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Diocesan Clergy Conference 2014

Confidence in the Gospel

The Revd Dr Sam Wells
Vicar, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square

‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death.’ I’m remembering René Clausen’s setting of Song of Songs chapter 8. I want to suggest to you this afternoon that this prayer and this claim is the heart of the Christian faith.

I’m going to take my argument in four stages. First I want to think a little bit about what salvation feels like. Second I want to think philosophically and existentially about what human life is about and what faith is about. Third I want to look at the ways in which the two key Christian convictions make it possible to live – not just as Christians, but to live at all. And then fourth, I want to bring these three insights together to explore how we are set as a seal upon God’s heart.

Solidarity
I want you to bring to mind Eastern Europe in the early 1980s. The people of Poland had been living under a Soviet-dominated communist regime for 35 years. They’d seen uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia ruthlessly suppressed by Soviet military intervention. And yet the shipyard workers of Gdansk, led by electrician Lech Walesa, found the courage to form a trade union, and went on strike, taking 17,000 workers out on the streets. The movement spread along the Baltic Coast, closing ports and drawing in mines and factories. Within a year, one in every three workers in Poland was a member of Walesa’s movement, and Walesa was on his way to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was called Solidarity.

The Polish government led by Wojciech Jaruzelski was in crisis. It half-anticipated another Russian military invasion. It reacted by introducing martial law and arresting the union leaders. All political protest was stifled. There was only one institution the government couldn’t dismantle by forcible repression. And that was the Catholic church. Over the next couple of years a young priest started to preach words of gospel truth and Catholic social teaching into the events taking place in Poland. His name was Jerzy Popiełuszko. His sermons were picked up by an underground radio station and he gained a nationwide following. People started to see him as the first man who’d had the courage to speak the truth for 40 years. The government panicked. They fabricated evidence against him and tried to get him sent to prison. They threatened him and intimidated him. Nothing worked. He carried on preaching and speaking the truth regardless. Thirty years ago, yesterday, on October 13 1984, the authorities staged a car accident, again without success. Finally, six days later, Jerzy Popiełuszko was kidnapped, murdered, and bundled into a reservoir.

No less than a quarter of a million people attended his funeral – the funeral of a 37-year-old priest who’d never had any prestigious appointment, and had been squalidly disposed of by the authorities. It was the beginning of the end for the regime. Six years later Poland was the first Eastern bloc nation to throw off Soviet domination. The ministry, death and funeral of Jerzy Popiełuszko was an event of extraordinary significance in twentieth-century history.

And it’s all contained in that single word, solidarity. I wonder what that word solidarity means to you. Solidarity is everything we say in our letter of sympathy when a friend’s loved one dies and we wish we could be there and hug and help and heal and hold. It’s everything we feel when we see a protest movement in a totalitarian or oppressed country and we will the protesters to succeed and keep their heads and stay safe and find a better way for their country to live. It’s everything we hope for when we see someone wrongly accused and falsely criticised and damagingly mistreated and we want to see them set the record straight and clear their name and find justice.

Solidarity means all the ways we seek to make concrete the intangible links between people – links based on love and trust and dignity and understanding and respect. Solidarity means all the ways we stand alongside those who are in pain or sorrow, treated cruelly or unfairly, facing fear or the unknown. Solidarity is the word ‘with’ turned into practical action, the word ‘understanding’ turned into genuine support, the word ‘identification’ turned into courageous acts of witness.

Solidarity is what the church is called to be – Christians standing alongside one another, standing alongside the oppressed, and standing alongside God in Christ. That’s what Jerzy Popiełuszko did. He stood alongside other Christians, he stood alongside the oppressed people of Poland, he stood alongside Jesus. He shows us what solidarity means. He shows us what the word ‘church’ is meant to mean.

I wonder if you know what solidarity means. I wonder if you’ve had a spell in hospital, and someone you didn’t expect came to see you every day. Maybe you were unpopular and felt abandoned and alone for a season, and yet there was someone who didn’t believe what everyone else was saying and stood by you. Perhaps there’s someone who knows the truth about you and yet still loves you. If you know what solidarity feels like, you’ve discovered a love that’s stronger than death.

The Human Predicament
We’ve thought about what salvation feels like in the notion of solidarity. Let’s explore what salvation means, starting with philosophy.

The present tense doesn’t exist. I don’t mean that I’m not speaking to you now, that we’re not really here, that Swanwick in all its beauty and Southwark diocese in all its glory and the person next to you in all their many-splendoured complexity are one great hoax, a multi-layered illusion. I mean that as soon as you try to put your finger on the present tense – bang – like a horsefly under a slapping hand, it’s gone. Think of yourself as a child looking out of a train window trying to fix your eyes on a tree or field or hill outside. You can’t. Think of yourself at a birthday party or in the midst of theatre or sport or music and wanting to freeze and capture the moment and never let it go. You can’t. There’s no such thing as the present tense. It’s a construction designed to make us feel alive.

As soon as we realise this we become subject to two primal, visceral, and existential terrors. The first terror is this: you can’t stop time. It’s out of control. It’s like Canute trying to stop the incoming tide. It’s an ever-rolling stream, and it’s going to roll you and me away just as it’s rolled away all its sons and daughters beforehand. When Muhammad Ali says ‘I am the greatest of all time’ or a World War One memorial says ‘Their names shall live for evermore,’ the pathos is comical or unbearable: have these people no notion of eternity? Look at the stars, search the wide blue yonder, imagine the vast expanse of relentless time. We’re each as permanent as a feather on the wind. When four planes were hijacked on 9/11 and the passengers were hurtling toward their deaths, much energy was spent imagining the pathos and terror of their situations and in some cases depicting them as heroes in the face of an indescribable enemy. But the truth is, we’re all on those planes. We’re all hurtling through time towards certain death. If we set our lifespan against eternity, there’s nothing inherently more substantial about 90 years of life than 50, or 30, or even 10. Time will gobble up us all. That’s the first terror.

The second terror is this: what we’ve done can’t be undone. However much we try to retell the story, airbrush the photographs, fiddle with the timings on the emails, deny, pretend, fabricate, or wriggle, there’s no changing what’s happened. Our histories are made up of folly, failure, and fecklessness; of deception, denial, and destruction. And we can’t alter them. Of course it’s not just what we’ve done; it’s also a mixture of what’s been done to us and what just happened and turned out in ways we found it hard to deal with. Disentangling these three threads – what we did, what was done to us, and what just happened and we didn’t find a good way to deal with – is a long and challenging process, and most of the time we stuff it all in the spare room like a host rapidly tidying the house before company comes for dinner. But for most of us the spare room is full to bursting, and the energy it takes to live our lives without the vital things that are buried in the spare room and in fear of the living, smelly, costly, and maybe dangerous things that we suspect are lurking in the spare room means we only live a half-life, we only function with one hand, because the other hand is taken up trying to keep the door to the spare room firmly shut. Yet deep down we know that door will finally open, whether from the outside by someone discovering it or from the inside because the organic material within will eventually outgrow the space available. And that knowledge, that the past is an ogre that will finally crash down upon us – that’s the second terror.

And these two terrors – the panic about the past and the fear of the future – constitute the prison of human existence. There’s no such thing as the present tense because it’s no more than the overlap between the past and the future. And there’s no genuine living in the present tense because our lives are dominated by regret and bitterness and grief and humiliation about the past; and paralysed by fear and anxiety and terror and horror about the future.

The present is tense, but it isn’t truly present.

Think about your life. Think about what grieves you. I’m guessing it’s two kinds of things. It’s what’s happened in the past that you can’t change, the sequence of events that’s led to a kind of prison, has led to you being in some sense in chains. We call that sin. And it’s the things you cherish that you dread you can’t keep – your youth, your life, the things and the people you love, this very moment we share right now. We call that death. And there’s two ways you can spend your time. You can work hard to ensure every waking moment is a distraction from those two central concerns. Or you can dig deep into the heart of reality and name your fears and regrets and search for something or someone that is genuinely able to be present to you, genuinely to be with you, not in a way that denies past and future, but precisely in a way that offers, heals, redeems, and transforms past and future.

And this is where we move from philosophy to faith. Because what is it that the Christian faith proclaims? Two central convictions. One about sin, and one about death. One about the past, and one about the future.
The first is about the past. It’s the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness doesn’t change the past. But it releases us from the power of the past. Forgiveness doesn’t rewrite history. But it prevents our histories asphyxiating us.

