One of the ceremonies attendant upon the coronation of the Pope, which alas is no more, was the moment when the procession of the Pope in the great chair was halted in the midst of St. Peter’s and a Franciscan came forward with a bunch of burning flax crying out “sic transit Gloria mundi” (thus passes the glory of the world). Today’s lesson from the Apocalypse is a vivid word picture of the true “Gloria Dei” which does not and cannot pass away. The lectionary couples this with Jesus looking forward to the coming of the Spirit and encouraging the disciples for the trials which lie before them before attaining the promised joy. Permanence and transience, that is what we have to be about this morning. So very often the lectionary provides such appropriate readings week by week; permanence and transience three days after a general election are put before us.
The vision given to John the Divine, the consummation of this very difficult book, which is a progression of censure, great activity, dragons chasing women and such like demonstrating the essential rush of evil seeking whom to devour and now that is done with “I saw no temple in the city” the time for the greatest works of humankind is past, they, even the best and the greatest are but imperfect expressions of the glory of God. As we think of those which have moved us most it is good to remember that these are but reflections, hints of what awaits us, of plenitude, the healing of the nations and every accursed thing disappearing. John piles on the images to try and comprehend that which music, pictures, poetry, architecture, sculpture all seek to reflect in their different ways, speaking to some and not to others, produced sometimes by believers and at others by those who cannot believe but yet have this creative gift which they cannot but use.
Those who make the hereafter sound a bit like Dewsbury on a wet afternoon need to breathe something of the apocalypse but how can it be? Is it all a part of Christian brainwashing, pie in the sky? Can we consign it to some sort of apocalyptic waste paper basket, along with angels and dragons and the lukewarmness of the Laodiceans - but we cannot pick and mix. We long for the permanence in the midst of the transience and it is in the gospel that we find the secret. Jesus is the link, the permanent within the transient, the Son incarnate offering peace that is so often absent from the noise and striving that surrounds us. Not, we must note, a negative peace like a temporary absence of war, but “My peace”. This peace is a consequence of loving God and of giving ourselves away to God that can make us a bit better at loving one another, for everybody is loved by God and who are we then to withhold our love from one whom God loves? Now, of course, this can be interpreted as all wet and wishy-washy, we all have people in our sights who are very difficult to love, in the way that they behave, in their, at least in our minds, mistaken beliefs, or seeming to be without beliefs of any kind and indulging in behaviour which can leave us speechless and thunderstruck, just like some of the evil characters in the Apocalypse. There they receive their judgment but it is God who judges, not the bemused beholder of all this, as is the author of the book.
Violence needs restraining, disease and poverty need fighting, Jesus fought a great battle on our behalf and seemed to have lost, a memory sealed up in a new tomb. We are quite free to believe or not what is said to have happened afterwards, if we don’t there is a lot more incoherence in the transience and task of the existentialist, in trying to make sense of the transience, whilst being agnostic about the permanence makes for great and almost incommunicable difficulties for the philosophically disadvantaged, so that gospel fails. The here and now is the arena where we are called to be where the image, or the vision of the permanence which we recognise through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspires us. However, there are not two arenas, this small arena, this minuscule dot in one galaxy out of millions, is also a part of the permanence. In his remarkable “Great Divorce”, C.S. Lewis imagines a bus trip from hell to heaven and once there he discovers that the bus arrived in heaven through a tiny crack in the ground in the midst of a lawn that is a graphic way of making real the solidity of the city John has written about and from that city Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus at his transfiguration, Jesus died and is risen and the way we grow in faith is not to see the wonderful works of art which move us so much as just being reflections of the permanent in the midst of the transient but rather of the permanent, being revealed, breaking through and not just in artefacts, created by people duly inspired but also by people who seem to dwell both in that other city where we began this morning and in this one as well. Many many people who met Michael Ramsey testify to this being manifest in him but let each of us now look back to those who introduced us to the good news of Jesus and so pray that each of us will be a channel of his grace but God forbid that we should ever boast about it because I know that the channel which is me is blocked up with detritus like the urban little rivers complete with a Tesco trolley, a redundant bicycle and tons of plastic. All this rubbish impedes the flow of grace and the very unfashionable word for all this is sin.