Sunday, May 13, 2018

our true home

May my words be in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The advent of low cost air lines means that most people today in the Western world know what it is to travel abroad. But it is a very different thing to live somewhere than to visit it. As it happens I have, during the course of my adult life, lived in a variety of foreign countries: in England as a student; in Israel as a Kibbutz volunteer; and in Portugal and the United States during the course of my military career. And it is a very interesting experience. On the one hand you want to fit in with the local culture as far as possible. But on the other you don't wish to lose sight of where you came from either. It is an essential part of your identity, of who you are. 

You find yourself doing things to help maintain that connection with home that might otherwise seem a little odd. You get people to send you 'care packages' filled with Irish treats such as Mars bars, packets of Tayto, and Barry's tea; some even go so far as to get friends coming over on a visit to bring them Irish rashers, sausages, and black puddings. If you find a shop that sells such things you become a regular customer. And elements of Irish culture that you would have ignored while living at home suddenly become of great interest. Wild horses, for example, would have been unable to drag me to a Chieftain’s concert as a young man at home in Cork; and yet a few years later, while living in Florida, I found myself driving for two hours so I could see them play live. Why? Because it helped me while I was living abroad keep in touch with my real self, with my Irish identity.

But here is the interesting thing. Even those who have never moved so much as a mile from where they were born ought to understand what it is like to live in a foreign land. For while all of us may live in the world, Christians do not, as our Lord tells us in our Gospel reading today, belong to the world. Christians, as the commonly used phrase derived from John 17 has it, are in the world but not of the world. At our baptisms, when we died to sin and rose again to new life in Christ, something remarkable happened to us. We became citizens of somewhere else, somewhere not of this world; we became, as the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, citizens of heaven.

This means that the core identity of each of us is as a Christian, a person who lives in this world, as we all must do, but lives that life in the light of eternity. This does not mean we care nothing for the society in which we live – far from it. Indeed, St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that we are to be good citizens of wherever it is that we live. But in doing so we can never allow ourselves to forget that we are Christians first, people whose actions in this world must always be guided by the principles of our faith.

This can be a costly exercise. Those who live according to the values of the world do not like opposition. This should not surprise us; Christ himself said of his disciples 'the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.' And Christians have indeed always faced hatred. The Church Fathers tell us of the ways in which the early Christians stood out from the society in which they lived. They refused,
for example, to take part in the sexual immorality prevalent at the time, and confined themselves to marriage – with marriage being for life, as Christ taught. They abhorred the abortion and exposure of babies that was a common practice of their age – exposure being the taking of a newborn infant, particularly girls or those who were disabled in some way, and leaving them outside somewhere to die, either from the elements, hunger, or, most likely, being killed by wild beasts. We may be proud, I think, that our ancestors in the faith hated this practice so much that they made it their business to rescue every child they could find who had been left to die in this appalling fashion. And, of course, Christians refused to worship the false gods of their age … which included refusing to treat the emperor as a god.

All this brought the hatred of the world upon their heads … and many paid for it with their lives. But they thought it a small price to pay; just as they thought having the love of the world at the cost of eternal life too great a price a pay. Many in the world today continue to pay that price – the age of the martyrs is not something from the past but one that runs unbroken from the time of Christ to today and will most likely continue to the end of the ages. We are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where what is called 'red martyrdom', dying for the faith, is rare and unlikely. But that does not mean that we will not face challenges. In our society matters connected with traditional Christian values often become what are called 'contentious issues' … and the sneering and unpleasantness faced by those who try, as good citizens in the world, to oppose those changes, or indeed simply try to live their lives quietly according to Christian values, is not taken lightly. It is never easy to put your head above the parapet and say you disagree with what the world has decided to declare good.

This is why it is important for us to always stay connected with our faith. Like the person living abroad, the Christian must never neglect to do those things that help support them to continue in what is their true identity. And so we must through all our time in this world be diligent in those things that are required of those whose true citizenship is in heaven. This means regular prayers – St Paul, you will remember, exhorted us to constant prayer; it means frequent reading of the Scriptures – as St Jerome told us, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ; study of the Church's teaching and traditions – St Paul in many places, as well as Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus and St Athanasius, remind us of their importance; and, of course, our duty to gather together in public worship of the Almighty – something commended to us by Scripture too often to enumerate here.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. It is sad indeed when an emigrant returns home only to realise that his old country is his home no longer; but at least he still has a home in his adopted country to return to. But if we lose sight of our citizenship of heaven, where will there be for us to go at the end of the ages? It is a loss to great to contemplate; and therefore it is a loss that I hope that none here will ever be faced with: this I pray in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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