Fundamentally forgiveness transforms our past from an enemy to a friend, from a horror-show of shame to a storehouse of wisdom. In the absence of forgiveness we’re isolated from our past, pitifully trying to bury or deny or forget or destroy the many things that haunt and overshadow and plague and torment us. Forgiveness doesn’t change these things: but it does change their relationship to us. No longer do they imprison us or pursue us or surround us or stalk us. Now they accompany us, deepen us, teach us, train us. No longer do we hate them or curse them or resent them or begrudge them. Now we find acceptance, understanding, enrichment, even gratitude for them. That’s the work of forgiveness. It’s about the transformation of the past from a pit of regret to a storehouse of wisdom, from a poison of bitterness to larder of understanding.

This isn’t about willpower or determination or self-help. This is the work of Jesus. Jesus walks beside us, and the negative aspects of those past experiences he takes into his body, leaving us with the memories that can strengthen, deepen, and ennoble us. That’s the perpetual work of Holy Week. Jesus takes upon himself the evil that we’ve done and that’s been done to us, facing the unimaginable agony of it all, and thereby literally gives us back our past as a gift and not a threat. Our chains fall off, our heart is free. Nothing, in the end, is wasted. All is redeemed.

Gabriel Marcel distinguishes between a problem and a mystery. A problem is something I can stand outside and walk around. It’s something I can usually solve by technical skill. A broken window is a problem. I can solve it by fixing a new one. Often a problem can be solved using a technique developed by somebody else. But a mystery I can’t solve. A mystery I can’t stand outside. I have to enter it. A mystery is something I can’t just look at. It absorbs me into it. Someone else’s answer is unlikely to work for me. I have to discover my own. Forgiveness isn’t the fixing of a problem. It’s not an tricky equation or a broken window. It’s the healing of a wound. There may be a scar for a long time, even permanently. But the scar can become part of your beauty. The scar says you’re a survivor not a victim, you’ve taken ownership of your story rather than let yourself be defined by what others have done to you, you’re older and wiser. God doesn’t destroy us or throw us away. That would fix the problem. God intricately weaves us back into the story. That’s the mystery of salvation.

Just bask for a moment in the wonder of being released from the prison of the past. Feel the energy and life seeping back into your soul. It’s almost beyond our imaginations. It’s the gift of the gospel. Damaged, flawed, clumsy, unreliable as we are, Jesus has set us as a seal upon God’s heart. It’s amazing grace. This is our prayer, tentatively, yet hopefully offered: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’

And here’s the second Christian conviction. It’s about the future. The life everlasting. Everlasting life doesn’t take away the unknown element of the future: but it takes away the paroxysm of fear that engulfs the cloud of unknowing. Everlasting life doesn’t dismantle the reality of death, the crucible of suffering, the agony of bereavement: but it offers life beyond death, comfort beyond suffering, companionship beyond separation. In the absence of everlasting life we’re terrified of our future, perpetually trying to secure permanence in the face of transitoriness, meaning in the face of waste, distraction in the face of despair. Everlasting life doesn’t undermine human endeavour, but it rids it of the last word; evil is real, but it won’t have the final say; death is coming, but it doesn’t obliterate the power of God; identity is fragile, but that in us that resides in God will be changed into glory.

This isn’t about fantasy. I’m not ‘a thousand winds that blow.’ Death is certainly not ‘nothing at all.’ I haven’t simply ‘passed into the next room.’ This is the work of Jesus. By rising from the dead Jesus turns death from a wall into a gate, from an obliteration to a threshold, from an emptying of meaning to a testing of trust. Jesus goes into the refiner’s fire and refashions for us a new life out of the one from which all sin has been burnt away. Death is turned from the moment of absolute eternal isolation into the entrance to utter everlasting companionship. We call it heaven. We’re given back our future as a gift, and not a threat. Everything is possible.

Think about the obsessions of our culture. They’re largely about overcoming human limitation. We want to push back the barriers of mortality, of speed, of distance, of ecstasy, of achievement. But the Christian claim is not that we can ever defeat limitation. Creation will always involve limitation. The Christian claim is that what needs overcoming isn’t limitation, it’s isolation. Salvation isn’t been given a gadget that means you can burst through the barrier of death, it’s being given a relationship that holds fast even despite the reality of death. Can we really believe God’s desire for us prevails even over our mortality? That’s the question at the centre of our faith. ‘For love is strong as death.’ Is it, or isn’t it? Everything hangs on that question. Christianity says yes, love is strong as death – is stronger than death. Jesus hung on the cross to show us the love that hangs on. The love that never lets us go. And so we say to a desperate world, hang on to that love. It will never let you go.

