Pentecost 9: Espoused Theology vs Lived Theology

Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Readings: Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16, Luke 12:32-40

The first words in the funeral service after the greeting are these: ‘We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal.  Which is the echo of the letter to the Hebrews we just heard: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ At funerals, I think, more than anywhere, we’re aware of the tensions between our espoused theology and our lived theology. Let me explain that. Our espoused theology is the theology we learn. If someone asked you what do Christians believe? You’d perhaps tell them what you recall from Sunday School, if you remember a creed, some personal flourishes perhaps.Our lived theologyis what you’re really left with when you’re cut to the quick; the parts your espoused theology cannot reach. If a terminal friend asks you, do you really believe in an afterlife? If someone who’s been terribly harmed asks you if he should forgive the perpetrator.

Our espoused theology is shared. It’s in our services each week and through the year. The creeds –  essentially a list of things the Early Church decided were essential for people to believe, in order to be Christian. And a major source of our theology is our hymns. We sang earlier that we are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’; the basis of our praising the King of heaven. And just a minute ago that we come to Jesus in prayer as a place of rest for our souls.

But how much of those hymns translates to what you really personally believe if asked directly? The final verse of ‘Praise my soul’ asks ‘angels [to] help us to adore him’. The first verse of our last hymn will list all the angels, traditionally held, to occupy heaven already in praise; but if some godless sceptic cornered you, would you feel confident defending the existence of angels?

Now you’d not be alone if you were a little agnostic about aspects of our faith; but what about something more personal? Each week we confess together where we have sinned against God and our neighbours in thought, word and deed. In the silence you perhaps reflect on some of your less good decisions, the things you wished you’d had time to get to which would have helped others; if you’re a churchwarden probably the string of people you’ve recently defrauded, slept with or murdered. 

It’s helpful to get these things off your chest.

We then hear the words of absolution. Our sins are forgiven. In our espoused theology, the faith of the church, the work of grace means that we’re released from the judgement of everything in our past. But do we return to these sins? In your lived theology are there things for which you’re not forgiven; where you do not yet feel or know forgiveness? Is your lived theology demanding that you must do something to atone? Sometimes we’re unaware of the heresies of the theology that lurks beneath our good espoused theology; our inability to accept the grace that’s offered to us. And it’s our lived theology that actually shapes who we are and how we pray.

So at funerals we’re confronted with our lived theology. When the reality of life and death is before us, we will find ourselves truly praying or spiritually shutting down. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

I heard on the radio recently that ‘living funerals’ have become a thing. You may already be planning your own or your partners, especially if you’re a churchwarden. The idea is based on that sentiment sometimes expressed at funerals that ‘she would have loved this’, and the rather peculiar truth that it’s often only after a person’s death that family and friends come to visit. Essentially, it’s a sort of goodbye party, though with a formal element, perhaps your favourite reading and a couple of songs. The woman on the radio was very clear that she didn’t think much of hymns. I suppose the thing I struggle with most is how would you leave that event? A firm handshake and an ‘all the best’? ‘Have a good death’? I spend a lot of energy trying to avoid social awkwardness and, speaking personally, for me this would be a bit of a nightmare.

But actually the more alarming aspect of this trend is that having been to the living funeral you would surely not go to an actual funeral. You’ve said goodbye. So while a body is at a distance, processed out of existence, there’s nowhere to express the actual and unpredictable aspects of grief. There’s no place to comfort one another. And, there’s nowhere to register hope.

We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; 
for the things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal.  

Funerals are liminal places. There is absence and presence. They are a kind of place in-between worlds.Like the most primal experience of life, the birth of children, war, these near-death experiences cut through the comfortable platitudes, whether we’re Christian or a materialist atheist, and call us out on what we really think.

That’s when you know your lived theology.

Over the last seventy years death has been quietly, step by step, removed from society to sterilised professionals and institutions. The intention is to focus on the positive, to make it easy for people, to shield us from the nastiness, the messiness of it all. 

It’s strange that for most of human history religion has focused on where humanity is most rational, most educated, most reflective. Now I think one of the things that most threatens our natural sense of the divine is that in Britain we are losing our connection with ourselves as animals. The experience of death helps us understand what it is to be alive, 

And there’s nothing more likely to produce the instinct to praise God as our first hymn led us, than to see our child born, to find that person who seems to meet our every need, to find ourselves in desperate peril or to drag ourselves to the funeral of a loved one. Because in all these instances, when we see our createdness, our natural finitude – both our tiny insignificance and the incredible wonder of self-conscious life – we are also looking towards the things that are hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And it’s not the well-worn creeds and favourite hymns of our espoused theology; it’s in the blood, sweat and tears of our lived theology.

I know that I’m not alone when I tell you that whenever I come to worship, I am as mindful and as much in the presence of those who are no longer with us, than of those whom I can currently see. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

So Abraham, counting stars in the assured hope of children, the unseen conviction of God’s promise; the Hebrews who are newly come to the promises of God in Jesus, who are strangers and foreigner in this world, hoping for, convicted by the reality of the unseen city of which they are members; the disciples who eschew the goods of this world, for the unseen, hoped for goods of the world to come; whose hearts desire the treasures of an unseen reality. These are those whose lived theology is built on faith. Faith which hopes. Faith which looks on death and is not afraid. 

Our time of trial may come at any point. And that is when we will know our lived theology,how honest we have been with our faith; and whether we have taken the time to build up the reserves of faith and hope needed to help us endure; our unfailing treasure in heaven. Amen.