Prisoners of death

Sermon preached at Pusey House on the 6th Sunday after Trinity, 19 July 2020

For the Scripture readings, click here.

If the body is a prison, then death is Alcatraz, the final loss of liberty: we strive to technologise and medicate our way through it as much as we do through life. Or, if you think death really does hold no dominion over you, that you have no part in its kingdom: well, take off your masks and sit a bit closer.

But if, like most of us, you’re scared of it, you’d seem to be in good company: for doesn’t even the prophet cry, who can praise God in the pit (Isa 38:18)? We are prisoners of death – and that’s because we have accepted the wages of sin (Rom 6.23), the price of an apple plucked for lust of knowledge.

You may have come to know more of death in these past months than you ever wanted to. We do not want death for those we love; we protest the deaths of those murdered in acts of negligence or brutality; we applaud those who spend their lives saving other people’s. We wear masks, ostensibly less for our own sake than that of others. We resent and resist death, and yet persist in calling Adam’s sin a “happy fault.”

Might we have been better off left ignorant? Well, only if we accept the limits of a certain kind of knowledge: the walls of the fiery prison into which we are all already cast. Our certainty of death, our commitment to the merely natural order as the ultimate bounds of truth, our circumscription of reality by physical mortality – this is what chains our necks from turning just that inch which would let us see the brighter, kindly light beyond the cave, promising to lead us to the knowledge of such good things as pass our understanding.

Only the dead know what is beyond life. And so, to know the fullness of life, we must die. We must leave behind the knowledge of this world for the profound unknowing which alone allows us to “know” the unknowable.

Baptism, death to self, begins the journey. Know ye not (agnoeite, Rom 6.3), asks the Apostle, that you were baptized into Christ’s death? It is not the exercise of our impaired reason, but the glory of the Father (6.4) which shines like the sun to regenerate us, like seeds planted in the likeness of Christ’s death (6.5) – this is what gives us the capacity to know that our slavery to sin is ended (Rom 6.6), and therefore death is no longer our lord (ouketi kurieuei, translated “hath no more dominion,” 6.9). Our new Lord, Christ, leads the Exodus away from where sin still reigns (6.12), binds and defines, into his Kingdom of unbounded, incomprehensible life.

Baptism brings purification from sin and so, in S. Paul’s words, we are justified, made righteous in the sight of the Father. Yet if baptism were the end of our righteousness, Paul would have had no need to write those words at all, and I would have no need to preach to you, already perfect as you are, and exhort you to the further mystery of the Eucharist. We are here because we know only imperfectly, we strain our necks still against the shackles of sin and death to catch a glimpse of that divine glory, of which our souls, though washed in the Blood of the Lamb, still bear only a smeared and murky reflection.

For the perfection of our righteousness, we must climb mountains. Like Moses, we must learn that what we see as dust by day is fire by night; we must enter the cloud to glimpse Him for whom the darkness and the light are both alike (Ps 139:12). And sharing in His divine insight, we find the shackles fall, as we come to see that the light was not only outside our prison after all: for even the fire of the pit has some share in His radiance. Even in the depths, we cannot flee His presence (Ps 139.8).

In today’s Gospel reading, the fire which guided Moses is clad now in the dust of human flesh, both Son of Adam and Son of God. Matthew does not tell us the name of the “mount” of Our Lord’s eponymous sermon, but that doesn’t matter, because His presence there makes it a new Sinai.

Presence is paramount. Our Lord tells us He has come not to destroy the law, but to bring it to perfection (Mt 5:17); he keeps starting, You have heard, and then expounds a Law of Moses; and each time, he takes nothing away from the Law, but rather adds one vital new ingredient: Himself. You have heard, but I tell you… Not only a new Moses, a new recipient of the Law, nor even a new prophet, a new interpreter, Our Lord Himself is the Lawgiver, the Word of God speaking the Mind of God, present now in human form so that His mind may be in us, too (Phil 2:5).

Only by the presence in us of the divine mind could we possibly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20); only by becoming divine might we be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.48). Without that presence, it would be impossible. Suppose we do not kill. Do we speak unkind words in anger, or to show our peers how unpuritanical and fun we are, unlike those other kinds of Christian over the road? Do we approach the Holy Sacrifice unworthily, without due self-examination, confession, reconciliation? Do we return the Peace with secret hatreds or resentments in our hearts? Of course we do. Only God is perfect.

But don’t think I’m preaching cheap grace. We must not cease striving to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), working with God for our increase in holiness. That is surely what this House is all about. But if we think that we are capable of achieving this by our own intellectual endeavour, our fallen skill, our knowledge, we are mistaken. It is by the gift of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament that we can share in the unbounded unknowing of the Divine mind.

How? The key is in the Collect. Purified by baptism, illumined by the Holy Spirit that we may hear the Word, repent and make a true confession, we come to the perfecting mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood; and in so doing, we pray with the Psalmist (Ps 24) that He, the King of Glory, perfect image of the Father’s light, may enter not only our heads but open wide the gates of our hearts.

It is, in the end, by divine love that we may know beyond knowledge the One who is above all things, who passes understanding, and who grants to the children of Adam the fruit of sanctification (Rom 6:22), eternal sabbath rest from the fears and longings which fetter us here below. Lift up the gates of your heart, open wide the doors, and the prison of your body becomes a Temple for the Lord of Glory to enter in.

So may the dazzling darkness of the Undivided Trinity lead us beyond knowledge into the mind of Christ, in loving communion with his blessed mother and all the saints – that we may know the true value of life, in all its fullness.