Easter 4 ~ God’s Time Zone
Did you spot the world-changing bit of news this week? No – it wasn’t anything to do with Osama Bin Laden, or Alternative Voting, or even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. That was last week’s news. No – this week the earth has been set to turn in the wrong direction. Samoa has announced that it is going to jump across the International Dateline on December 29th, thereby losing a day. Instead of being 23 hours behind Wellington New Zealand, it will become 1 hour ahead. Which means that December 31st this year will not exist for them. Ironically, in 1892 Samoa went the other way: King Malietoa Laupepa was persuaded by Americans to adopt American-friendly time, three hours behind California, to replace the former Asian date, which was four hours ahead of Japan. The change was made at the end of the day on Monday, 4 July 1892. As 1892 was a leap year, there were 367 days for them that year, including two occurrences of Monday, 4 July. But now they are changing back, to attune themselves to Australasian time zones.
It takes a bit of getting your head around doesn’t it! We all live in various time zones. We can consult a clock, and be assured of the time in whichever part of the world we are standing, but if it is midday in London, it is 1:00 pm in Paris, 6:00 am in Toronto and 8:00 pm in Beijing. Lunchtime in England is breakfast time on America’s East Coast and supper time in China. Strange as this is, we hardly question it: time zones are a fact of modern, international life, and in the last century we got used to them. ‘Today’, is sometimes already ‘tomorrow’ in another part of the world, and at the same time, ‘yesterday’ may barely have finished elsewhere.
In 1884 Standard Time was introduced to eliminate the problems caused by the use of solar time in each place (Bristol, for example was ten minutes behind London). Invented in the late 1870’s by the Canadian railway planner Sir Sandford Fleming, Standard Time involves 24 standard meridians of longitude (north-south lines, 15º apart), with Greenwich being the prime meridian. The French weren’t very happy about that! According to the dictates of Standard Time, ‘Today’ began on the Pacific Island of Kiritimati, and it is there that the New Year is celebrated first.
Yet while different places are celebrating different times of day, we are basically all human, doing the same kinds of things, and all sorts of activities are taking place simultaneously. Thus the notion of ‘now’ is still distinct from clock time. ‘Now’ is ‘now’ in France, Sydney and New York, even if it is not ‘today’ at the same time. Telephones and emails bring this home to us.
Our predecessors, who had no electric light, had a different approach. Although Ancient Egyptian days began at sunrise, the Jewish practice which was carried into mediaeval Europe was to begin the day at sunset. The idea of a day running from midnight to midnight is a modern convention. It is very easy to think of ‘today’ as simply the day between yesterday and tomorrow. In this way we see life as linear, that is, moving from one point to another, lengthening the past and shortening the future. Life is one thing after another, and this is how we assume human time works. This approach can be quite depressing, or confusing, and St Augustine thought so too. He reckoned that if the past had already finished and the future not yet started, there was literally no time for ‘now’. There was, as he put it, no space between the past and the future.
However, linear time is not the only kind of time. In music, for example, different things can happen all at once, and for different durations of time, and yet we can inhabit the same space – and time - as all of them. Musical time works on different levels, sometimes all at once. Melody and harmony and rhythm combine time zones that flow simultaneously in a world we have no difficulty entering. Musical time reminds us that there is more than one way to look at and experience time.
And while it is true that each of us lives in a particular time zone (such as London), we also live and move about within other time zones. Our ‘todays’ are not simply periods of twenty-four hours beginning at midnight, during which lots of individual, distinct, measurable events take place. We might well ask of someone, ‘what did you do today?’, but all kinds of other things can happen to us other than what we ‘did’ today. We have different experiences of time passing. Today we might eat a meal, drive a car, listen to music, take a nap, attend a boring meeting and speak for five minutes to a good friend. Time will ‘pass’ differently in each of these cases.
And here we are at an act of worship. Even at this moment you are experiencing this sermon in different time zones – some of you are interested in what I am saying and some of you are… well perhaps you’re having a little nap. When I’ve finished, it will have lasted a definable length of time. But you might not agree about how long it was.
I conduct weddings and funerals. A funeral lasts 25 minutes in a crematorium. A wedding lasts 50 minutes in church. But a funeral is longer than a wedding. What I mean, of course, is that it ‘feels’ longer, and that is important. It is a more profound manifestation of the old adage, ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. It is nonsense, but true. Similarly, while I am having fun with my friends (when time passes quickly), you might be doing the housework (which will take an age!), yet we may well have both spent the very same hour doing those things. If your team is winning, the last 2 minutes of the game take an age. If you are struggling to get an equalizer, half an hour isn’t enough.
God’s time is different too. It isn’t linear: it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end, like a novel. This is difficult to grasp when we are locked into a humanly conceptualized linear time continuum. But such a way of understanding time cannot command our loyalty in any, or every event. We each live in multiple time zones, and also in our own unique time zone. And the most important – and the most useful - one is God’s time zone. God’s time, unlike ours, is not transient – fleeting and finite.
Interesting as all this might be, you may well be wondering what any of this has to do with today’s readings. Well - it’s quite simple, and brief, I think. For because our faith leads us into and operates in a different time zone to the one in which we do our shopping, spectating or singing, the stories we hear from the bible, particularly about Jesus, take on a different dimension – literally. We heard today of how the disciples broke bread, ate together, shared their possessions and did so with glad and generous hearts. It all seems so long ago, all taking place soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we heard, from St Peter, how Christ’s death means life for us. And then, picking up the theme of Christ as Good Shepherd, we heard of Christ describing himself in this way, as the shepherd who cares for and pastures his flock. But again, all that happened, and all of it was said, long ago. Preserved in historic documents called the gospels, it looks like history, and it can sometimes be treated as history approaching myth – disputable claims, no evidence, no proof, the fancies of a poor-minded, uninformed, needy generation that lived in the Middle East 2000 years ago.
But there you have it: 2000 years is nothing in world time. The resurrection happened yesterday in cosmic time –indeed, not even yesterday, it happened only moments ago – indeed, one might even say it happened almost now. If we are hidebound by our linear time – the life of Jesus seems to recede into the past. But we are not hidebound by linear time, and anyone who receives communion, sings a hymn or even simply spends this hour together here in the presence of God, glimpses, experiences and lives outside linear time. Lots of things will happen between 10:00 and 11:00 am this morning. But what will happen to you? Where will you have been?
I put it to you, that if you have entered into the presence of God here, and if you take the bread and wine, and pray with the spirit of God, holding before him the needs of the world – the needs of now which are so close to the pains borne on the cross only moments ago – then Christ our Good Shepherd, who is with us by his timeless and ever present spirit, will inhabit our prayer and lives, and bear us along, connected to and partly living in the realm of eternity. This is how bread and wine can be something special, connecting us in very real ways to the divine time, in which Christ died, rose again, and lives in us, here and now.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/05/11