Mr John Hilary, Executive Director, War on Want
8 May 2016
The Conviction of Faith
Let me start by saying what a great pleasure it is for me to speak to you here this morning at St Salvator’s, and I’m very grateful to Donald for the invitation to do so. It’s particularly special for me to be here with you today because it was in this chapel last June that we took part in the service of celebration prior to the graduation of my nephew Charlie, and I’m thrilled that he has come back from his current home in the Czech Republic to be with us today. It is doubly special for me because it was also here, fully 60 years ago, that my mother graduated from St Andrews as a classical scholar – indeed, my mother’s family comes from Crail just down the coast, and my late cousin Margaret made a point of swimming in the sea off the coast of St Andrews every day of the year for all the time she lived here. I’m not laying this down as a challenge to any of you, I hasten to add, but I would like to point out that she lived well into her 80s on the back of this regime.
I’m sure that none of you need me to tell you what a privilege it is to go out into the world with an academic training such as you gain from St Andrews. For me it was only years after leaving university that I really came to recognise the gift of confidence that comes from having had such an education: the ability to think for yourself, to hold your own counsel, to question and to challenge others when they present you with supposedly unimpeachable ‘facts’ – basically everything that builds up and sustains our intellectual life.
And this would be a perfect theme for the graduation ceremonies that are just around the corner for those of you who are preparing for your final exams, but it’s actually not what I want to focus on this morning. My theme is a related one: not the confidence that one gains from education, but rather the conviction that one gains from faith.
I’m very fortunate that I should be delivering this sermon on Ascension Sunday, because this focus on going out into the world with the gift of faith is a central part of the Ascension story. This isn’t necessarily obvious if you are used to thinking about the Ascension as the last great moment in Christ’s life on earth. For those of us who have watched with Jesus through Holy Week, from the desolation of Good Friday to the joy of Easter, we naturally think of the Ascension first and foremost as the fulfilment of Christ’s earthly mission and the beginning of His reign in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. But if the Ascension story is the completion of Christ’s earthly mission, it is also the moment when our attention is directed away from Jesus to his disciples and to their mission of building the early Church. The first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which we have just heard read to us this morning, offers the most vivid picture of this moment of transition, as the disciples stand looking up into heaven after Jesus – and are suddenly brought back down to earth with a bump when these two mysterious figures robed in white deliver that great line which I remember so well from my childhood: “Ye men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” It is almost a rebuke to the disciples, a wake-up call that tells them it is time to stop dreaming and come back to reality, their new reality of life without Jesus as they have known Him up to now.
For any of you who have studied mediaeval art history, you will know that this shift of focus away from Christ towards his disciples was portrayed in a very peculiar way in traditional depictions of the Ascension in the Middle Ages. The standard composition for the Ascension shows the disciples gazing up into heaven, and the only sign of Jesus, right at the top of the picture, is His feet and ankles disappearing into the clouds. To our modern eyes this graphic attempt to portray the moment of Ascension can be quite a quaint, even comical motif. You see it in many illuminated manuscripts, for example, and it is markedly different from the depiction of all other major episodes in Christ’s life, where Jesus is always at the very centre of the composition. This would actually be a good moment for a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate just how peculiar the Ascension story is, but if you conjure up in your mind all the standard images you know of Christian iconography – the birth of Christ in the stable or the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, where the manger is always the centre of attention; or the depictions of the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, the Deposition and the Resurrection – Jesus is the central figure in all of them. Yet when it comes to the Ascension, Jesus is suddenly absent and the centre of the tableau is left empty. Christ is no longer with us in the same way he was before. He is no longer a son of man, but the Son of God.
The Ascension story ends the Gospel of Luke, and it opens the Acts of the Apostles. It marks the moment when Christ’s story ends and the disciples take over. In effect, it is their moment of graduation, of being sent out into the world – which is, of course, the meaning of the Greek word ‘Apostle’: one who is sent out. In this sense it is a defining historical moment of the New Testament, where Christ’s ministry comes to a close and the history of the Church begins.
But if the Ascension is when our attention shifts from Christ to His Apostles, it also means that the focus turns to us as the people of God who are called to carry on His work on earth today. It is this theme that I want to focus on this morning, the calling that comes to us at the Ascension, and the conviction of the Christian faith that we carry with us into the world. For if the gift of a university education is the confidence to think for oneself, the gift of faith is surely the conviction to act in the world according to the principles laid down in the Gospel and exemplified by Christ in His life on earth.
