Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity: The Temporal and the Eternal: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 27 June 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (2 Corinthians 8: 7 – end; Mark 5: 21 – end)
Some years ago I preached one Sunday evening in the chapel of Magdalene College, Cambridge. I would like to be able to tell you that I was invited by the previous Master, Rowan Williams, but that would be a lie. In fact the call came from the then Dean, Hueston Finlay, and it happened that he had C.S. Lewis’ old rooms. Lewis had moved to Cambridge after a long teaching career at Magdalen College, Oxford, and spent the last nine years of his life in Cambridge. I felt much honoured when Hueston bade me sit in Lewis’ armchair (with inbuilt lectern, for a comfortable read) to give me tea before Evensong.
As I reclined there, my mind turned to a sermon that Lewis had preached in that chapel of Magdalene, Cambridge, and subsequently published. It was entitled “A Slip of the Tongue” and concerned the Collect for the 4th Sunday after Trinity (today’s collect). The “slip” was this, as he describes: “I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal; I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.”
Lewis believes this to be a significant – even if not Freudian – slip. He explains that, when praying or receiving the sacrament, a voice inside him urges caution: “It tells me to be careful; to keep my head; not to go too far ……. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me …… which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my ‘ordinary’ life …… for I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast …… It would be very disagreeable, for instance, to take the duty of charity (while I am at the altar) so seriously that, after breakfast, I had to tear up the really stunning reply I had written to an impudent correspondent.”
The temptation, he says, is to go down to the sea that is God, “and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal.” It “is the idea of something that is “our own”, some area …… on which God has no claim.”
Now the intriguing thing, I find, is that our collect seems to make quite a distinction between the temporal (this world) and the eternal (the world to come); whereas our Gospel reading shows the divine, through Jesus’ two miracles, breaking in to our ordinary world; it suggests that the things eternal can begin here and now. That, I think, is why the modern Common Worship version of the collect changes Cranmer’s slightly, to pray that we do not lose “our hold” on the eternal.
Consider the storyline in Mark. Jairus, in his desperation, falls at Jesus’ feet – quite something for a ruler of the synagogue. The woman with the long-standing and seemingly incurable haemorrhage, was so self-conscious and fearful that she simply touched the hem of his garment. Each of them had exhausted all earthly possibilities of healing, but had faith that Jesus possessed a supernatural power which could bring healing, wholeness and salvation – even to raising a small girl from the dead. In him, you see the love and saving power of God bursting dramatically, yet inexorably, into our world.
Which shows that we simply cannot partition off an area of our lives to be private – separate from God’s oversight. In C.S. Lewis’ trenchant words, God “claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love He claims all.”[Extracts from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and Other Pieces” – Fontana 1965]