For all the saints
Ephesians 1:11-16 | Romans 14:7-9
When you read the New Testament, especially the letters, there are places where it’s clear that the early Church was expecting Jesus to return – and that they were expecting it to happen soon.
And part of that expectation was that on his return he would usher in the new eternal reign of God, in which, as the prophets had promised, there would be no more suffering, and no more death.
But as the days turned into years, in the natural course of things, some of the early followers of Jesus began to die. And understandably enough, those left behind worried – had these faithful disciples missed out, by dying before Jesus came back? How hard it must seem, how unfair, to give your life to following a Lord who promised a future time in which there would be no more death, but to die before he brought that promise into reality.
Many pagan religions of the time of Jesus, of course, had stories of a life after death, but it was not generally a happy image. And amongst the Jews it was (and still is) a debated point.
So it became important for the early church to hear the reassurance that Paul wrote to the church in Rome: words that I read at pretty much every funeral that I take:
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
The death and resurrection of Jesus clearly defies any attempt to put it into a box, to fully understand or explain or make sense of it. It is, in the deepest sense, a mystery – however many questions we ask of it, however much insight we get from it, we will always find there are more questions to ask, more depths of wisdom to immerse ourselves in.
So we find many reflections on those events in the scriptures. Here Paul draws meaning from the death and return to life of Jesus: and his image is simple. Jesus has been alive, and dead: so he is able to be our Lord whether we are alive or dead. And he has been dead, and alive again: so death is no barrier to him, or, in him, to us.
This is our promise; the inheritance that we have obtained, that we heard of in the reading from the letter to the Church in Ephesus, that in Christ we have received.
To receive an inheritance is the right of the children. God’s declaration that we, in Christ, share in an inheritance, is God’s declaration of our adoption, that we have become God’s children, co-heirs, the author says elsewhere, of Christ, siblings of each other, siblings of Jesus.
And these things that we say and hear and read about ourselves; those same words have been spoken through the generations to those who have gone before us. That same gift of inheritance, of adoption, have been offered to those that we have loved and lost. They too are our siblings, they too are part of the great family that names God as our father and mother, the family bound together by the all-conquering love of God.
But profound though that truth is – that we are bound as family with all the saints; those here, those in distant lands, and, as we especially reflect today, those who have gone on before us – profound though that truth is, it does not deny the reality of the human experience of death. That we love people, and that people we love die. That though a defeated enemy, as Paul writes elsewhere, death still has the power to wound us.
On Thursday morning I stood here to speak at a funeral, and I reflected, as I often do at funerals, that however great our confidence in the life to come, the death of a loved one is a very real loss. However sure we are that we will meet again, it is an ending.
So in marking All Saints, we recognise and name both our confidence in a future reunited, and the reality of the present loss. And we recognise, too, that that loss remains real long after the mourners have returned to their lives.
I recently read some research in brain science, on the structures of our brain which map out our network of relationships; that pattern of those who are important in your life, how they fit together, has an almost physical representation in the brain. And when someone significant dies, it can take a long time for those patterns to adapt – months, even years, for those of us who are older.
Which means that sense that someone should still be there is not just a memory, not just wishful longing, but reflects something fundamentally human: that who we are is so deeply intertwined with who we are in relationship with others, that we do not, we cannot, so quickly adjust. However much our culture might expect us to move on; however much we might wish we could.
The research also showed that over time those structures do adapt, and the reality of the one we have lost begins to fade. This can be a double grief; we can even feel like we are betraying the loved one as we realise we are forgetting. I personally find it comforting to think that as those details fade it is not that I love less; simply that my mind is finally accepting the truth that they are gone.
And then we take deeper comfort still from the assurance of the faith, the words we heard read from the book of Romans, words normally heard at a funeral, and the assurance that the present reality of their absence that our minds are accepting, is still less real than the deeper truth that the ones who have gone before us, whether they are still, in a way, real and present in our minds and in our hearts, or whether their image has begun to fade, are still real and present in the great communion of saints, still held in the same eternal love of God that holds us.
For there are other words from that same letter that I also always include in a funeral. Words of assurance that God’s love that holds us in Jesus, as family, adopted children, is so far above all other powers as to render them impotent. So let me finish with those words:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.