My young sons – who are 8, 6, 5 and 2, are transfixed by the idea that it is nearly Christmas. In fact, if truth be told, they have been focused on Christmas since the last of them had their birthdays in August. When I tell them that Christmas is not until next year that seems a very long time for them to have to wait. But of course it is true. Our Christian year does not begin on the first of January like the secular year around us, our year begins at the end of November on the first Sunday of Advent.
Then, as it has been for generation after generation of members of the Church before us, our year will guide us through the various seasons that help us to reflect on the life of Christ, and the purposes of God. Just as the four seasons of secular time mark out – year after year – the changes in our landscape, so the Christian year through its seasons help us to focus on the great themes of our tradition.
In Advent, at the start of the year, in just a few weeks time, we will once again spend time preparing ourselves for the coming of God, incarnate in the baby Jesus, and we will remind ourselves too that one day Jesus will come again to bring all things to fruition at the end of time. Then we will celebrate the great feast of the incarnation, beginning on Christmas Eve and then continuing through Epiphany on the Sundays that follow as we celebrate God amongst us. As next year passes on we will live through Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday as we strip away all that prevents us from examining ourselves as the people that we really are, in order to be ready to walk with Jesus through the final steps of his life, beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing with the great days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, until we are able joyfully once again to celebrate with the angels and Saints his resurrection on Easter Day.
Then through the great days of Easter we will be caught up with the disciples in the wonderment of that resurrection, leading to the great feast of his ascension (his returning to heaven), and then onwards as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – that powerful reminder that we have not been left alone – as the disciples are driven out by the Holy Spirit, no longer hidden in an upper room, but instead becoming the first great missionaries of the good news that Jesus is alive. And between each of these markers in our Christian year we will, as we have done so many times before, remember on particular days the lives of Apostles and Saints and Martyrs.
The readings from scripture that we gather around Sunday by Sunday and day by day in our yearly cycle will help us as we journey through the life of Jesus and of the Early Church. To know where we are up to in the cycle of our year, the colours of the altar, and of the vestments worn by our priests will be changed to make clear to us the season in which we are situated.
And the rituals and words of our liturgy will call us to be mindful and to be caught up in each moment of our remembering.
As we come to this time next year, we will begin to prepare ourselves to start the whole cycle all over again. As it was last year, as it has been this year, so it will be next year, and on and on into the future.
Through the seasons of our Christian year we are caught up in the unending re-telling and living out of the good news of Jesus, as we continue to be formed into his likeness.
If we missed one substantial part of the story we would be in danger of misunderstanding the good news as whole. Imagine if we lived continually in the moment of Jesus’ death, but had not heard the good news of his resurrection? Or if we knew about the resurrection but did not also know the truth of the Christmas story, that this man who has died and is risen, is also God himself? Through the unending cycle of our Christian year, week by week, and year by year, we live out the pattern of the Gospel, being nurtured again and again by the feasts and festivals which keep us focused on the good news which they contain.
This is our calling as the Church, to live faithfully through the seasons of our year, and to commend them to those who live around us. And we will go on doing this, until we ourselves are called, through death in this world, into the presence of God, like all those who have gone before us.
It is the question of what will happen after we die that we find as the focus of our Gospel reading this morning. On first hearing, the reading that we have just listened to from the Gospel of Luke may seem very strange to us. It comes from a world which is very different from our own, where it was normal for a man to marry his brother’s wife if his brother died, in order to provide care for her in a society which had no other way of supporting widows.
The question that is posed by the Sadducees – who did not believe in the resurrection anyway – would have been a live conundrum for people in the time of Jesus. ‘What will happen if a woman has had more than one husband on the day of the resurrection, will she find himself married to all of them, or just to one of them?’
It is interesting that although we see Jesus going about his work living out signs of the future resurrection hope, by raising people like his friend Lazarus from the dead, this is in fact the only passage in Luke’s Gospel which contains any discussion about what the resurrection will be like.
