Preached by The Revd Canon Professor Graham Ward, Regius of Divinity, On Sunday 9th of June.

What am I hoping for? What do I desire? What am I afraid of and is holding me back? These are questions human beings ask themselves. They are the stuff of literature and voice the aspirations behind musical composition. They circle all our circumstances as each of us wrestles with “so what does all this mean?” – this little span of our living that is a flicker in the generations that have come before us and the generations, hopefully, that will follow. Any understanding of what it is to be saved, what we imagine salvation in Christ to be, faces these questions and faces them regularly. And we live by faith with what is a trusting mainly to invisible workings, so the answers change as our circumstances change. Faith is not a wilful clinging to a particular belief. It’s a letting so and surrender to what is uncertain, trusting God is there. But beneath all the chances and changes, the persistence of these questions points to the difficulty of our really being able to name what it is we hope for in our hoping, what it is we desire in our desiring, what it is that frightens and stops us doing certain things, trusting we are being led. These are questions about what it is to be human, to be created, to be called by a desire in God to exist. On a postcard written by Kafka to his finance, Felice, is a simple the question: “Who am I?” But she could never answer that question. No one can ever answer the deepest questions we have about ourselves and the meaning of our lives, each distinct and each “hidden in Christ with God”. That’s St. Paul’s phrase. We are creatures who are compelled to come to know ourselves as we are known. Another phrase of St. Paul’s. 

We have to learn who we are through those around us, through our inner reflections, through all we encounter and respond to, through all that challenges and gives us joy. We were called to be, but through living, loving, ageing, leaving behind, pressing forward, experiencing loss, experiencing gain, serving and being served, we are continually pushed beyond the “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things that are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Temporality of everything that surrounds us - to see who we are as God sees us. In those beautifully balanced clauses of our second lesson this morning: In this lies our salvation, which is never just about a single decision in a singular moment. As St. Paul tells us, our salvation has to be worked out, because our salvation is always that which is most our own and we have to come into it continually, until Christ receives us, and we pass into the eternal. 

In this process of entering more profoundly into the work of our salvation, we are most alone because God’s love for us is entirely personal, entirely unique to who we are, to the meaning our individual lives have in God’s divine plan for the salvation of all things, human and nonhuman. Our hopes, desires and fears change over time as we learn how to name them and our understanding is refined through the Spirit. They differ with respect to each other. Differ even from those closest to us; those with whom we have tried to share the core questions we all live with or, maybe, those with whom we have been entirely unable to share those core questions. There’s an endless hiddenness in all genuine relations, particularly the most intimate. That hiddenness is the source both of much pain and much tenderness. There are times we get entangled in what is hidden, there are times we find consolation and safety, and there are times we are surprised by what unlooked for gifts emerge. 

The story of Adam and Eve is not just about transgression and punishment. It is also about human relationships at their most intimate, and the open-ended struggle to understand what it is all about, our being alive, our being creatures created in love and for love. The account we had read this morning about being expelled from Eden is not history, it is myth. And myths are not fictitious lies. They operate through ambiguity and suggestiveness. They are not trying to pin down but to open up resonances about our created condition; sensibilities that appeal more to our intuitive levels of association. This myth explores some deep, immemorial sense all of us live with: the longing we have for a paradise from which we seem barred. That lost beneficence in which we can be truly happy. Whatever is lost is nevertheless remembered, at some level that we can hardly get at. It is countered with every fear – particularly fears of threat, rejection and not belonging which are all forms death, termination. This sense of a loss crosses long evolutionary timescapes. A wager on happiness animates all our hoping and desiring. On the cross, Christ having asked the Father to forgive the sins of all those who do not understand what they are really doing, turns to the penitent thief and tells him “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” We are, as human beings, profoundly lost – lost within our own questions and questioning. We struggle to understand how to live better and for the best. It is not obvious. We imagine that in terms of a paradise we have lost and a paradise, as Jesus’s words indicate, we will find. 

In the meantime, we live with the questioning, and whatever we cling to – family, friends, status, wealth, even the church – will always be inadequate when it comes to delivering answers. Christ speaks to us from the cross. He who knows us. Paul’s wonderful words ring out with a truth that we can bear witness to in all we hope for and desire. Forgive the modified King James translation (it is accurate): “For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not: but though our outward human natures perish, the inward nature is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” I can’t resist saying that in Greek that “far more exceeding” is the repetition of a word from which we get the English hyperbole: “hyperbolên eis hyperbolên [excess beyond excess]”. Paul cannot find words adequate to express the vision he has of the endless plenitude to be found in God our creator, redeemer and sustainer. So, feel the eternal weight of that glory, and press on.

I suppose I should say something about farewell. This is my last official sermon here. I’m not good at farewells. In part, because I don’t believe in them. All things will be gathered up into Christ, so nothing is left behind, no one forgotten. I will say one thing though, which is more like bearing witness than the solemnity of saying goodbye: it has been a joy to serve you and to be served by you. For it is an interchange. It is not a one-way street. And it bears witness, yes to you and me, but more to the love that is the heart-beat and blood salts of community life. Ultimately, it is Eucharistic. And with that I will say, “Amen”.