Deliverance is at hand: sermon of the last Sunday after Pentecost

“He hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love.”

Here we are once more at the end of the liturgical year, and the Church puts before us again the great gospel about the end times: both the destruction of the temple, and what that destruction symbolised in the plan of God, namely, the end of the world. The apostles had joined both events together when they asked our Lord about the coming of the kingdom of God, and in His reply, of which we heard a part, He does the same. He allows the first thing, the destruction of the temple and its rites, to represent the other thing, the ending of the world and the passing away of the rites of the New Testament. For when our Lord returns, all our sacraments, and even the holy Mass itself will pass away.

How difficult it must have been for the four apostles, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, fully to imagine what Christ foretold to them about the destruction of the temple. The temple was the very heart of their religion. Apart from a period of one lifetime, back in the sixth century BC, sacrifices had been going on in the temple in Jerusalem every day ever since the reign of King Solomon. Every year, hundreds of thousands — some authorities say even millions — of Jewish pilgrims from all parts of the known world thronged Jerusalem to worship the Lord and keep the feast days of their people. The beauty of the temple and the gold with which its walls shone made it one of the wonders of the world. To the apostles, all that must have seemed so solid. But now Christ was telling them that within a generation — forty years — the world as they knew it would come crashing down. The temple would be first desecrated and then destroyed, with not one stone left upon another, and the Jews who remained in Jerusalem either massacred or led into captivity. And so it came to pass, in the year 70. That world came to an end and has never come back; what is called Judaism now is not the same religion, just as the skin of a fruit is not the same thing as the fruit.

Just as the four apostles could only with great difficulty have imagined the future that Christ foretold, it is probably difficult for us to imagine that the world as we know it is going to end one day. This world perhaps seems solid enough to us, with its cities, and its institutions, its technology, and its airports and armies; but it too is all destined to come crashing down. What does St Peter say in his second epistle? “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

Is that an alarming thought? We are meant, rather, to find it an encouraging one. “When you see all these things begin to take place,” our Lord tells us in the gospel, “lift up your heads, for your deliverance is at hand.” After all, why should we want the world as we know it to carry on forever, this place where the rights of God are so generally disregarded, where people grow old and sick, and where there are so many things to lead men into sin, not only things in secular life, but even “in the holy place”, scandals in the Church itself? And so, when we see the signs begin to be fulfilled, for example if we see that the gospel has been preached to all nations and many once-Catholic nations fall away wholesale from the faith, we can lift up our heads and be glad, not glad for the sins of the world but glad at the thought that the Church’s time of exile will be soon ending.

The position of Christians in the world, in fact, is inevitably a rather strange, in-between sort of position. By our baptism we have already been taken out of the world insofar as it is doomed to destruction; as St Paul puts it today, we have been “delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of the Son of his love”. This kingdom of God, to which we belong, has already come, and come in power: that happened at three o’clock in the afternoon on the first Good Friday, when the power of the enemy was broken forever and the way to heaven laid open. Ever since then, the history of the world, however long it goes on, is only a kind of long, mopping up operation. There may still be some fierce skirmishes here and there, but the final outcome is not in doubt.

So, we Christians already belong to the victorious side, but we are still waiting for the victory to be made fully manifest, which will happen on the day when Christ comes again. And until that happens, what we are asked to do above all is simply to endure, to be faithful. For the faithful, this world is rather like the waiting room in a railway station. We are like people who have got our tickets and are waiting for the train to come; by baptism we’ve been give the right to leave this world, but we are not yet “at home with the Lord”. You know that people who are waiting in a railway station often look at their watches and crane their necks to look down the line, but nothing they do can make the train arrive any faster; all they can do is to wait patiently and to be ready to get on it when it arrives. So it is with us: the Father has predestined some day to be the last day of all. But He has not revealed to us what day that will be. “Not even the angels” know it. What’s more, God the Father has “put it in his own power”; we cannot make it come any faster. So we have no alternative but to wait in patience.

And so, when St Peter reminds us that the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and that everything on earth will be burnt up, he goes on to say, “Wherefore, dearly beloved, waiting for these things, be diligent that you may be found before him unspotted and blameless in peace.” It is a mark of sanctity to be able to combine these two things: a vivid awareness that the Lord will come to judge the world by fire, and peace. Perhaps you know the story of St John Fisher, who was kept in the Tower of London for months, knowing that he would be beheaded one day, but not when that day would be. Finally, one day in June, very early in the morning, he was woken by his guard and told that it was the day of his execution. St John Fisher asked the guard what time it was, and how much longer he had to live, and when he found out that it was still the early morning, he told the guard that he had not slept well the previous night, and then he turned over in bed and went back to sleep. His heart was united to Christ already and so he was at peace. For us too, the more free from sin we can become, the more we will be at peace, and so we will be ready for the last day, whether it be the last day of the whole world or just of our own life.