Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton on 11th October 2015
May the words of my lips and the intentions of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O God,
Today's Gospel confronts us with two major questions about how we live our lives. What must we do to inherit eternal life and how should we treat our worldly possessions?
The rich man is told that to inherit eternal life he must follow the commandments, sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow Christ. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
At the time of Christ, Jews believed they were living on the edge of an "Age to Come," when the "Present Age" would be transformed and God would unite Heaven and Earth. The question on many people's lips, including the disciples, was "Who can be saved?" And when you believe the world is about to end, as many did in the time of Jesus, there is little point in hoarding possessions.
There is now a theological view espoused by leading theologian Tom Wright among others, that what Jesus was referring to in his statements about the coming judgement and the fires of Gehenna (the municipal rubbish heap just outside the walls of Jerusalem), was not in fact the eschaton (what will happen at the end of the world), or what could happen to us when we die, but rather his prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in AD70, almost 40 years after his death.
As Father James said in last week's sermon, belief in a "Hell" where people live in eternal damnation is incompatible with a world created by a loving God. We should put aside confused thinking about Hell.
How then should we live?
We should live our lives, not to prepare for the Coming Age, but for this life in the Present Age so that “thy kingdom” does come, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
That is, I believe, the answer to the first question raised by today’s Gospel.
That is how we should live this life, doing all we can to unite the kingdoms of Heaven and Earth.
Now to the second question, how then are we to treat possessions? Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago I visited St. Lukes, Chelsea, and there in the forecourt I saw an icon.
Icons are as you know, “windows onto heaven.” But this was not an icon in that sense. But to the eyes of Jeremy Clarkson and the late Top Gear team, it certainly was, for what I saw was a gleaming new convertible Aston Martin. And recalling that this parish is of course where Father James was based before coming here to our United Benefice, you may think “Very St. Luke’s.” In fact he assures me the Aston Martin was not his, but I have my doubts. For it seems to me that Father James and an Aston Martin are a perfect match.
To be serious. I did find myself thinking, should a Christian own an Aston Martin?
I reflected on whether ownership of a beautiful, some would say extravagant car, or other such possession can become between us and God.
I considered the car, and my reaction to the car.
Here I believe the Rule of Benedict has much valuable guidance with its emphasis on work (to which I would add family for those of us outside a monastic community), prayer (of which giving is such an important action) and community. To live life to the full for a Benedictine is about balancing work (to which I add family), prayer and community.
Substitute “us” for “monastery” and we get:
“All our possessions, in fact everything that belongs to us should be cared for as the sacred vessels of the altar.”
Perhaps if a possession is no longer valued, we should sell it and use the proceeds to support those in need. Perhaps we should sell some of them, even if they are valued.
I pray that we never take our possessions for granted, that we treat them as sacred vessels of the altar, and that we use and give our time, talents and money to bring about that moment when heaven and earth will be united and thy kingdom comes.
Father Peter Wolton