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22nd August 2010 - "Pilgrim's Progress"

Mick Simmons - St Peter's, Tewin

It’s fashionable these days to talk of going on, or being on, or having been on, a journey. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has actually physically travelled anywhere; it could be that they’ve experienced something that’s altered their perception of life or that’s changed them in some way. They might have achieved something that they didn’t know they had it in them to achieve, or discovered some hidden aspect of themselves they hadn’t been apparent before. Whatever the circumstances, people often say something along the lines of: ‘I’ve been on quite a journey.’ Seen through more objective eyes, these ‘journeys’ can often seem somewhat less than exciting and to say that one has been on a journey has become a bit of a cliché.

If John Bunyan was alive today he might also say: ‘I’ve been on quite a journey’ His journey was about as significant as it gets because it involved travelling away from who or what he had been and toward what he was convinced he should be. It wasn’t a physical journey; it was a journey of spiritual discovery and the impetus for it came from an intense religious crisis lasting several years during which he battled with doubts about his own faith and was also deeply disturbed by the Calvinist doctrine which stated that all men are destined either to salvation or damnation.

 

When the crisis had been resolved, Bunyan left the Anglican Church in which he’d been brought up, joined an evangelical sect and devoted the rest of his life to converting others by preaching and offering comfort to people in their spiritual problems. Central to Bunyan’s theology was the doctrine that all men (and women) are sinful in the eyes of God and that justification, or righteousness, can only be achieved through faith in the atoning power of Christ’s blood shed on the Cross on our behalf and not through any action or merit of our own. Salvation requires a profound acknowledgement, or conviction, of our sinful nature and an undertaking to turn our backs on the wickedness of our ways and to re-orient our lives in a God-ward direction with the help of Holy Scripture, which, Bunyan believed, contains all things necessary for our salvation.

So profound was Bunyan’s experience of his spiritual journey that he wrote a book that was a sort of route map of the path to salvation. The book is of course The Pilgrim’s Progress and it’s still in print today more than 300 hundred years after it was first published. Bunyan wrote it whilst in prison where he’d been sent for preaching unlawfully, as he belonged to a non-conformist denomination; in the seventeenth century it was against the law to belong to any church other than the Anglican Church.

For the benefit of those here who haven’t read the book, I think that it would probably be quite helpful at this point to give a summary of the story.

The Pilgrim's Progress tells the journey of Christian, a man who is seeking his salvation by making a pilgrimage to Heaven. Along the way, Christian encounters many obstacles that test his faith as well as many characters that are useful in showing him the difference between right and wrong from the perspective of Christian religious faith. Told as a dream, this seventeenth century religious classic uses Bible verses mixed with allegorical characters to preach its evangelistic message.

Christian lives with his wife and children in the City of Destruction. After reading the Bible he becomes horrifyingly aware of his sinfulness and his sins become a burden on his back which he can’t remove by his own efforts. The Bible also convinces him that the city is imminently about to be destroyed because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. After much inner turmoil he cries out, ‘What shall I do to be saved’ and is immediately answered by a man named Evangelist who is a recurring figure in the story and who gives him a roll of paper on which is written: ‘Flee from the wrath to come.’ (That reminds me of the placard carriers who used to march up and down Oxford Street). Christian asks Evangelist, ‘Whither must I fly?’ and is directed to a gate which he must pass through in order to stand any chance of gaining salvation.

His first obstacle is the Slough of Despond, which he manages to overcome with the help of a kind stranger named, appropriately enough, Help. Christian is then admitted through the Wicket Gate, the official starting point of his journey to the Celestial City. Only those who are invited through this gate are eligible for entrance into the Celestial City. The Wicket Gate marks the beginning of the "straight and narrow" King's Highway, and Christian is directed onto it by the gatekeeper Good Will. To Christian's query about relief from his burden, Good Will directs him forward to "the place of deliverance."

Christian makes his way from the gate to the House of the Interpreter, where he is shown pictures and tableaux that portray or dramatize aspects of the Christian faith and life. From the House of the Interpreter, Christian finally reaches the "place of deliverance" which is the summit of a hill on which stands the cross of Calvary and the open sepulchre of Christ, where the "straps" that bind Christian's burden to him break, and it rolls away into the open sepulchre. This event happens relatively early in the narrative: the immediate need of Christian at the beginning of the story being quickly remedied. After Christian is relieved of his burden, he is greeted by three shining ones, who give him the greeting of peace, new garments, and a scroll as a passport into the Celestial City — these are allegorical figures indicative of Christian Baptism.

Christian mounts the Hill of Difficulty, and reaches the house called Beautiful, where a group of four sisters examine his conscience and give him supplies for his journey. On his way down the hill, Christian faces more obstacles and he battles the demon Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. His journey continues through the Valley of the Shadow of Death after which he meets Faithful a fellow pilgrim also from the City of Destruction.

Evangelist warns Christian and Faithful about entering the town of Vanity, which hosts a year-long carnival called Vanity Fair, meant to tempt pilgrims to abandon their journeys. In this town, Christian and Faithful are beaten and imprisoned. They stand trial for their religious faith and their rejection of the legal and moral codes of the town. Faithful is tortured and killed, sending him directly to the Celestial City as a martyr. Christian manages to escape from prison and is joined by another pilgrim named Hopeful with whom he completes the journey to the Celestial City.

