A sermon for Holy Communion, preached on Wednesday, 2 June 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
On a walk through the Dorset countryside yesterday, some friends and I found ourselves on a track rather romantically named Gipsy’s Drove. The name and the rural scenery put me in mind of the old term “wayfaring”, used of those who habitually travel, generally on foot. It can also be a metaphor for our journey through this world, the highways and byways of life. Those of you who have seen Sam Mendes’ film 1917, released a couple of years ago, and based on the actual experience of his own grandfather in WW1, will remember that it depicts the perilous assignment given to two British soldiers: they are to go through the battle-scarred, bleak Flanders landscape, much of it enemy territory, to deliver a vital and urgent message to the Devonshire Regiment, whose men are about to go over the top straight into a deadly trap. When the Devons are finally located, they are sitting in a wood waiting for battle, but listening in wrapt silence to a lone soldier singing, entirely unaccompanied, a poignant spiritual. It is a magical moment of quiet in an otherwise action-packed and violent narrative. He begins, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger, travelling through this world alone.”
At once we are in the sound world of the psalms; in Psalm 39 the psalmist puts his trust in God, but it can be only for this life – there is nothing beyond. The words are heart-rending: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with thine ears consider my calling: hold not thy peace at my tears. For I am a stranger with thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.”
By the time that Jesus had his conversation with Nicodemus (Jn. 3) things had moved on in Jewish awareness and understanding of God, His Kingdom and His infinite reach. Most Jews now believed that there was life after death – not the highly conservative Sadduccees; but certainly the more liberal Pharisees like Nicodemus looked to the life hereafter. Perhaps that is why Jesus can speak to him about the world of the Spirit.
But Jesus is even more specific. He, the Son of Man, must be “lifted up” – a reference to the redeeming power of the cross, but also to his resurrection and ascension into heaven. That is his guarantee; that is the heart of our Christian faith – “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” It is a triumphant declaration.
And that is why that apparently rather desolate spiritual, of the poor wayfaring stranger travelling through this world alone, looks to the world to come with quiet Christian confidence, as they do. It continues, “But there’s no sickness, toil or danger in that bright land to which I go;” and concludes, “I’m going there to see my mother, I’m going there no more to roam. I’m only going over Jordan, I’m only going over home.”