When I left university, I was completely unsure what I wanted to do next. In fact, I feel that I was also very poorly prepared for life in the real world in comparison to students nowadays, in that I graduated in a previous century when we wrote all our essays by hand and there was no Internet in which to look up anything or to learn about the world. So like many other arts students, I decided to go and live and work abroad as an English teacher in order to give myself a couple of years in which to decide my future, and found my way to China, which was at that time still a relatively closed socialist society: utterly fascinating but with quite limited creature comforts, such as the ability to buy music to listen to in the evenings. Towards the end of my first year in China, my mother sent me a cassette of Olivier Messiaen’s magical organ cycle for Christmas, La Nativité du Seigneur, and this was the beginning of my life-long love of Messiaen’s extraordinary musical oeuvre, all of which was inspired by his deep Christian faith.
I like to think that Messiaen was to twentieth century church music what Johann Sebastian Bach was to the eighteenth. He was organist at the church of the Sainte-Trinité in Paris for an incredible 60 years between 1931 and his death in 1992, and devoted his entire life to composing the most magnificent cycles of sacred music. His musical meditations on the high festivals of the Christian year – including the Ascension – speak of the profound faith that was at the centre of all his works. Yet I always remember being struck many years later when I read an interview with Messiaen in which he was asked to explain the significance of his faith for his music, and he just replied with the simple statement: “I have the good fortune of being a Catholic. I was born a believer.”
In my day job, I am Executive Director of War on Want, and it is really in that capacity that I am speaking to you this morning. War on Want is a rather unique charity in that it doesn’t believe in charity. The mission of War on Want is to combat the root causes of poverty through political action, on the understanding that it is political choices by elites that lie at the root of most of the world’s problems, and that it requires organised political action from people to set things right. This overtly political challenge to poverty is the same as that expressed so famously by the Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara when he said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” We at War on Want are constantly asking the difficult questions such as this, and we are fairly often accused of being communists, and sometimes worse things than that, too. The conviction of faith means taking such accusations as par for the course, and persevering regardless – not out of any masochistic desire to be a martyr to the cause, but just because we believe that the cause is important enough to justify the personal cost.
Let me give you one example of how an overtly political orientation makes us a more controversial organisation than more traditional charities that conform to the familiar image of providing handouts to the poor. Many churches up and down the country, including mine, have started collecting for food banks to provide assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people in Britain who are now forced to turn to charity to satisfy their most basic needs. Now most of us would see the return of such deprivation as an appalling throwback to the type of poverty that we would associate more with the 19th century, and the fact that we are content to allow such poverty to exist today in what is still one of the richest countries in the world is surely a source of shame to us as a society. But in practical terms, it leaves us with a choice. Should we embrace the idea of the Big Society and concentrate our efforts on providing charity for those in need? Or instead of collecting for food banks, shouldn’t we be mounting a campaign to ask how it is we have allowed such poverty to resurface in the 21st century? By trying to alleviate the problem, after all, we run the risk of perpetuating it, as everyone’s focus shifts onto keeping the food banks going rather than doing what we actually need to do, which is to shut them down by removing the need for them. However unpopular it may be, War on Want’s view is that we should be taking up arms against the political decisions that have led to the need for food banks. Only by so doing will we deal with the root of the problem rather than just alleviating its symptoms.
Whatever field we choose to work in, or whatever path we choose to follow in our lives, faith gives us the inner strength to do what we believe to be right, irrespective of the consequences. We do not look to the world for a steer or for approval, but we look to the example of Christ and to our own deeper sense of what is right or wrong. Equally, we do not act out of self-interest but through an awareness that we are serving something greater than ourselves. And we do this not as an act of sacrifice, but as a natural understanding of what it is to live out our faith in practice.
Next Sunday is Whitsun, the feast of Pentecost when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to His Church. We are called by God to go out into the world inspired by the Spirit, to live and work to His praise and glory. The conviction of faith is what gives us the confidence to embrace that calling – not as a chore or an imposition, but as the fulfilment of everything that gives our lives their meaning. That is why the faith that we live out in our everyday lives is a source of such deep joy for every one of us who has had the good fortune to have been brought up a believer.
For all those of you who are coming to the end of your time at St Andrews, as well as all those who still have further years here to study, let us pray that you go out into the world armed not just with the confidence that comes with a university education, but also with the strength of conviction that comes with a Christian faith.