Sunday, 3 November 2013

All Saints Sunday: A Glorious Inheritance

Dan 7.1-3, 15-18, Eph 1.11-end, Luke 6.20-31 

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance” says Paul to the Ephesians. I wonder what it might have felt like to have heard those words when they were first written. Just imagine you were one of those early Christians in Ephesus. There probably weren’t more than a handful of you, but you’d have been a very mixed bunch. Some of you might have been wealthy – but many of you wouldn’t be – the Christian faith seems to have appealed most strongly to the poor, to women and to slaves in its early days. Many of you would probably never have dreamed you’d inherit anything – if you were poor or a slave what would anyone have to leave to you?  But here is Paul telling you that you have a “glorious inheritance among the saints”. He talks of riches and of the “immeasurable greatness of God’s power”.

All our readings today speak of inheritance in one form or another. Daniel hears in a vision of God’s promise that his holy ones – the ones who have stayed true to him during the Babylonian Exile – will receive a kingdom. And Jesus in the Gospel also promises that those who suffer now, those who seem poor now, will be rewarded, while those who have wealth that leaves others in poverty will find that they have received all they are going to get.

Today is All Saints’ day, so all this talk of inheritance is very appropriate. Today we are celebrating the inheritance of faith which the saints have handed down to us, the message of the Gospel which they have taught and lived. We are reminded too, that we have the task of handing on that inheritance to others in our turn; we are the saints for future generations. But what is this inheritance? Why does it matter? What do we need to do to get it? What should we do with it once we have got it?

Inheritance can be a very fraught business. Families often fall out over who gets what when someone dies. Nations descend into civil war over who should inherit the power to rule. People squabble over who are the true inheritors of the legacy of a great leader – who is carrying on their vision most faithfully. Sometimes, though, by the time the matter is settled the inheritance has been worn away to nothing by the struggles of those trying to get their hands on it or so spoiled that it isn’t worth having.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when Philip and I were in Tewkesbury for a short break. We were wandering around Tewkesbury Abbey when all of a sudden we came across a very familiar name. There in front of us was the very grand effigy of Sir Guy de Bryene, lying in rather splendid state at the entrance to one of the side chapels. Now, anyone who knows this church well will know that we have a de Bryene here too. We’ve got Sir William deBryene, whose brass memorial lies just to the left of the altar, dating from 1395, and he happens to be the son of Sir Guy de Bryene, who we discovered in Tewkesbury.

Sir Guy de Bryene was a very wealthy and influential person, a close advisor to King Richard II and an ambassador to the pope. He had lots of lands mostly in Dorset, Devon and Wales. His name still lingers in place names there – Torbryan, Bryanston… He had three sons – Guy Junior, our William, and another called Phillipe. But Guy Junior and Phillipe died before their father so William was left as the only male heir. You’d expect that he would then be first in line to inherit all those fine lands and titles, but that’s not what happened. He is described on his memorial her just as “the Lord of Kemsing and Seal”, titles he’d inherited through his mother’s line. Now of course we might think that was a very fine thing to be, but I’m afraid that as far as Sir William was concerned, it was the booby prize. What had happened to those Bryene lands and titles which surely should have been his? Thereby hangs a tale… and it’s not a very edifying one.

It seems that when Guy de Bryene’s eldest son died in 1385 Guy senior decided to change his will. Instead of leaving everything to his second son, our William, as would have been normal, he cut him out completely, and left it all to Guy junior’s daughters – just little girls at the time.  We don’t know why, but perhaps his father knew a thing or two about William, because William promptly started to manoeuvre and plot quite disgracefully in order to try to discredit the offending will, or even make it disappear completely. He threatened witnesses to the will, trying to get them to say that his father was insane when he made it. He was even imprisoned in the Tower of London after he had been caught climbing the walls of one of his father’s castle in Pembrokeshire in order to break in and steal documents from a chest kept there which would have undermined his claim.  In the end, though, none of this finagling came to anything. William didn’t get the inheritance, and as it happened, he died just five years after his father, without any children of his own, and the de Bryene line soon petered out completely.

It’s an object lesson in the damage that inheritance, or the hope of it, can do. The inscription on William’s tomb asks that God should be merciful to him, and perhaps he knew he needed that mercy!

The kind of inheritance that the Biblical writers are talking about is not one of land or titles or material wealth, of course, but it can be just as fraught and divisive, especially when we bring to it the baggage of insecurity and greed which so often poisons our disputes over material inheritance.

Whatever form it takes inheritance is usually as much about belonging as it is about belongings. When families fall out over who gets the property of someone who has died, it is usually not so much because they want the cash they could raise by selling it, but because it symbolises how much they think that person valued them.  Siblings are often really fighting about who mum or dad loved most when they fight over who gets what. Someone who felt overlooked by a parent in life may well feel slighted in death too if they don’t get what they expect in the will.

The “glorious inheritance” Paul wrote to the Ephesians about is also, at its heart, an assurance that we are loved, that God is with us and for us, that we belong to him, that we have a secure place in his heart and in his family.
That sense of belonging was something which the Jewish people of Paul’s time held very dear. It had been promised to them through Abraham and restored to them through Moses after their slavery in Egypt. Again and again in the Old Testament God says that his dream was simply that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Again and again he laments when that relationship is broken. Again and again, his people learn the hard way that, like all relationships, this one needs working at, it needs commitment from them to make it real. Again and again, when they turn back to God they find him ready and waiting to forgive.

There is a strong strand of thought in the Bible that this relationship is not meant exclusively for them; they are meant to share it. But that view kept being pushed aside in favour of a narrow nationalistic view of themselves as the sole inheritors of God’s love.

That’s no surprise. Just as siblings often fight for their parent’s love, grasping at it because they can’t quite trust that there will be enough to go round, so people tend to treat God’s love as if it’s in short supply and must be rationed out carefully. That usually means building walls and setting up barriers to keep those they think of as unworthy out.

The good news that Paul discovered on the Damascus road, though, was that this love was for everyone, that there was more than enough to go round, that however much of it was poured out, there was always an infinite amount left. His narrow vision of faith – so narrow that he was intent on physically destroying anyone who challenged it - was blown open by the voice of the risen Christ calling to him, and by the love of the Christian community that welcomed him with joy when he would have expected them to hate him. His good news was that the “dividing walls of hostility” as he puts it later in this letter had been broken down (Ephesians 2.14). God’s peace was for those who were “far off” as well as those who were “near” (2.17)

In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us also that we can’t tell who is “in” or “out” by external appearances and circumstances either. Being poor, broken hearted, reviled is not a sign that you have done something wrong or are less loved by God. Conversely, being rich, popular and successful might tell you that you have made it in the world’s eyes, but it isn’t a sign of God’s blessing, and may in fact get in the way of it.

Today there are many things we could celebrate as our Christian inheritance, things we might treasure just as we do the precious vase an aunt left to us, or our grandfather’s war medals. We can celebrate the stories of faith, the music and prayers of the Church, the examples of service and courage of those who have gone before us, and it is right that we do so. But the most precious inheritance of all, and the one which is most easily lost, is the message that all these other treasures are supposed to convey, that assurance that we belong to God, all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done, whether we are new through the doors, or cradle Christians, whether we think we deserve it or whether we know we don’t. It is an inheritance made all the more precious because it is for everyone. It is something we can afford to share with the same generosity as it was given to us, because it is endless and eternal. Today, whatever else we celebrate as our Christian inheritance, let us make sure we celebrate that inclusive love – a glorious inheritance indeed.

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