Sermon preached at Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (13 May 2018) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (13 May 2018) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

On the Sunday after Ascension, the Precentor reflects on the centrality of the resurrection and ascension: "Without the resurrection, our faith is naught. Without the ascension, our faith is hidebound; without the Holy Spirit, our faith is dry."

Words, of which there have never been more in circulation, can be dangerous things because they are often used to define limits or boundaries: think of Acts of Parliament, Statutes and Constitutions, Rules and Regulations. Words are often used to build walls around things. And the almost careless ease with which words are cast into the electronic ether makes them all the more risky – as we build walls around ourselves with the hard bricks of our often uncompromising opinions.

And yet, the extraordinary irony is that, despite this plethora of words, words, words, our understanding of reality is often limited by the words we have at our disposal – with which to describe reality and to describe our understanding of reality.

Thank God, then, for poets and artists and composers; thank God for the imagination; thank God for silence — on the rare occasions that we can find silence in this noisy word-filled world.

The media of the creative arts help us to digest the otherwise indigestible mystery of God. And, let’s face it: if it were left to us to explain the mystery of God merely with the words we have at our disposal, we surely wouldn’t get very far. Because definition is about setting limits to the God of whom there are no limits.

We had the enormous privilege a few years ago at St Paul’s of interviewing the great detective novelist, P D James. We asked why creative people in the public eye, like herself, were less inclined to talk about faith than their mid-twentieth century predecessors and she said that it was because the Church today only seems to talk about church politics and not so much about faith and theology and that she and her fellow artists didn’t feel inclined to interfere in church politics. 

Whereas, her predecessors – the likes of Dorothy L Sayers, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, T S Eliot, Stanley Spencer, Benjamin Britten, and so on – were confident about directing their creative impulse towards the Christian faith and painting theological pictures through the art of story, the lure of image, and the grace of music.

On Thursday, we celebrated the ascension of Christ — a bodily ascension which took our Lord away from his followers and back to his Father in heaven. Try explaining that to the person in the street with only the words you have at your disposal! 

Some of you might remember Bishop David Jenkins getting into terrible trouble for saying that the resurrection was merely a conjuring trick with bones. In actual fact, that wasn’t what he said. He said that the resurrection was much more than a mere conjuring trick with bones. 

His point was that a concern solely with the historical accuracy or otherwise of biblical events is pointless unless faith in God has a life-changing effect on the believer. He said: “God is; he is as he is in Christ; so there is hope”. Whole libraries of books and centuries of debate condensed into thirteen words. Thus proving perhaps that, the fewer words you use, the less limiting they might be.

So it must be with the ascension: it must be much more than a ‘hey presto’ trick with a body.

The removal of the body clears the stage for the arrival of the Holy Spirit of God into our lives to be another Comforter, the spirit of truth, for ever. It allows the believer to search for Christ in everything. It makes history timeless. It softens the edges of our certainty and sets the imagination free. It allows us to say with awe and wonder, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’

I talked at the beginning about limits and boundaries and walls. Our church buildings are, of course, limited by walls and roofs but one hopes that, within them, are symbols that draw the eye further than it can see; stories that expand the mind beyond its experience; prayers that move the heart more than it can bear. This is limitless faith — not constrained by prepared statements, neat arguments, or ready answers.

I remember years ago preaching on the Feast of the Ascension in County Durham. It was for St Oswald’s Church’s annual gathering in the ruins of Finchale Priory, just on the outskirts of Durham. It was the perfect place to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord. There we were gathered that evening in a church building that, by quirk of history and the passage of time, had lost its limits. There, symbol, story and prayer were conveyed by God in Mother Nature. The sound of bird song more eloquent than the set texts of our orders of service and perhaps the more profound for that.

There is a beautiful speech in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” when the Duke, exiled to the Forest of Arden, accepts his new state with equanimity, despite its dangers, entirely because it is not compromised by mere words:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.

St Thomas’s Gospel, discovered in Egypt in the mid-twentieth century, didn’t of course make it into the canon of scripture but there is something of Shakespeare and much about limitless faith in the words of Jesus which Thomas quotes: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Without the resurrection, our faith is naught. Without the ascension, our faith is hidebound; without the Holy Spirit, our faith is dry.

God is; he is as he is in Christ; so there is hope.