Not very often I get to preach about hellfire and damnation. It’s tempting to go up into the pulpit just so I’ve got something to bang my fist on. I don’t think this legilium would take the impact, somehow.
But hellfire and damnation it is, threatened against those who live richly and leave the poor lying at their gate. People often ask how a God who is love, revealed in the forgiveness of Christ crucified, could threaten anyone with the fires of Hades. In fact, how could there be evil in the world at all?
Many of the ancient church Fathers tried to answer this by arguing that in its own right, evil does not properly speaking exist. Otherwise, if God created evil, then he would not be entirely good. Rather, they said, evil is nothing but a lack of good - a “real absence,” if you like. God made us in his image, which includes free will, and that means that we are free to turn away from goodness, to turn away from true reality as God made it towards the unreality and falsehood which constitutes evil. Only the Good is true, beautiful, real.
For Christians, the source of all that is good, beautiful and true is none other than God himself, infinitely greater than even our wildest imaginings of goodness, truth and beauty, of which the created things around us are just a dim reflection in a dark glass. But even if we only see it dimly, there is something of truth, goodness and beauty in this world - look around this church, for instance - and it all points and guides us towards its ultimate source. If we follow its path, it leads us towards that source, towards God, and helps us get used to his infinite light.
If we freely choose to get used to that light in this world, then when we stand before its source at our judgment, before the very throne of God, then it will be for us a warming ray, enflaming us with pure love, opening our eyes to see God face-to-face.
But - if we freely choose to turn from that light in this world, turn from truth, goodness, beauty, and walk the shadowy path of lies, selfishness, ugliness, then the light of God will not warm us and enlighten us. It will burn and purge and blind until we beg for mercy, and we will have only ourselves to blame. If you choose to stare at the sun through a telescope, you cannot blame the sun for blinding you. And if you close your eyes to the sun completely, you cannot blame the sun because you cannot see.
So how do we get used to the light of God, here and now? One example is that of another man famous for seeing a beggar at his gate, a saint very close to my heart: St Martin of Tours, patron of military chaplains, for reasons which will become clear. Martin was a Roman soldier and a Christian. Once, marching in his Century into a town in Gaul (modern-day France), he saw a man starving and naked, half-frozen at the city gates. He drew his sword, the story goes, and cut off half of his red, Army-issue cloak, giving it to the beggar. I can imagine the Quartermaster’s face. Anyway, that night, the story goes, he had a dream - and in this dream, that beggar whom he had given half his cloak to revealed himself as Christ. The Latin for cloak is “capella,” and so the priests who carried around relics, fragments of Martin’s cloak, became known as “capellani” - or “chaplains.” So we get the modern word from this ancient saint, Martin, who went on to become Bishop of Tours.
The moral of the story is that it in serving the poor, we offer our riches to Christ. We learn to see the world as Christ sees it, in the light of his love, a love which sacrifices self for others. That is how we get used to the light and heat of God’s love, letting it open the eyes of our hearts gently, here and now, so that it does not burn them out at the day of judgment.
We have the pleasure and privilege of welcoming two fellow Christians today into the life of our church who follow St Martin’s example as committed servants of the poor. Mrs Jackson and Ms Dyson have chosen to serve some of the poorest children in our country, work they continue as Head Teachers at our church school. To help them, they have the love and compassion that our own Mrs Trigg and her team have built up at St Michael’s school over the years, but no doubt the challenges of doing the best for severely disadvantaged children will still be severe. I want them to know that they can rely on the prayer of this church - so straight after the sermon, we will start as we mean to go on.
But after we have commissioned our new Head Teachers, we will go as ever to the altar. Let us remember as we go there what great riches Our Lord gives us under simple bread and wine: the fruits of his self-sacrifice, a foretaste of divine love, even his own body and blood. In the mass, for all our spiritual poverty, Christ gives us all that he has and is. The challenge for us is to live the mass in our lives after we have left church today, and give back to him by serving him in the poor and vulnerable of Camden Town, living as those who are convinced by one man’s resurrection from the dead, purified and illumined by the searing flame of his love.