We know of course that the only reason that the writers of the Gospels wrote anything down at all, was because they believed that Jesus himself had been raised from the dead. The Gospel writers only began writing about the good news of the life of Jesus after that fact had been established for them.
Just as throughout our Christian year we celebrate again and again, Sunday by Sunday that resurrection, so we know that every page of the Gospels is purposed to point us to that very hope.
So what does Jesus say in response to the question? He says simply this: the love that we experience now is of no comparison whatsoever to what it will be like to live in the presence of God, as equivalent to the angels, with the dignity of knowing that we are his children.
The question of who will be married to whom will not be significant. It isn’t that we will be angels ourselves, as some modern myths would have us believe, sitting on clouds and strumming harps. But rather that even the love of God that we know now will be insignificant compared to our knowing in every part of our resurrected being that we are his children, in his presence for eternity.
What a tremendous hope we have in Jesus, that through his resurrection we too will share his resurrected life.
The temptation, of course, when we come across passages like this, is for us to fall into the trap of assuming that all of this can only be spoken about in the future tense. It is true, that we know so very little about God now. And that is why we cling on to Jesus, because we believe that what we see in Jesus we will one day find in God. That is a very present reality for us. Because to live in Jesus now, full of hope for what is to come, drives us continually to live in the present, with the concerns that Jesus had for all those on the margins of society. Our church buildings stand as a beacon, a sign not only of the future, but of the work to which we are called now, to be communities that embody the love of Jesus. Our Christian year, week by week, not only holds up for us the hope that we have for the future, but the part to which we are each called to play now in sharing in God’s mission of love to the world.
Of course it is not just the cycle of Christian year that keeps on track. Our priests have a significant role to play in that as well. Whilst you will see them over the coming weeks, the next time that I will see our Deacons Wally and Helen they will be beginning the retreat which will give them space to make the final preparations for their ordination.
Right at the start of our new Christian year, after the first Sunday of Advent, they will be ordained to the priesthood by our Bishop, to be signs for us of the good news and the hope of Jesus. They will preside over the celebration of the sacraments, they will guide us through the Christian year, week by week in the months and years to come. They will hold up to us continually the hope that we have of eternal life in God’s love, but they will keep us grounded in the work that we are called to do now for his Kingdom.
Through their ordination, Helen and Wally are being set apart as people who will represent God to us, and us to God.
And they will do this in a special way for us, because they have not come to us from somewhere else, like many of the priests who have ministered here in the past. They have instead been discerned from within us, to represent us, and to journey with us. We know in a way that we don’t always know when a new priest arrives here from somewhere else, the pressures and the difficulties that they have faced in their formation in preparation for this new ministry. We have seen them grow, and develop and change – whilst still being the people that we know them to be. Unlike priests who have been trained in a seminary far away, Wally and Helen have been trained here amongst us, whilst continuing to live out their normal Christian lives.
And so they are a powerful reminder to us, that each one of us has been gifted by God and called to share in the ministry of the Church.
Very few of us have been called to live the ordained life of a priest, but just like Helen and Wally, we have all been called to grow, and develop and change. Like them we too have been called to step out in faith now, and to see what God will do with us. They will be for us very special signs, reminders, that God has a purpose for each one of us now, here in Taree in sharing in the work of his Kingdom.
If God has called Wally to step out in faith, he has called me as well. If Helen has been willing to take the risk of responding to God’s call, so can I. Helen and Wally, with Kate and Fr Keith, have not been called to live out the richness of the Christian year on our behalf, they are being set apart to lead us and to remind us that we can share fully in the Christian life alongside them, here and now.
So today, as we celebrate with them what God is doing in their lives, and as we gives thanks once again at this Eucharist for the hope that we find in the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded too, of the calling placed upon us at our baptism, to be nurtured by the Gospel through the richness of our Christian year, that we might find the strength, to minister with our priests as together we shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father. We don’t need to wait for eternity. We don’t even need to wait for the new Christian year, God calls us now to share with him in his mission of love for the world.