Bask for a moment in the gift of everlasting life. Feel it slowly dismantle all your worst fears. Let it take your imagination beyond forever. Let it set you free. Let it give you indescribable joy. ‘For love is strong as death.’
This is the Christian faith. The newspapers think it’s all about women bishops and gay marriage. Of course those things matter. But the heart of it all is forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. If you have those, nothing can finally hurt you. If you don’t have those, nothing can save you. Right now we’re in a panic that regular Sunday attendance is falling from 5.3% of the population to 4.5% of the population. In the light of eternity, do you think it really matters? Do you think over the spread of billions of years of history, God is going to focus down on one denomination in one north European country in one not very interesting century? Christianity is simply this: the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. If we have those, nothing can finally hurt us. If we don’t have those, nothing can finally save us. This is the grain of the universe: our choice is whether to live with the grain or not.
And the moment when forgiveness and everlasting life coincide is the moment we call Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ physical resurrection gives us back our past, because it proves that our worst sin is still not enough to determine the ultimate course of history, and not enough to alter God’s decision to be with us in Christ. We can’t ruin God’s life, however hard we try. And that means we can’t even finally ruin our own. Meanwhile death is no longer an insuperable barrier. In Jesus we’ve all been given a glimpse of restoration beyond obliteration. The body’s not a prison to be escaped or a ladder to be kicked away; it’s the shape of our future in Christ. Thus Jesus’ resurrection turns the past from dungeon into heritage and the future from fate into destiny.

There’s no such thing as the present tense. Well there isn’t any present tense, if there’s no forgiveness and no life everlasting. But wait. If there is forgiveness – if the past is a gift; and if there is everlasting life – if the future’s our friend: then for the first time we really can live – we really can breathe, we really can relax, we really can exist. Every detail of our lives is precious and wonderful and beautiful and meaningful, rather than passing and pitiful and feeble and futile. We can stand in the presence of God, because we are forgiven. And we can abide in the presence of God forever, because we’ve been given everlasting life. We can really begin to live.
There is no present tense, without God being present to us. This is God’s present to us: God’s presence with us, now and forever. Hear God singing these words to you – and then hear yourself singing them back: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death.’ Sing those words and hear them going back and forth between you and God. Make that your prayer every day.

So, having established that it’s impossible to live without being a Christian, let’s take a closer look at how we are set as a seal upon God’s heart. I’m talking about baptism.

Baptism
Baptism is the central act by which a human being transitions from the panic about the past and the fear of the future into a genuine present tense characterised by the presence of God. It enacts everything I’ve just said about redeeming the past and granting the gift of the future.
The baptism service is divided into three parts. Before we go any further please can we not have anyone complaining about what Common Worship does or doesn’t allow you to do. We’re all trained stewards of the mysteries of God. Common Worship simply records, for a church whose liturgy is its doctrine, what the Church of England believes about baptism. It’s up to each of us to improvise what that means in our respective pastoral settings. Ok, so let’s look at the three elements of baptism.

First you have to let go of false attempts to hold onto, or be dominated by the past. We call that confession of sin. This happens verbally, by renouncing, and physically, by the action of washing and drowning. These are ways of summoning up as much of our own will as we can and depicting the action of God as vividly as we know how. When the Israelites approach the Red Sea, one key question is, ‘Do you truly want to leave Egypt behind?’ This is the question the candidate is really being asked.

Third, you are clothed with the garments of the saints and welcomed into the company of the redeemed and equipped with the power of the Spirit and ushered into the joy of eternal life. We call that commissioning. This is the beginning of eternal life. You are anointed with oil, like the prophets, priests, and kings of old, you are given a candle of hope, you are welcomed into the communion of saints, you are sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory. It’s all a lot more fun than Egypt. It’s what the company of God and one another mean. It’s solidarity made flesh.

In between, second, you hear, embrace and are embraced by the enveloping story of God, the story that tells of the offer of forgiveness and the overcoming of death. We call that the confession of faith. In the construction I’ve been suggesting today, this is the present tense – this is the overlap between forgiveness and eternal life, the meeting-point of past and future. This is where you discover that God is totally immersed in you and proclaim that you are totally immersed in God.

