The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r046.htm
s046e02 Lockleys Sunday 13
"the free gift ... is eternal life ..." Romans 6.23
I have my suspicions that never ending life is not actually something many of us, particularly those of us who are older, aspire. While life for most of us, particularly in the winter months, has its share of aches and pains, we are very lucky. There are few in our community who do not have a roof over their heads, and mostly those who don't choose to live like that. There are few in our society who go hungry. Many who turn up at the Rectory are there to get a hand out to finance their addiction to alcohol, cigarettes or poker machines.
Yet, I suspect eventually a weariness comes to everyone. We have lived our lives and done the best we can for our children. It is up to them to do the same for themselves and for their children.
Perhaps it is a mark of my age, that I do not often think about what lies beyond. I retain some of the feelings of immortality of youth. It is hard to conceive what "not being" might be like. It certainly doesn't make me afraid. I am not exactly certain I want to spend eternity "prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee". This seems a particularly uncomfortable posture :-)
As I read through the words of St Paul in the epistle for today, there is a tension between doing the right thing which can make us conclude that eternal life is a reward for a lifetime of doing the right thing, and the quite unambiguous statement that eternal life is a free gift. If eternal life is a free gift, and God does not have favourites, it is clear that we don't have to do anything to earn eternal life. Eternal life is given freely and freely to everyone.
There are a couple of ways around this conundrum.
The first way is to realise that while a gift may be given, it has also to be accepted from the giver. But eternal life is not like winning the lottery, where one would hardly give it back. Eternal life, Jesus tells us again and again, in parable after parable, is like a party where all and sundry are present. The difficulty is that some people want eternal life to be a party where they and just a few of their like minded friends are welcomed. In the past we sort of thought (we didn't say it as explicitly as this - of course - but we knew it in our heart of hearts) only Anglicans were welcomed. Sometimes it was only Anglicans of a particular tradition. No - St Paul's words imply that actually eternal life is a free gift to everyone, and the only qualification is that we accept this and accept it on this basis. So we do have something to do - we have to put aside our pride, and recognise that we are likely to be sharing eternal life with our neighbour, the one who never darkened the doors of any church, let alone ours. We are likely to find that we are sharing eternal life with some people we would rather not.
St Paul writes about not letting sin rule us, "obeying their passions" - and we are quick to assume that the passions here are those involved as we relate to others in an intimate and physical way. And this aspect of life cannot be ruled out - for much harm is done to people when they are abused in an intimate way. Young people are particularly impressionable and vulnerable and when the normal protections afforded by traditional family life are strained or non-existent, young people can be damaged irreparably. That clergy could instigate abuse on minors ordinarily would be unthinkable, yet it clearly has happened - to the shame of all the Church.
But the reality is that much more abuse happens in other areas of life.
Young people can feel abused "by the system" where meaningful employment is difficult to find. Those who are working can be abused by the system where people are expected to work beyond what is reasonable and with no recognition. I am not the least surprised that young people resort to drug abuse - when faced with the complexities of life today.
When we lived at Kapunda, the whole of the main street was taken up by little shops - family businesses where children followed in their parent's footsteps after being trained by them. Now a days all these shops have been joined together. What were two or three shops are now just one. The days when parents trained their children to follow in their footsteps has long gone.
And it needs to be said that the lack of meaningful employment is not anyone's fault. Advances in technology on the farm and in the work place have multiplied productivity exponentially, cut out swathes of repetitious mind-numbing work, and cut profit margins. We all benefit from these advances, and it is easy to be smug about "the way it was", and forget how much we benefit each and every day.
One of the issues that faces South Australia is the possible locating of a medium level dump for radioactive materials. Of course we don't want it here - yet are we prepared to do without all the medical procedures which results in residue needing to be stored safely? Everything costs something - and there is no way that only other people need to pick up the tab.
There are no easy answers either. The protests at the G7 meetings are a sign of the continuing frustration that people feel at the continuing divide between rich and poor. But so much of the protests are negative, and no one seems to have many positive and workable alternatives.
So the passion we need to let go of, is the passion for our own personal benefit, the continuance of our own "upwardly mobile" progression through life, when this comes at the expense of someone else. We are called to look beyond ourselves to the wider picture and see that others' welfare is as important as our own.
This leads me on to the second way out of this conundrum, for when we realise that eternal life is a free gift offered to everyone, this changes our way of looking at other people.
No longer do we have to worry about whether eternal life will be ours or anyone else's. No one has to be convinced of anything, or cajoled into believing. We do not have to convert the world. We can cease worrying about these things and get about helping others as we can. Helping others, accepting others as they are.
It is interesting, if and when we think about the afterlife, we think in terms of the resurrection of the body, and when we consider what that might entail, I suppose we assume that we will be recognisable for the person we are. So if we are blessed with a large nose in life, we are likely to have a large nose for all of eternity. I don't know how God will deal with those who have extensive plastic surgery - and I suppose whatever God does, God will be wrong :-)
But we also assume that our personalities will remain intact. We will be ourselves, not some amorphous hybrid of ideas, where everything which made us the individual we are will have vanished in a puff of smoke. Surely we can all hope that the frustrations of this life will have gone - that our tears will be wiped away too. But we will be recognisable.
Eternal life, we perceive as our personal utopia. However, one picture of eternal life is, I suspect, surely deficient. Despite the popularity of the psalm, the eternal feast will not be "in the face of those who trouble me". Eternal life will not be eternal retribution for others.
If eternal life is freely given, it is freely accepted by all, and the personal utopia we perceive as "deservedly" ours (even though we do not presume - or precisely because we have never presumed :-), is no different from the utopia others will also receive. If our personalities, with their strengths as well as their foibles remain intact and are accepted, then so will other's personalities remain intact with their strengths and foibles also. We will not be the same, and everyone else will be changed to suit us.
So seen in this light, perhaps this life is merely a time of getting used to the realities that eternity presents to us - life with others - if we so choose to accept the free gift.
The lovely words of the gospel for today reinforce the prodigalness of God's mercy. How quick God is in rewarding those who are compassionate towards their neighbours.
I confess I do not know the full import of the "cup of cold water" - but it seems that this represents the least one could give another. It would seem the gift one gave because one felt it was necessary, the begrudging gift, the one one gave when a person had no option. Well, the reality is that the free gift of eternal life is offered to everyone, and perhaps the "cup of cold water" we are bidden give another is to allow that others will be offered this same gift as us.
Yet the promise is this that even if we were to give even this little, this begrudgingly, we will not lose our reward. The reality is that as forget ourselves and give, little or much, to others, eternal life becomes ours here and now.
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