Christian and Hopeful choose to take a shortcut that lands them in the dungeons of Doubting Castle. They are beaten and starved by the Giant Despair and urged to commit suicide. Finally, they use a key called Promise that had been given earlier to Christian but which he had forgotten about, to escape from the Castle. The two pilgrims continue on their journey until they reach the Delectable Mountains. Here, a group of shepherds give them a map to avoid traps along the way.

The two meet Ignorance, who has joined the path by a shortcut and believes that he will be admitted to Heaven without any invitation. The three of them continue on the journey until they reach a fork in the road. Instead of looking at the map given to them by the shepherds, the group follows a sinister looking man who leads them into a trap. They manage to get out and walk through the Enchanted Ground, where they have been warned not to fall asleep. To keep themselves alert, they discuss their religious visions. Christian and Hopeful have both had visions or revelations of Jesus Christ, while Ignorance relies on his own heart as a reason why he should be allowed to enter Heaven.

Christian and Hopeful reach the River of Death, where the depth of the river changes to reflect the doubt or faith of the person who enters it. At first Christian is overwhelmed by doubt and almost drowns in the river. Hopeful rescues him and helps him until they are confident enough that the river has become shallow enough to allow them to cross.

They are received into the Celestial City and carried off into the clouds. Ignorance also approaches the gates, but is denied entry because he has no invitation or Biblical revelation to make him worthy of Heaven. He is sent straight to Hell.

It might not seem like it, but this has been a necessarily brief summary of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The book is so packed with incident and so full of theological debate that it would be impossible, in an address such as this, to look at it in greater detail. I haven’t described many of the characters who appear along the way: people like Pliable and Obstinate, Mr Worldly Wise-Man, Talkative, Little Faith, Atheist and others.

As this is an allegorical novel, all the people and places which Christian encounters on the journey, either alone or with his companions, stand for situations or viewpoints that Bunyan, based on his own experience, believed might be encountered by any seeker after salvation, allowing, that is, for exaggeration for the purposes of dramatic effect and good story telling. Many of the situations put Christian’s faith severely to the test; for example, The Slough of Despond, Castle Doubting and the Giant Despair, Vanity Fair and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Some situations however are interludes in which rest and respite are granted the weary traveller to enable a renewal of faith and the resolve to complete the journey. Among these are: The House of the Interpreter, The House Beautiful, the Delectable Mountains and the country of Beulah.

Again, many of the characters Christian meets on the way speak with siren voices attempting to lure Christian onto the rocks of unbelief by appeal to the obvious (to them, that is) benefits of an existence that has only the world and its attractions as it centre. Exceptions to this are Evangelist who, on several occasions sets Christian back onto the right path after he has deviated from it, and Faithful and Hopeful who share Christian’s trials and tribulations and provide companionship and encouragement on the journey.

The Pilgrim’s Progress operates on a number of levels: as the answer to the question ‘What shall I do to be saved?’; as a riposte to those who deride the idea of salvation; and as an assurance that those who genuinely, humbly and determinedly seek salvation, will eventually be granted a place in God’s heavenly kingdom despite the many obstacles put in their path. Conversion and comfort are the over-riding themes of the book: conversion in the sense of a conviction of one’s sinful nature and the acknowledgement that one can only be justified – made righteous – through faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross; comfort, not only in the softer sense of well-being, but in the harder and original sense of being strengthened - fortified; a strength which comes through taking to heart and acting upon what is written in Holy Scripture, the book which, Bunyan believed, contains all things necessary for salvation.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is firmly grounded in seventeenth century evangelical and Puritan religious thought and as such, it might be wondered what it has to say to us today as we make our own pilgrimages of faith. Well, despite its emphasis on the eternal damnation of the unrepentant sinner, its exaggerative qualities and mythic tone, there is, nevertheless, a timeless realism about human nature in relation to the spiritual quest which has salvation as its goal. People, on the whole, don’t make the pilgrimage of faith from where they are to where they need to be in one smooth, untroubled journey. There are always doubts, backslidings, temptations, periods of apathy, times of weak resolve, blind alleys and wrong turnings, which may delay the pilgrim or cause him or her to abandon the quest altogether.

When these things, which are symptoms of our separation from God, which is what sin is, are experienced, we can’t rely on our own inner resources to overcome them. Although self-sufficiency is often regarded as a virtue, it’s insufficient when it comes to the matter of salvation. To free ourselves from the burden of sin and restore our relationship with God requires more than merely our own efforts, as Christian discovered.

However, help is at hand for the pilgrim beset by uncertainty: we have the witness and guidance of scripture and especially the four gospels which are the record of God’s ultimate act of grace and mercy to all who seek forgiveness and salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We have those interludes which enable us to renew both our faith, and our resolve to continue the journey; in particular there is the Eucharistic celebration where we remember with praise and thanksgiving and gratitude what Jesus has done for us on the Cross; how, in and through his sacrifice, and not through any action or merit of our own, we are enabled to continue our journey of pilgrimage to the Celestial City, that haven of peace and eternal life.

Last but not least, we have the companionship of and fellowship with, our fellow pilgrims, the people with whom we pray and worship and who encourage, support and uplift us in times of hardship, suffering, and spiritual turmoil; but who also share in our joy and our spiritual progress.

For these and all the blessings we receive as we journey toward your heavenly kingdom, good Lord we thank you.

Amen.