These three parts aren’t entirely distinct from one another, and they overlap in the course of the service, all finding their defining moment in the moment when flesh and water meet.

I’m assuming everyone here is familiar with the practices of the baptism service, so I’m not going to dwell on them further. What I want to highlight is that sense I spoke of earlier, that sense of the presence of God, the presence made possible by the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting, by the redemption of the past and the unlocking of the future. And I want to describe it in more detail by talking about Jesus’ baptism.

Let’s think about what human beings do in the face of the oblivion of death. Two things, broadly. One is to try to offset our fragile existence as much as possible, and simply extend or strengthen or restore life at every opportunity. One need only think about what a massive proportion of the GDP of developed nations is spent on healthcare in the last weeks of life. We can all relate to the urge to cling onto the side of the cliff as tight and as long as possible. The other conventional way is to escape. That can mean life as a series of exciting holidays, life in a fantasy world of computer games or DVDs or consciousness-altering drugs, life in a protected, sheltered community, or life in a self-contained ideology that explains and subdues all worrisome information. In an increasingly technological world, we have ever-more sophisticated forms of escape.

And these two methods for coping with the human predicament, preservation and escape, are especially evident in the way our culture constructs religion. On the one hand is the offer of preservation: here Christianity or the church exists to hold together things that would otherwise fall apart, like values, character, family, nation, marriage, trust, community, even the economy and society itself. Life after death constitutes a long-term guarantee of the things we think we need, an infinite extension of what needs holding together. On the other hand is the offer of escape: here Christianity or the church gives us feelings or experiences that take us out of the tawdry world, save us from its cloying clutches, and keep us pure amid its muddied messes. Eternal life becomes the ultimate form of escape, a constant promise that we can walk out the room any time we choose and find ourselves in a better place.

When Jesus emerges from the shadows of Nazareth in Galilee and appears centre stage at the River Jordan, where John is baptising, this is the key question everyone involved is asking. What kind of salvation is Jesus bringing? Is he offering indefinite extension, as a miracle-worker who can push back the boundaries of mortality? Or is he offering wholesale escape, bringing down the curtain on history and ushering in a new dawn of righteousness and justice?

Both of these models have deep roots in Israel’s history – roots that the accounts of Jesus’ baptism make explicit. The idea that life is good, but fragile and limited, is rooted in the creation story. When we hear of the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove it’s a clear allusion to the creation story, which begins with the Spirit, or wind, sweeping over the face of the waters. The idea that life is flawed, but that escape is possible, is rooted in the exodus story. When we hear that Jesus went down into the River Jordan, we’re reminded of the Israelites being led by God under Moses out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea and under Joshua across the Jordan to freedom in the Promised Land of Canaan.

So what kind of salvation are we looking for, and what kind of salvation is Jesus bringing? Is it preservation of creation, or escape from oppression? Is it chiefly concerned with overcoming death, or sin? Is it deliverance from the past or the gift of the future? Or is it something different?

Let’s go back to where we started, with the notion of solidarity. When Jesus came centre stage in his baptism by John, what sort of salvation was he bringing? Jesus’ salvation isn’t simply about preserving life, although there is some of that. It isn’t simply about escape, although there’s maybe a little bit of that too. Jesus’ salvation is about solidarity. Solidarity between God and us. Solidarity that makes concrete the intangible links between God and us. Makes them so concrete they can never be broken again.

In being baptised Jesus shows that salvation means solidarity. Here at the Jordan Jesus shows his solidarity with Israel, by making Israel’s story of creation and liberation his own. Jesus shows his solidarity with humanity, by making his flesh subject to the simple touch of hand and water. He shows his solidarity with sinners, by accepting the sign of the cleansing of flawed humanity. He shows his solidarity with the created world, by allowing his naked body to be clothed by water and air. He shows his solidarity with John the Baptist, by asking John to baptise him, rather than vice versa. And in return we see his solidarity with God, when the heavens are torn and the dove descends and the voice announces, ‘You are my beloved son.’

