this country, Anthony Bloom, described the conspiracy like this: “One of the tragic things I find in the West is the gradual loneliness in which a dying person is secluded. The person knows, in body and soul, that death is coming; but the husband smiles, the daughter smiles, the nurse smiles, the doctor smiles, everyone smiles in such a way that the person knows it is a lie… and the result is distress… faced in a lonely way.”

That’s not to say that everyone who is dying should be made to discuss it and agonise over it, and with many people there is a proper reticence about death and dying. But that’s not the same as a conspiracy of silence, and Christians above all people, at Eastertide above all times, should be prepared to look death in the face, and not be afraid.

But why are we afraid? One very good reason is that we fear not so much the fact of dying as the whole painful business of dying. And that is understandable. Some of us here this morning will go on in full vigour of life until one day our heart simply stops beating and there will be no pain. Others of us may have to face a long and lingering illness, and there is no virtue in that, no merit in the pain that can bring. That’s why, I think, we should be glad that so much can be done to minimise pain, even to eliminate it. We should thank God for the Hospice movement and for pioneers like Cicely Saunders who have ensured that terminal care is now part of normal medical care. And we should work hard to support our own local hospices in Dorchester and Yeovil. We should take courage and realise that if we face illness like that with simple acceptance and real faith, then we will actually experience much less pain than if our reaction is one of bitterness and resentment. Cicely Saunders has written of how the majority of those who spend their last days at her hospice in London find composure and serenity at the end of their lives, and how their openness, their gratefulness and their simplicity call forth the same qualities from those who try to help them. “If I had strength enough to hold a pen”, said the dying physician and anatomist William Hunter, “I would write how easy and pleasant a thing it is to die”. The muscles relax and the last breath escapes from the body. The heart stops and blood ebbs away from the face, leaving it pale and at peace. For most people, the moment of death is simply like falling asleep.

But the second reason why so many people are afraid of death and dying is that they see it as the end, a real dead-end, a full stop. How sad. And there is in Worcester Cathedral an ancient tomb which testifies to that sort of hopelessness, even in the House of God. Its inscription is a single word, Miserrimus. Most miserable, or most wretched. And you have to agree. If dying is so utterly negative, so completely without hope, then there’s little to be said for it, nothing to welcome in it.

But in the catacombs in Rome, those vast underground chambers where the early Christians sought refuge from their persecutors, there is another slab with another one-word inscription which summarises the whole of the Christian hope: Felicissimus, it says, Most happy – not miserrimus; felicissimus.

And this is our faith. And yes, of course what happens to us after death is a matter of faith. It is not a matter of exact knowledge. It is a matter of faith. But it is a faith based on and grounded in sure and certain facts, the facts of the death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our hope, and in this hope we are saved.

Of course I don’t know what heaven will be like, no-one does, except for those holy men in the New Testament to whom it was given to see visions and dream dreams. But I believe St Paul when he says that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”. Heaven will be beyond our imaginings; it will be, in the words of the Lady Julian over 600 years ago, “A right merry company”, a place of love and light and laughter and life.

I believe that because heaven is a place of love and light and laughter and life that it is right and proper to pray for those whom we have loved and see no longer, to pray for them this Eastertide and always and, yes, to know that they pray for us, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Easter is for you and Easter is for me. Easter is always, for Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 14/05/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne