Sermon on Lent Portsmouth

In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Lent is an old English word that means “spring”. It is a beginning, it is a moment when life gushes off with newness and youthful strength. Indeed in our experience Lent is also a time of sorrow because at the end of it we will be confronted with Passion Week. But again the fruit of Passion Week is the victory of God over death, the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, a new life, a new beginning. It is therefore perhaps appropriate that I should have been asked to speak to you today of Heaven, not of the long struggle, which we have on earth, neither of Judgment but of this fulfillment of life which is Heaven. Heaven is not the sky, Heaven is not a place, Heaven is not simply a condition of our mind. Heaven is a relationship, a relationship with God, the Living God. If you ask me where Heaven is, I will suggest that you reread the Gospel and try to discern the various situations in which God is or God was related to His creatures. 

When on the banks of the river Jordan the Apostles Andrew and John had heard their teacher, their spiritual guide and leader John the Baptist proclaim that Jesus was the Lamb of God come into the world to carry upon His shoulders the sins of man, they followed Him because as true disciples of the forerunner they knew that he had come only to make smooth the way of the Lord, that he was to decrease that the Lord might increase, that he was to disappear in order that the Lord should be there alone. They followed the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Lord turned and asked them, “What do you want of Me?” And their reply was, “Where do You dwell?” And Christ said, “Come and see.” What they saw immediately was probably a cabin where Jesus had put up for a while but in the course of their evermore intimate, profound relationship with Christ, they discovered that He was not only the man Jesus who dwelled among men, He was their God incarnate and that He simultaneously dwelled on high, seated at the right hand of glory, that He was in their midst, in the simplicity of a brother in humanity, they discovered that He was in paradise with the thief and that He descended into hell, He filled all things unlimited, uncircumcised, never a prisoner of time, of space, of circumstances, the Living God become the living man. And therefore if we can say truly that Heaven is the place where God is, is the relationship in which we are at one with Him, is the condition which becomes ours in this extraordinary relatedness to the Living God, then we can see that He is everywhere and Heaven can be everywhere for us provided we find God in the place where we are. John and Andrew found God in the cabin where Jesus dwelled, the thief found God on the Cross at his own crucifixion, those who slept the sleep of death found God when Christ came down to the realm of the dead, and the angels and the saints of God contemplated Him in His glory from all eternity in Heaven. 

Now, that may perhaps cast a ray of understanding on certain passages or certain wordings of Scripture, when we are told that, “blessed are we when men shall revile us and persecute us and say all sorts of evil against us for great is our reward in Heaven.” Christ does not speak of a reward that shall come one day when we also will be dead in a place where the just receive their reward as well as the evil-doers. It speaks of the immediacy of the present moment, we are in Heaven if we are in Christ and in the Spirit, we are in Heaven if we are God’s own people because Heaven is not for tomorrow, Heaven in a mysterious way is with us, in us and we are in it if we only are related to God in a living, creative, surrendered manner. 

But what can we do to reach out towards this Heaven? What can we do to enter this Heaven which is near, close, at hand and which we may miss because we do not realise it? You probably remember the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does it mean? Who are these poor in spirit? Indeed it is not enough to be poor, poverty as such does not give us a right to enter into the Kingdom, poverty as such may be a blessing or the greatest misery and indeed is not poor only the one who does not possess, miserably poor is the envious, the jealous, the miser, whoever wishes and longs for what he has not got. So what is this poverty of which the Gospel speaks this poverty of the spirit? Isn’t it the experiential, real, personal knowledge that we are nothing and we possess nothing and yet, and this is the root of our blessedness that we are and that we are rich in what way? On the one hand we are nothing in our own right, we exist only because we have been called by God, willed by God, indeed, loved by God into existence. If we exist, it is only because God in his love given to us before we were, called us to be and to be forever his companions of eternity. We exist because we are called, we live because we are endowed with the breath of life from the Living God, all that we are is a gift and a gift of love and all we possess is also a gift of human and of divine love. Friendships, relationships are gifts of man, integrity of body and soul, clarity of mind, a sensitive heart, a will capable of responding to the call of God are gifts of God. So whatever we are and whatever we have are gifts of divine and human love, and it is because none of the things we are and none of the things which we possess are ours, man-made that they are signs of love, that they are signs that we belong to a Kingdom which is a Kingdom of love. Yes, if we understand this, we are blissful, we can rejoice whatever the circumstances of our life because everything becomes a sign of love. And if one understands love, if one can respond to it the way in which children can respond to tenderness and affection, then we do not judge the gifts, which we receive by evaluating their value but by seeing in them the sign they are — we are not forgotten, we are loved, we are in the Kingdom of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

So this is the first thing which we must discover. If we want to enter into that relationship with God which is the Kingdom, which is the relatedness of love given and received, rejoiced in worshipfully and tenderly, we must understand this very thing. But then what of other things like justice, like truth? Don’t you remember what the Lord said that unless our justice, our righteousness is not greater than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God? The justice, the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees like all human justice was an apportioning of plague and reward, a right distribution of what could be shared. We are called to more than this, we are called to be just in the extraordinary way in which God is just with a justice more basic, more ultimate also than distributive or retributive justice. What we are called to do is to do what God does with us. He accepts us as we are, He recognises us the right to be what we are and He takes the consequences for it, He endows man with existence and with life and with freedom, and when man misuses his freedom, God accepts this dreadful, destructive, killing decision of man and carries the consequences of it in the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten Son, in His sharing of our humanity, in His partaking in our anguish, in His dying our human death. This is the justice which is God’s — the vindication of the other’s right to be himself and the acceptance of all the consequences. 

We claim rights all the time, — we have no rights, we have the privilege to know that our God claims no rights but one: that to serve worshipfully, devotedly His creatures and if necessary to die for them. We are called to do the same. You may think that expressions like “to die” are too much for the polished society in which we live, we thought the same in Eastern Europe or before the War and yet how many have died in this polished, civilised societies? But there is more to it, dying does not mean losing one’s physical life and nothing else, dying means spending one’s life, giving it, surrendering it for the sake of others. We are called to die day in, day out every day, all the day, all the day long in the service of God and the service of others without counting the cost, without asking ourselves whether it is worth the trouble or the sacrifice simply because it is right to love our neighbour and our God to the point of forgetting ourselves and giving ourselves unreservedly. But is there in this image which seems to be so frightening any resplendence of Heaven? Isn’t it all darkness, isn’t it human hell and not Heaven? No, it is Heaven because only by treating one another as Christ has treated us, by receiving one another as God in Christ receives us can we fulfill the commandment of Christ to be like our Father who is in Heaven, who does not distinguish between the good and the bad, who shines His sun on both, who gives his Only-Begotten Son for those who need Him first and foremost, that is for the sinner, and in doing so we are in the divine realm, it is with God that we are, it is already Heaven on earth. But Heaven on earth is a tragic situation, Heaven on earth is not yet eternal bliss but it is the incredible joy of knowing that together with God we are at work, that the world may become truly what it is called to be, truly a heavenly place. 

Now, our relation to God is not simply a way in which one can be related to people in friendship or otherwise, in family relationships. It is infinitely more intimate and deep. Our relatedness to God is one of communion, of sharing His live as He has chosen to share our live. It is a sharing. To put it in the words of Peter the Apostle, it is a sharing in the very nature of God. That is Heaven in another vision. One of the Eastern mystics, a man who lived in the XI century called Symeon the New Theologian, who lived on Mount Athos the life of an ascetic, writes in one of his hymns: “I have come back from church, I have received communion. I am sitting on a bed of planks in a hut of mud and I look at myself and I look around me in wonder and amazement — these hands are the hands of God, this body frail, worn and old is the place where God dwells and this hut is as vast as Heaven because it is filled with the presence of God himself.” Communion, sacramental communion to the body and blood of Christ that makes us partakers of all that Christ is, of His holy humanity, pure of sin, free from sin and pure of stain and pervaded, filled with His divinity. This is also beginning, a beginning of Heaven, and this is possible because the world in which we live in an extraordinary manner is at the same time moving towards the second coming of Christ, the Kingdom come with glory and not only with power, but the world in which we live perceptively for those who have eyes to see is already the place where God lives. There is a remarkable and a strange thing in the Book of Revelation. The author who otherwise writes good Greek makes throughout the Book of Revelation one mistake. He never uses the neuter for the word “end” but the masculine because for him the end in not simply a moment in time, a moment when all things will be fulfilled, the end for him is Him who shall come. The end is Someone and not something. And in that sense the end is both a moment when all things are fulfilled and the goal of all things. But this end has already come. Humbly, imperceptivity for many but God has entered our human world, has entered and filled and fulfilled the cosmic world in which we live. God has become man, the Word has taken flesh, the end has already come, the End has dwelled in our midst full of grace and power. The end is not ahead of us only, the end is already here in our midst, come to us 2000 years ago or nearly. 

So in that sense the world in which we live is pervaded by this quality, which one can call Heaven, it is Heaven on earth already if we only want to see, if we only accept to see, if we only accept to live up to this vision. Christ is in our midst, the Holy Spirit is abroad in human hearts and in His Church, powerfully at work transforming, transfiguring the world in the sacraments of the Church, things which belong to the created world become what they are called to be, filled with the Spirit, God-bearing, a vision, a pre-figuration of what is promised by Paul when he says that one day will come when God shall be all in all. And we live in this world blind and insensitive, a world in which God is present, into which the fullness of Heaven has come like leaven and is transforming all relationships and all things. Can’t we see, can’t we take part in that? Don’t we realise that it is not only a liturgical season which we should call “spring”, “lent” but that it is the whole of human history since Christ came and the Spirit was given that has become the spring, the beginning of eternity, indeed, eternity already filling time to bursting point? Can’t we see that? We claim to be Christian but to be Christian means to know that, to be Christian means to become co-workers with God, to belong to these two worlds, to be already now people who live by what shall be, a vision of eternity already come and that should be the case for each of us singly and for all of us as a community. Alas, it isn’t. But isn’t it God’s call and God’s challenge that it should happen because if we do not become such singly and together, then the salt has lost its savour, then we are no longer the Kingdom come with power, God’s realm on earth. We are nothing, we are people who have heard and now remember words spoken but not people who have become new creatures. 

It is Lent now, the small, short lent that will bring us to Holy Week, the short days of the Passion that will bring us to the vision of the Resurrection of Christ. Can’t we make haste? Can’t we be quick? Can’t we realise what we know deep down but never make into real life and become Christ’s own people — leaven, a word of truth, the presence of the Spirit, an extension of the divine presence, of the incarnate God, Heaven on earth. This is the challenge of Lent, this is the challenge of Heaven, this is our call. Can I leave you with this call, with this challenge as I receive it in shame and hope? Face it! We either are that or we are nothing. What shall we answer the Lord? It is not to fear that I am calling you but to responsibility. What can we say to the Lord who has lived and died for the love of us? Shall we say, “Yes, You die and I remain as dead as before”? Let us look at Heaven, let us look at our vocation and let us make a new start every day with the joy of spring, a start into newness of life. 

Shall we keep quiet a few moments and then say together a couple of prayers and then not simply go home to start the old life — go home with a new question in our heart, with a new challenge before us, with new courage to fulfill it.