What did Jesus mean by all this talk of war and rumours of wars; of enduring to the end? Over the centuries these verses have convinced many that the end of the world is about to come. This past century has been a particularly rich time for those who like to give this warning and imagine that they themselves will be carried off to glory. What they don’t seem to realise is that there have always been wars, and rumours of wars, but Jesus himself said, “The end is not yet.” There have always been nations rising up against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms. There have always been false prophets. And as for “wickedness is multiplied and most men’s hearts will grow cold” – well, Christians in most ages have been convinced that wickedness is steadily growing worse. And the modern media certainly adds to that impression. I think myself that we are in no more danger of the end of the world coming upon us in the next few years, or the next few centuries than we ever have been. Of course, if humankind refuses to pay proper attention to global warming and the degradation of the environment we may find that large parts of this world become unfit for human habitation but we cannot blame that on God.
So what can we draw out of this confusing passage? A very basic answer to that is that the world may endure for millions of years yet, but we will not. Each one of us will die and it is right we should think of that from time to time. Death may not be safely 50 years in the future. It may come to any of us tomorrow. This is not scaremongering on my part. It is a simple truth. And it’s not really bad news. Since we are Christians we know that death is not the end. We know that death ushers us somehow into the presence of God and that God will welcome us. I know it is much more complex than that, but the simple truth remains; we follow Christ because we love him. We know that Christ loves us. What could be better than to come into his company? This is the great hope of Christian life. Life on earth is important because we have a God who created this world and gave us that life. Life on earth is meaningful because we know that life after death will be so wonderful. Life on earth gives us the chance to learn all the things like love, joy, peace which we will need to know about in the Kingdom of heaven. For us, talking about death is not grim, gloomy or negative. It is what gives joy to our lives.
Of course this is not what the modern world thinks. The world tries to ignore the truth that we will die. Other people die but modern medicine will keep us going for ever. Indeed vast amount of national health resources must be spent prolonging lives. Newspapers love to report that we shall soon live to a hundred, as if that is good news! Even funerals don’t talk about death. You have a eulogy, and some happy memories and a prayer or two for those who remain. Perhaps you know the wonderful Roger McGeogh poem:
I Am Not Sleeping
I don’t want any of that
“We’re gathered here today
to celebrate his life, not mourn his passing.”
Oh yes you are. Get one thing straight,
you’re not here to celebrate
but to mourn until it hurts.
I want wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I want sobs, and I want them
uncontrollable. I want women
flinging themselves on the coffin
and I want them inconsolable.
Don’t dwell on my past but on your future.
For what you see is what you’ll be
and sooner than you think.
So get weeping. Fill yourselves with dread.
For I am not sleeping. I am dead.
And he is a Catholic. He knows about death.
No one talks about death. And neither do Christians. Most mission messages seem to concentrate on how much fun it is to be a Christian, how much more you will enjoy life, what nice people you will meet in church every Sunday. Most serious Christian people spend their time talking about doing useful things in the community, which is very good. They talk about how to have better spiritual experiences, how to grow in prayer, whatever that means. But do they talk about the end of their life on earth? They do not. Nor do they talk about the extraordinary life we shall have after death. All that is thought to be gloomy, or unreal. In fact, I think we are selling people short by not talking about death. We are not giving them that essential hope that one day we will be with God who has loved us from all eternity and who is wonderful to be with. Perhaps that is why congregations are declining and people look elsewhere for meaning in their lives. The Gospel message has become thin, fluffy, bubbly, nice, but has little substance. It doesn’t deal with one of the most important events of our life – which is death. And because it doesn’t deal with that it fails to give us the joy that should be the inheritance of every Christian on earth – a joy that comes from knowing that we have a wonderful God and that one day we shall actually see him.
That brings us to the second really important point of this passage – the last verse: “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world; and then the end will come”. So the end of the world is not dependent on the right number of wars and wickedness mounting up to some particular quantity of evil which God can not put up with any longer. It depends on the success of our mission activities. That’s going to make a great mission strapline: Join us in preaching the Gospel so the world will end soon. I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. In fact I don’t know what he meant at all. He could have meant that the end will come once people have preached the gospel in every country of the world, whether men and women accept it or not. Or he could mean the end will not come until every human being has had a chance to accept the Gospel. It may even be Matthew himself who added those words and thought just of the known world of the Mediterranean as the place which must be evangelised. Matthew clearly believed in evangelism; he finished his Gospel with the famous charge to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” Mission was high on Matthew’s agenda, but how did he go about it?
Well, we know how Matthew thought we should go about it because he tells us in the Sermon on the Mount. Actually, as I am sure you know, there are five sermons in Matthew’s gospel but the one on the mount is best known. Most of this sermon is about Christian living. Right in the middle is the Lord’s Prayer. And there is quite a bit too about laying up treasures in heaven; looking forward to that life after death. The whole sermon is an expansion of “Love God and love your neighbour”. That seems to be Matthew’s mission action plan.
There are people who say “All you need to do to live a Christian life is follow the Sermon on the Mount. You don’t need to bother about church.” But you and I know that you cannot live the Sermon on the Mount without receiving the grace that God offers us in church. It is far too difficult. Yet actually that Sermon on the Mount is the stuff of Christian life. Here in this monastery we have been trying to do it for years. We call it Benedictine, but really it is just the Sermon on the Mount. Over there in the College they try to do it as well. Each of you in your congregations are trying to live out this sermon and each of us knows how badly we do it. And yet this is the way Matthew thought we should preach the Gospel and he must have got that idea from Jesus.
The point I am making is that it is not great preaching, or revivalist sermons, or mission action plans, or new initiatives that effectively do mission. It is God who does mission, and God does mission through us when we try and live out the kind of love that Jesus lived out. That is how mission has always been done long before churches had their directors of mission and their church growth officers. Love, that very ordinary care we show for each other is actually the most extraordinary thing on earth or in heaven. Love is where the Holy Spirit is acting and acting in that quiet unnoticed way that is his trade mark. The trouble with this concept of evangelisation is that it means none of us can opt out of mission. We can’t leave it to the young, the eloquent, the energetic or the ones who are specially paid to do it. Every time we do something that the Sermon on the Mount tells us to do we are spreading the love of God, and it is that love which converts, not the clever words some of us might say.
Of course, it is not just loving our neighbour that is mission. Loving God is mission too. Some years ago a young student in London was coming home from a party on Christmas Eve when he saw lights on in a church. He went in and found Midnight Mass in progress. Clouds of incense, lights and singing drew him to the altar to receive communion, to which he had no right. Ten years later he was a priest. Or think of a Romanian teenager in Timisoara under communism. He went to a rock concert in the park one Sunday afternoon but found the concert was cancelled. So, out of curiosity he popped into the cathedral next to the park to see what it looked like and found the priests singing vespers. He was entranced. He too is now a priest.
St Paul knew it all “O death, where is thy sting? O death where is thy victory? But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1.Cor 15: 55,57)