Isa. 38: 9-20
John 11: 27-44
St Andrew’s at the crossroads
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Here at St. Andrew’s we stand at a crossroads! Soon the church family will be asked to choose what road we will take into the future on our journey to God.
Behind us is the road we have all travelled down together. Not a perfect road, a road with the occasional pot hole, a road that twists and turns, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, a road that seems to run uphill more often than downhill. But now we stand at a cross roads. We must choose which road to take before we continue on our journey to God. To the left is a new road to God, a well beaten path trod by many Anglicans, wide and welcoming, exciting to some, but not to all. Ahead is the same road we have travelled down together in the past, stretching into the future, familiar and welcoming to some, but not to all. Finally to the right, the last option, an unfamiliar route, perhaps the most foreboding, certainly the most challenging, the road that leads to God via the city of Rome, an option for a few, but not all.
So before we choose the route we should take, we should pause for a while to look back at the road we have travelled and at some of the other travellers who have travelled it before us, for we are by no means the first to have stood at this particular crossroads. John Henry Newman also stood where we stand today in the early nineteenth century. John Henry Newman joined a group of scholarly clergymen in Oxford. They argued that the Church was a divine society. This high view of the church led to them being called High Churchmen, though what we now call ‘high church’ worship was introduced by the ‘Oxford Movement’ a generation later. Infuriated when the government of the day disestablished the Anglican Church in Ireland, they wrote a series of papers called Tracts for the Times, several of which came from the pen of Newman. They were also called Tractarians for this reason. Most remained in the Church of England, but Newman and a few others became Roman Catholic. He was a scholar, and his book The Idea of a University influenced intellectuals from many disciplines. But he was also a poet, and his hymn, ‘Lead, kindly light’, is for me especially moving, I recommend you read it. He was eventually made a cardinal. In 2010 the Pope set in motion the process leading to Newman being declared a saint. Many people see this as a genuine gesture of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. For Newman was a member of both churches, yet never really happy with either. He had an ideal concept of what God’s church should be, and no denomination could live up to it.
Newman’s greatest work of art was the epic poem he called The Dream of Gerontius, later set to music by Sir Edward Elgar. It illustrates and develops what Jesus taught about resurrection, and especially the hope he gave when he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. ‘Gerontius’ means an old man, and he dreams of what it might be like to die, and what follows death. His friends are gathered round his deathbed, and join the priest in praying for the dying man’s soul. The old man prays for the strength to endure his last agony, and proclaims his faith in the words of the creed. He commends his spirit into God’s hands, and his friends pray ‘Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul … may thy place today be found in peace, and thy dwelling be the Holly Mount of Zion’. The soul of Gerontius awakes, realizing that he is being carried by his guardian angel.
They then hear a chorus of demons, complaining that the heavenly crowns which should have been theirs have been given to mere human beings. The soul asks whether he will see God when he reaches the judgement seat. ‘Yes’, replies the angel, ‘but only for a moment … the flame of the Everlasting Love doth burn ere it transform’. They hear the chorus of angels singing the well known words, ‘Praise to the holiest in the height’. The soul sees God, then gladly surrenders to the healing waters of purgatory. The souls in purgatory sing, ‘Lord thou hast been our refuge’, while the angel says farewell: ‘Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, and I will come and wake thee on the morrow’.
Did Newman really believe in demons, angels and purgatory? In a way, yes, he did; but he transformed our understanding of those ideas as only a poet could. In this Easter season, we may puzzle about our images of the afterlife. What will it feel like, to die? Are we really going to a heavenly Jerusalem? The answer is that Newman was a romantic, and he described everything through the language of symbols, of parables. Yet those symbols convey a spiritual truth far deeper than any literal description could ever possibly do. So it is a great comfort to know that as we stand here at this crossroad all the roads that lye before us lead to God. We may not all be able to travel the same road together as before but our goals will be unchanged. We can rejoice that the indescribable God loves us and will hold us in his loving arms along our respective roads. And that is all we need to know. We can share in Newman’s dream, and say ‘Amen’ to the famous prayer based on the words Newman wrote:
O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen