Commemoration of Benefactors 2020
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” John 14.1
The formal title of this sermon invites us to reflect upon the Commemoration of our Benefactors within the University of Oxford. The active engagement of memory is one of the strengths of the Christian tradition, a strength it clearly owes to its Jewish forebears and to the Hebrew Bible, as well as to the sacramental commemoration of the life of Christ. As a wise person once said, “History tells us what happened. Memory tells us who we are”. In straitened times such as these, however, our collective memory and our individual memories are undoubtedly challenged. For many of us, the active remembrance of things past has become something of a short term endeavour, as we look back not very far to the way things used to be, usually with a longing that they may be so again. Giving thanks for those who have given to us, and for the good fortune we enjoy thanks to our predecessors, is perhaps not as high up our list as it might normally be.
Of course, the commemoration of the end of the Second World War in Europe, which we mark this weekend, is itself a commemoration of our benefactors, of those who in the past have given of themselves to the benefit of the present. But this particular present is an uncomfortable one, and counting our blessings is more difficult to do than we would like.
In our gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. Instead they should believe, or trust, in him and in the Father. “There are many rooms in my Father’s house”, he assures them, and among these dwellings there will be a place for them which he will prepare, before returning to take them with him. This is, of course, strange language. The challenge of obeying the command to trust is shown to us immediately in the questions which the disciples ask. “We don’t know where you are going”, Thomas says, “So how can we know the way?” There is a hint of exasperation in this question, it has the ring of “what on earth are you on about?” There is nothing unreasonable in this objection, indeed in chapter sixteen the disciples will say to Jesus “Now you are speaking plainly“, presumably implying that he has been speaking far from plainly up until then.
Jesus answers Thomas robustly. “I am the Way, the truth and the life.” The life which is on offer to the disciples, the dwelling in the father’s house which is theirs to expect, is available through, with and because of Jesus. There is no other route. St Augustine expands on these words, explaining that what it means to have life, is to come to the truth, by means of the way. The union with God, with the ultimate truth, is ours by virtue of Christ and the new life into which we are baptised. That new life is the basis of the Eastertide season in which we find ourselves.
But this is not a simple matter of being thankful for the resurrection of Christ, as if no difficulties remain. The gospel narratives are clear that the risen Jesus does not stand around waiting to be applauded, he moves on, and he invites others to follow. The life of Easter is a life of doing, not of standing still. Augustine’s gloss on the words of Jesus in our gospel centres upon a Trinitarian understanding of our Easter life. We are drawn to the truth, that is to the ultimacy of the Godhead, by the way which is opened to us in the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and on the journey of life which is breathed into us by the Spirit who is the Lord, the giver of life. It is no accident that after describing himself as “The Way, the Truth and the life”, Jesus will say that “He who has seen me has seen the Father, and do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” These verses, so central to the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, reveal to us the dynamic unity of the divine life into which we are drawn, the life where what it means to be divine is to be given perfectly to another in love.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. To trust in God and in the gift of the resurrection is not a matter of gambling with our souls, nor of presuming to think we are special. It is the conscious acknowledgement of the life of God at work in our lives and in our world, and to place ourselves within that life as the basis of all that we think or know or do. It is, as so often with the life of faith, a matter of letting God be God, of letting go of our self-concern and our anxieties for proof or security or wealth, and discovering that all these things are given to us in the life of God’s people, the living as the body of Christ, which is ours in our day to day existence.
While that existence is continued in our current locked down exile, the essential character of relationships and of the possibilities of human fellowship are as painfully lacking as anything in our lives. And yet the gospel invites us to enact and enable those lives first and foremost by relationship, by acknowledging our dependence on the God who is nothing other than love given and received. That most basic of relationships – owing our lives to the grace of God – is then the basis for what it means to be human, to live in relationship with others and to know ourselves not to be alone, in spite of any appearance to the contrary. Do not let your hearts be troubled, says Jesus. This is a hard saying, at present, as hard as can be. But the self-giving love which overcomes death itself remains as real as the God who lives it. And whose gift of that love to us is the greatest of all benefactions.