A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney at the All Souls service on 1 November 2020.
The biblical authors knew only too well the devastation that was wrought by war, famine, and plague. Those were the three things they feared most and shaped the outlook that the author of the book of Ecclesiastes articulated in our first reading.
For everything there is a season. A time to rend and a time to break down, a time to weep and a time to mourn, and, as we know only too well, a time to refrain from embracing.
It’s not an easy time of year for us to face this, with the clocks changing, the light fading and the leaves blowing off the trees. For everything there is a season, and this is a season for remembering. This morning we celebrated All Saints, this evening it’s All Souls and next week it’s Remembrance Sunday.
As we remember those who have gone before us, whether heroes of the faith or those who’ve been close to us, the Christian faith offer us an ultimate hope in the face of death from which I believe we can draw strength and comfort for these tough times we’re living through.
Robert Peston, well known as the former BBC economics correspondent, was interviewed a year after the death of his wife, a young woman in her forties. Asked how he thought about her now, he replied that, although he was not conventionally religious, he had a strong feeling that she was still with him. And when pressed whether he had any explanation for this, his eventual reply was the one word: ‘love’.
Human love is such a powerful force that it can and does produce feelings like those described by both Robert Peston and many others who have suffered bereavement. And of course the Christian faith talks not just about the power of human love to help us through, but divine love.
A moving passage about death comes from one of my university lecturers, Geoffrey Lampe, who knew that he was dying of cancer. In 1980, shortly before his own death, he was invited to preach at the University Church in Cambridge, on ‘Preparation for Death’.
There he said:
‘…at the heart of our life is unfulfilled hope, a promise and an assurance of the transformation of ourselves into the image of God in which, potentially, we have been created. That transformation cannot be completed in these few years of life; and if these years are all that there is for us, such glimpses of God as we now have are like a springtime without a summer to follow it. Here is real ground for fear, and we need trust and hope as our preparation against it.’
There’s an appropriate time to accept death, an acknowledgement that rarely comes easily; that everything that can be done has been done, or that someone is now no longer with us in the way that they once were; for everything there is a season.
But there’s also an appropriate rebellion against death, that death makes a mockery of life and all that we hold dear. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it famously when he wrote:
‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
And that points us in the direction that Geoffrey Lampe has suggested – that at the heart of life there is unfulfilled hope – that the glimpses of God that we now have are like a ‘spring time without a summer to follow’ if death were simply the end.
However enduring the power of human love is, Christian hope goes beyond that to talk about the enduring power of divine love.
As we heard Saint Paul write:
‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’
This is a hope that gives meaning to both life and death.
In the two Creeds that we use regularly, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, the closing phrases refer to this ultimate hope in a number of different ways.
When reciting the Apostles’ Creed as we shall be doing in a moment, the words we use expand to refer to the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting – and also to the forgiveness of sins.
At death there are always loose ends, things that might have been done differently, words that perhaps should never have been spoken, things that perhaps should have been done and weren’t.
When expressing the hope that we have, our Creeds include this vital dimension of forgiveness, because the Christian hope includes the reconciliation of all things in Christ.
A thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr, expressed this much better than I can when he wrote:
‘Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing truly beautiful or good makes complete
sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous,
can be accomplished alone;
therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the
standpoint of our friend or foe,
as from our own standpoint;
therefore we must be saved by that final form of love
which is forgiveness.’