Sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (24 September 2017) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (24 September 2017) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Dean looks at and questions the human search for longer life, saying "it's not survival after death that Christians seek: it's a quality of life and love that begins now and that death cannot destroy."


A few days ago, I was chatting to Hugh, our local Big Issue seller – if you don't know, the Big Issue is a magazine which gives people without resources an opportunity to get an income. Hugh said he was a bit tired: he works 15 hours a day, outside in all weathers, and on the suitcase in which he carries his magazines it tells you that he's 71 years old. His mum however is 102 and still gets around on the bus, and Hugh wants to keep working because it will keep him alive for longer. He was telling me that the oldest human being had lived to 139, though I don't know where he got that from...

I have to say that my response was to wonder why. Why would you want to live so long, to watch your friends die and leave you behind, feel increasingly out of touch with life? Why should quantity of life be regarded as more important than quality of life?

An Israeli historian called Yuval Noah Harari has recently written a book with the title Homo Deus, following up his previous work Sapiens. His first book was about the history of humankind, and Homo Deus is about how in the future humanity is going to make itself divine, to become its own God. It's an interesting if depressing book, drawing on developments in technology to paint a picture of an increasingly powerful minority of humanity embracing immortality through revolutions in medicine and bio-engineering, yet also losing control as it allows more efficient artificial intelligence to become prominent.

Harari does admit at one point that we're talking here about a-mortality, not immortality – human beings will still be liable to die through violence and disaster. And the book is essentially reductionist, simplifying our view of what it means to be human: so in the industrial age human beings were treated at as if they were machines, in the electronic age the human brain is looked at as a computer, and in the Internet age human consciousness is being reduced to algorithms and information. If you want to know yourself nowadays, you don't meditate or go to a psychoanalyst, you have your DNA sequenced and monitor your body with a Fitbit, give the data to Google and have your life processed and be told what is best for you. The only mention of love I could find in the book regarded it as a biochemical phenomenon which should certainly not guide your major life decisions.

At the heart of the book is the loss of meaning and the power of death. Harari points out that we have made a Faustian bargain: we've got power over the world in exchange for losing our sense of purpose and meaning of what the world and our lives are about. No longer do we rely on the fictions of religion or political ideology, he says, and I quote: 'Modern culture rejects the belief in a great cosmic plan…. Life has no script, no playwright, no producer, and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process... signifying nothing.... modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning...' (pp.200-1)

Harari goes on to note how popular culture has jettisoned the idea of God to make ourselves the source of our meaning – we alone define what our lives are about. That's what we see in people's lives around us – the quest for pleasure, experience, security, and the emphasis on choice. The new social orthodoxy is that God is dead, and we are the makers of the universe.

But are we? The humanist call to find our own meaning isn't actually scientific – many scientists still believe in and are committed to God, faith and spiritual life. 'Making our own meaning' is yet another story to give us the illusion of having a meaning, not a necessary conclusion from scientific study.

And Harari's book goes on to question this popular culture, as our ability to define our own meaning is being overtaken by the pace of changing technology and the triumph of big data corporations which will impose their own meaning on us, and shape our choices for their own commercial ends. Harari could also have pointed out the obvious, that hurricanes and earthquakes and disasters have always called our narratives of meaning into question.

Why do Hugh the Big Issue seller and so many of us assume that living for a long time is in itself a good thing? Why do we find it so hard to die, to let go of our control over the world and give way to subsequent generations – for in a world with no death there would be no birth, no new life, no beginnings? To exist in life is not the same as being fully alive. As Jesus said, what's the point of gaining the world and losing your soul?

And so from Homo deus the divine human to Deus homo – the God who becomes human.

In thinking about this sermon, I didn't begin with Hugh or with Yuval Harari's book, but with the bible readings and what they say about life and death. The extract we had from Paul's letter to the Philippians (chapter 1 verses 21 onwards), written from prison when his life was under threat, gives an insight into the Christian attitude to death: 'To live is Christ, and to die is gain.'

Paul is torn between the power of his relationship with Jesus and the attraction of being at home with God on the one hand, and on the other the power of his relationship with his friends in Philippi, who he wants to love and serve for Jesus' sake. In the face of persecution, danger and death, there's an amazing strength of solidarity between Paul, his churches and his Lord: life and death aren't isolated individual opportunities or disasters, but are nothing to fear because God holds us as we hold each other through them. In this view, death is simply a part of life, a movement from one kind of solidarity to another.

And in Jesus' parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16), what matters in the end is life. The denarius paid to all the workers, however long or short their labour, is the basic living wage to keep them and their families alive – how could a caring lord pay less and see someone starve?

God in generosity offers eternal life to all, equally, whether their human life is long or short; and God's life in the face of death is not divisible. You can’t have just a bit of meaning to sustain your soul, just a time-limited bit of eternal life. God's offer of a meaningful life is for all for always, whatever their circumstances.

You and I, Hugh, and millions like us, face the pressure to give up meaning in our lives in exchange for a promise of power over our circumstances which is partially true and mostly an illusion. We can be healed of some diseases if we can afford it, but we will still eventually die. We can dig hurricane shelters or fly away if we have the money, but earthquakes and storms will still engulf our fragile humanity. We can send people into space but we can't stop fighting and killing in the world. Even if we get to the a-mortality that Harari tempts us with, we will still face the question of what we have to live for...

Christian faith isn't just another escapist plan to avoid death and live for ever. We don't believe in the immortality of the individual body, or the immortality of the individual soul. We don't believe that an individual makes their own meaning. We do believe in the power of love, that meaning comes through relationship, and that the love of God is stronger than the power of death.

It's not survival after death that Christians seek: it's a quality of life and love that begins now and that death cannot destroy.

We live for self-giving love, the love we see in God, in Jesus Christ, the love which in the resurrection death cannot deny or destroy; love which cares for the well-being of everyone, which wants all to share in the joy and friendship and community which alone makes life worth living, for always.

I don't want to live to be 100. I want to love and be loved for ever. As St Paul says 'For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.'