Baptism is the epitome of solidarity, because in baptism Jesus is immersed in the heritage of Israel, immersed in the fragility and flaws of humanity, immersed in the created world, immersed in the agony of Israel’s exile, immersed in the faith and struggle of John the Baptist. And at this moment of Jesus’ full immersion in the world he has come to save, God announces, ‘I am fully immersed in you. There’s nothing in me that’s not wholly invested in you. You are fully immersed in Israel, in humanity, in the created order: I am fully immersed in them too. You are the solidarity of salvation. You are my full immersion.’

So this is how Jesus addresses the human predicament. Not just through preserving life. Think back to Jerzy Popiełuszko: preserving the life of the Polish people would’ve simply condemned them to continued oppression. It was no different for Jesus. And not simply through escape. Think again of Fr Popiełuszko: there was nowhere that the Polish people could escape to, that wouldn’t leave them right back where they started. Jesus addresses the human predicament through solidarity. He is with us in our struggle, our suffering, our searching, our striving. As the Polish government so vividly discovered, that’s a solidarity that sin and death can no longer break.
And in the process, Jesus redefines our predicament. Our problems, as human beings, are the prospect of death, and the reality of sin: the prison of the past and the fear of the future. And what Jesus and Jesus alone gives us is the possibility of being present. Jesus overcomes our alienation from God and one another. That’s what changes in Jesus. Jesus is the solidarity between us and God. Jesus is the full reality of God, beholding us, and the full reality of us, utterly beholden to God. Jesus is God saying to us, ‘I’m totally immersed in you.’

Hear God singing these words to you – and then hear yourself singing them back: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death.’

Communion
I want to finish with philosophy, or perhaps better put, theology. In the end there’s a word that sums up baptism even more than the word baptism. Baptism is our invitation to be with God forever. Jesus is the with-us God.
Baptism is the way we embody what it means to be both with God and in God. We are made members of Christ’s body, which is both in God and external to God. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for solidarity is koinōnia. But in the Latin of the Vulgate, the word is communio. Communio conveys an even richer range of meaning than solidarity or koinōnia. Because communio combines our greatest desires. When we love God, we have an overwhelming desire to become one with God, indeed to become God, to be folded into the wonder of full life and true eternal, abiding existence. That’s union. But we still want to be ourselves, our particular, distinct, idiosyncratic, personal beings, in the presence of God. That’s being with, or, in Latin, com. Union… and com… communion. Communion means both being in the presence of God and being united with God. Think about it this way. God is Trinity, three persons so with one another that they are united with each other, and yet are still three persons. The Trinity is both union and with. When we’re in heaven we’re so with God that we are united with God, but are yet still distinct persons. This is communion.

That’s the conclusion of my argument. Baptism is communion. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ becomes part of us. In baptism, we become part of the body of Christ. Communion means being united with God and yet remaining in the presence of God, retaining our own identity. Communion is what justification and sanctification were striving for. Justification is all about us being able to stand in the presence of God, like a child being forgiven by a parent in spite of everything. And sanctification is all about us being made holy and being folded into the character of God, like flour being folded into egg and milk and butter. Justification is the com and sanctification is the union. Communion is the everlasting fulfillment of everything justification and sanctification were all about. Salvation means solidarity. And solidarity means communion.

Conclusion
Let me summarise my argument for you. Human beings live in panic about the past. We dread that the truth will catch up with us. And we live in fear of the future. We know we can’t preserve our identity in the face of death. So most of us, most of the time, cannot truly live, because our present tense is no more than the overlap between the lost past and the out-of-reach future.

The gospel gives us forgiveness of sins, which redeems our past, and life everlasting, which releases our future. Baptism is our transition from the impossible present tense to life in the presence of God. This presence has two dimensions – the sense of being with God, and the sense of being in union with God. We can express those two senses in the terms solidarity and communion. Solidarity and communion are both expressions of the joy of salvation – that we are given a new identity, and that identity is found both with and in God.

‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’ Is being a seal upon God’s heart being in God, or with God? I wonder. Either way, it’s being grafted into the flesh of the one whose flesh we crucified. It’s the forgiveness of sins. ‘For love is strong as death.’ Does that mean death has died, or that if we look to the cross, the God that hangs on, and hang on to that God, that God will never let us go? I wonder. But either way, that is everlasting life.

Ask Christ to set you as a seal upon God’s heart. And believe that love is stronger than death. That’s Christianity. A prayer and a promise you can believe in. A love that never lets us go.

Hang on to that love. It will never let you go.