A Sermon from Sherborne

Take life!

A sermon for Festal Mattins on Easter Day 2017, preached at Sherborne Abbey by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

The Venerable Bede, the first great historian of the English Church and People, who died in the year 735, is always rather short-changed here at Sherborne. You see, he shares a feast day with our own saint, Aldhelm, on 25th May. And naturally we put our Founder before the monk of Jarrow. And we can’t move him back a day, as he would clash with St John the Baptist, or forward, as he would be competing with St Augustine of Canterbury. So we tend rather to forget him, which is a pity.

It is a pity because he tells us the story of the coming of the Gospel to England in a series of vivid episodes. None is more memorable than his tale of the conversion of his own kingdom, Northumbria. Edwin, its king, had begun to feel dissatisfied with the old heathen gods. He had listened to the preaching of the Christian missionaries, and was strongly tempted to become a Christian, but could not make up his mind. He sought the advice of his counsellors, who included the leader of the pagan priests, Coifi. Edwin began by asking the priests what they thought of this new religion called Christianity. And Coifi was moved to admit that he had lost his faith in Woden and Thor and the old Saxon gods. They had not done much for him, and if the new religion could offer anything better, then he for one would be quite ready to try it. And then one of the king’s chieftains said something rather striking, in words which are often still quoted:

O King, often when men are sitting at meat in your hall in winter-time and the warm fire is lighted on the hearth and the cold rain or snow storms are raging without, a sparrow will fly in at one door and warm himself for a few moments in the light and heat of the fire, and then go out again by the other door into the winter’s darkness…. So it is with the life of man in this world; what has gone before it, what will come after it, no one can tell. If therefore this new religion can tell us something more certain, then it seems to me indeed worthy to be followed.

So they listened to what the Christian missionaries, led by Bishop Paulinus, had to tell them of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. And then, Bede tells us, Coifi the chief priest suddenly cried out, ‘Now I see the truth. I see it shining clearly in this teaching.’ He jumped on a horse and rode straight to the Temple of Woden and ordered it to be burnt to the ground. Later on King Edwin built a little wooden church at York, on the very spot where York Minster now stands, and was baptised there by Paulinus on Easter Eve, with many of his nobles and people.

Try for a moment to picture the scene the old chieftain so vividly described. There is the king and his Council in the great banqueting hall, lit by smoking torches stuck into iron sockets along the walls. In the middle of the hall a great open fire of logs sends up clouds of smoke and sparks. Above the noise and clatter of the feast you can hear the wind howling in the darkness outside. Then suddenly from the darkness outside a tiny sparrow comes darting in through the further door. For a few brief moments it is caught by the light of the fire and the torches as it flutters confusedly up in the roof. But then it spies the other door and swoops towards it and is gone, back into the darkness.

And that is a picture of what a great many people still believe about our life on earth. We arrive out of the darkness, knowing nothing of what went before. Now we are in the flickering light of this world as we fly through the Hall of Life. Then death, and out into the darkness again. Barbara Wootton, who as Baroness Wootton of Abinger was the first ever woman Life Peer in 1958, uses almost the same language as the old chieftain in her autobiography, describing life as ‘the brief flash that illumines the interval between birth and death.’ Another doughty old atheist, Bertrand Russell, said much the same, in rather blunter language, and concluded ‘when I did, I rot.’

But because of the first Easter Day, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, Christians dare to believe and proclaim something different. We dare to believe that there is no darkness at all. We now know where we came from and where we’re going to. As one Christian writer puts it, ‘I came from God. I belong to God. I’m going to God.’ We know the truth spoken by St Paul when he said, ‘If Christ was not raised, then our Gospel is null and void’. We believe Jesus when he told his disciples, ‘Because I live, you too will live.’

Because I live, you too will live. Those words of our Lord mean two things. First, they mean that because Christ rose and is alive for ever, those who are united to Christ will live with him when this little life is done. Heaven is where the road goes; heaven is what we were made for. Death has lost its sting; the grave has been robbed of its victory. ‘Because I live, you too will live.’ And by that faith, and in that hope, the Christian lives and the Christian dies, and the transition from death to fullness of life lived with God is as simple and as natural as opening a door or pushing through a gate.

Then, second, those words ‘Because I live, you too will live’ have a meaning in the here and the now. Christian faith is about really living now, becoming alive properly for the first time. St John tells us that, on the first Easter evening, when least they were expecting him, the risen Lord appeared to his disciples and performed a deeply symbolic act. He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ or, literally, ‘Take Holy Spirit’. By that he meant, receive the life which is not yours by nature and which God alone can give. Breathe in deeply. Let God’s life fill you here and now. And in obedience they did just that; they took Holy Spirit, and received God’s gift of new life – the coward heart made brave, the impure made clean, the doubting made strong.

In the end I am a Christian not because the pay is good and not because the conditions are easy. I am a Christian because the prospects are out of this world, and because in the here and the now my faith is what makes me really alive. I see death and dull existence written on too many faces, faces full of despair and anxiety and the greyness of deadening routine. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for you. And because of resurrection, new life, we do not have to make do with that living death. For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, and that means new life for me, new life for you. Take life! Take Holy Spirit! Take Jesus at his word: ‘Because I live, you too will live.’

In one of his two autobiographical works, the late Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, includes this poem based on Bede’s story. It makes a fitting end to an Easter sermon:

Father, before this sparrow’s earthly flight / Ends in the darkness of a winter’s night; Father, without whose word no sparrow falls / Hear this, Thy weary sparrow, when he calls. Mercy, not justice, is his contrite prayer / Cancel his guilt and drive away despair; Speak but the word, and make his spirit whole / Cleanse the dark places of his heart and soul. Speak but the word, and set his spirit free / Mercy, not justice, still his constant plea. So shall Thy sparrow, crumpled wings restored / Soar like the lark, and glorify his Lord.

And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 16/04/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne