Deacon Duncan’s Homilies

A Homily for Christ the King

There’s a story about the soft drinks company Pepsi that tells us a little bit about how we respond to death. According to some sources, and Pepsi have never actually denied this story, the company’s popular American slogan: ‘Come to Life with Pepsi’ was mistranslated in China as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life’. Now this is some claim. Certainly, Pepsi’s sales in China didn’t improve appreciably. Having a drink that instantly brings your departed loved ones back to the land of the living was probably seen as something of two-edged-sword. I mean, where would we put them?

Now, as you may be aware I know a little bit about death, because by day I am an undertaker. It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? ‘Undertaker?  But what do I undertake? It’s really a euphemism, I suppose. We don’t want to be too specific about the role. The word comes into English in the early Tudor period, and can mean one who works in business, or acts as some form of agent. It’s reassuringly vague. I undertake something people don’t really want to name, and that’s understandable. Perhaps best not to mention it, really. If I’m at a dinner party and someone asks what I do for a living –– my response is usually met with an odd glance: ‘Oh. You’re an undertaker. That must be very…err…’ I probably should say: ‘It’s not about what I do for a living. It’s about what I do for the dead’. But I don’t think that’s quite true. My job is to serve both parties.

The word ‘human’ derives from the Latin word for earth: humus. So we may well take our name as a species from the fact that we bury our dead in the ground. In Ancient Egypt, the departed were known as ‘westerners’, from the deserts west of the fertile Nile valley. If a modern American met an Ancient Egyptian and announced they were from ‘the mid-west’, it’s likely they would be met with – at best – a measure of incredulity. The Egyptians, prior to the development of their formal buildings of interment, buried their loved ones in the desert. If the wind or animals uncovered the dead, they would appear to the living as being remarkably intact, since the dry and hot conditions slowed down the process of decay. When the Egyptians made mummies, they were likely honouring that early experience. In the Zoroastrian faith of pre-muslim Iran, the dead were cleaned and laid out on beautiful towers so the flesh could be artfully removed by vultures. This was viewed as a form of spiritual cleansing. And in parts of modern Indonesia, the departed aren’t considered dead until they are buried. They are mummified, then placed in their old room in the house, receiving their favourite meals every day.  Burial only takes place when sufficiently lavish plans have been made for the ceremony. Now, these are ‘undertakings’ I might find difficult to understand, and certainly to perform, but they are, of course, deeply important rituals designed to honour the departed, and to ensure safe transition from one place to another. All these practices required somebody to undertake them.

So how do we feel about death? The second Vatican Council states things in this way

’It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows more acute.  Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by the dread of perpetual extinction. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter.

It is something we dread, Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks the audience if it’s better ‘To be, or not to be’. We’ve no idea if anyone in the audience replied, or if lengthy debate ensued. But the hero concludes that death ‘is a consummation devoutly to be wished’. Around the same time, the poet and clergyman John Donne mocked Death in a sonnet that begins ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’. The poet seems to be debating with Death, saying his powers aren’t even especially unique: ‘poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke’. In Donne’s poem, he shows us that our faith can make nonsense of Death. Our bodies might fail, but the poet concludes: ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die’.

If you had a drink that could bring your ancestors back to life, would you give it to them? I don’t think I would because I believe that that moment will happen, just not in this life. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us  very clearly the reality of the Christian belief about what happens after death Death, he says, came into the world through one man Adam – in other words through man’s sin, but the resurrection of the dead and life eternal comes through another man,  Jesus and only through Jesus – for those who belong to him,Christ the  King. We know that Jesus is the one who restores our way back to God, and to life eternal. To steal the slogan of the rival beverage: Jesus is ‘the real thing’. He is the ultimate undertaker, in that through his sacrifice on the Cross he undertook to safely convey us from this life to life eternal. Although our lives can be hard, and sometimes seem impossible, The church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches herself that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose which is beyond the reach of earthly misery.

As St Paul writes elsewhere

‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Deacon Duncan’s Homilies

St Paul

The scripture readings for today reflect a theme of obedience – but a loving obedience that goes far beyond the observing of God’s law simply by the way we behave. The readings for today invite us to think seriously about repentance – in Greek the word is ‘metanoia’ and it means the act of changing one’s mind

We see this change of mind demonstrated in the little parable in the Gospel reading . The first son thought better of his initial refusal to go and work in the vineyard and went and did his father’s will He changed his mind, and turned his mind (and his will) to what he should do. This is the essence of repentance. Today’s New Testament reading is taken from the letters of St Paul and he is for us a beautiful example of the extraordinary things that can result from a change of mind

Saul (as he was first known) was born in Tarsus, now in south eastern Turkey. His position was a unique one and spanned three of the main traditions of the day: he was a Roman citizen of Greek culture raised in the Jewish rabbinical tradition. He was fit to be a citizen of the world.

And yet Saul became what we might call a fundamentalist. A fanatic, even. And the principle object of his hate were the followers of Jesus, who were making some extraordinary claims about their teacher. For Saul, this challenged the basis of all that he believed. In Jerusalem, Saul’s hatred boiled over ‘he breathed murderous threats’ and even ‘dragged the followers of Jesus from their homes’.

Most frighteningly, he presided over the stoning of St Stephen the Deacon. There seemed little hope for this fiery young man to change. He was motivated by rage, and by a terrible sense of mission. This kind of figure perhaps all too familiar in our own time. Our knowledge of Paul’s history makes the later events of his life even more staggering, and demonstrates the point made in the reading from Ezekiel: God wants the sinner to change and return to His love. And it is never too late to do so in our lives.

InPhilippi, amongst a tough and potentially hostile community, Paul makes a plea for the binding and redemptive power of God’s love that he had experienced at first hand on the road. Into a Greek society of many gods, Paul brings the news of One, and an extraordinary One who had revealed himself on the way to Damascus by means of a blinding light and the words: ‘Saul? Why are you persecuting me?’

Paul gives us few details in his writing of his conversion on the road. We know from other sources that it was a direct contact with divinity, a kind of lightning strike that physically blinded him for some time. Afterwards, Paul wandered in Arabia, far from the protection of his kin and community. In a state of transition as he underwent a painful sort of rebirth, becoming Paul the Apostle. He had suffered a fundamental challenge to all that he believed, yet he knew he had also experienced the fulfilment of Jewish tradition: Jesus was the Anointed One – The Messiah.

In some senses, the Road to Damascus led Paul back to himself, to the many traditions he embodied at his birth. His mind opened to accept the truth of divine revelation. And so finally, from the prison of fundamentalism and fanaticism, Paul created the possibility of shared faith. He writes: ‘Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, So that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead’. In obedience, this son of a tent-maker underwent a journey that ended physically in the city of Rome with his execution, But his spiritual journey continues to unfold in our own time, since he created a canvas under which many of us could discover the love of Jesus. Paul embodied many traditions in his life. His genius was to relate the message of The Resurrection across continents and, via the new tradition he created through his journeys and his letters, across the entire world.

So as Paul demonstrates obedience is not easy. It means the submission of mind and will and that can be painful but Paul shows us today where the source of obedience is – Jesus.

Of Jesus Paul writes ‘His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.’

Jesus’ loving obedience is the source of our ability to obey even when it is very difficult. That love is communicated to us as we celebrate the Eucharist today. We have turned to God, we have repented of our sins, we have listened to the word of God and now in union with Jesus we offer ourselves and our lives to God and we receive the body and blood of Jesus and within it the strength to love him and serve him – our servant King.

– Deacon Duncan Brown