SUNDAY AFTER ALL SOULS DAY– 2017 Sunday, 5th November, 2017 Sermon preached at St. John the Baptist, Holland Park by Bishop Michael Marshall.
SUNDAY AFTER ALL SOULS DAY– 2017
Sunday, 5th November, 2017
Sermon preached at St. John the Baptist, Holland Park
TEXT: ‘Christ is able for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’ (Hebrews 7: 25)
I shall always remember, some years ago, when I was working in America, my first funeral service. The parents of their recently deceased son, in his forties, with a wife and two children, insisted on placing a large photograph of their ‘little boy’, in short trousers at primary school (no less), alongside the coffin, or casket as they say, during the funeral requiem. ‘That’s how we always want to remember him, and will always remember him,’ they said! ‘We want to remember him as he was.’ Yes, a natural enough sentiment to be sure in bereavement, but surely in the long run, fraught with real dangers.
Surely, we don’t want to fixate in the past, with sentimental nostalgia, those we truly love, but see no longer. It’s not only parents who can do it to children, even in life, let alone in death. It’s a perennial risk in all kinds of relationships. There is one story in the New Testament which has always struck me very forcefully. Jesus deliberately takes a man out of his village and the comfort zone of his home, as we say, in order to heal him. Then Jesus immediately and insistently instructs the healed man not to go back to his village – back to his family and his former environment with all its limited expectations – back to those who have known him and remembered him as he had always been - the local, dependent invalid. He’s changed: he has grown beyond their former image of him. He has been raised to new life.
So you see, in this hazardous loving business, we must always try to give the ‘other’ permission and the freedom to change and so to contradict our limited expectations. There is a strong temptation to trap people in life – let alone in death – by our refusal to let them grow beyond our fixated image of them – in a word, to let them change. (It isn’t always the best compliment, when we are greeted after years apart with the words, ‘You haven’t changed a bit!’ I hope to God I have! As Newman said, ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ All life, both this side of the grave as well as beyond, is a journey of change. ‘We shall not all die,’ says St. Paul, ‘but we shall all be changed.’
So, ‘now’ that is in this life, says St. John in his First Epistle, - ‘now are we the sons and daughters of God and it does not yet appear what we shall be. All we know, is that when He appears we shall be like unto him.’ Yes, there are infinite possibilities for change and renewal and thereby of being re-membered – put back together again (precisely unlike Humpty Dumpty). Furthermore, we will not be quite like we were in the past: but rather, re-membered for the future and for eternity, and NOT – no, not – just nostalgically ‘remembered’ as at some point in the past; unchanged, set in stone - placed in the deep freeze of nostalgia or mummified. No! Surely, as Christians we can anticipate the promise, as St. Paul tells us, of being changed from ‘one degree of glory to another.’
How can I say that with such confidence? First and last, there are the prime claims of love and relationships – that love, which according to the scriptures ‘is stronger than death.’ St. Augustine says: ‘What is a man but his friends and his loves?’ And match that with some words of St. Theresa of Avila, when she says – ‘Prayer is not thinking much: prayer is loving much.’
Our relationships of loving and being loved define our identity.
My mother died when I was just eighteen and going up to Cambridge If my mother were to stop loving me beyond the grave, in the life beyond, she would cease to be ‘my mother’ – the person she was and still is defined by her relationships and loves. It’s as though I, as a son, help my mother to be the person she is by being and always being her son. It’s as though we are who we are, by our relationships with others and supremely with God. Equally, if I were to cease loving my mother, when I could see her no longer, then I would not be the person I am – namely her son.
So if my mother continues to love me and I to love her, then, according to St. Theresa’s definition, I will, in and through Christ, continue to pray for my mother as she will for me. But – but, as I’ve said, such love and such prayers must be open-ended, with the agenda unfinished and all that just as much through this life as through the life hereafter. ‘NOW are we the sons and daughters of God; it does not yet appear what we SHALL BE.’ So such intercessory prayer, as on All Souls’ Day, must place all for whom we pray in the hands of God in faith that the divine potter will patiently continue to make and re-make them and so perfect what he has begun in them.
And that brings me to my final point. All prayer for others (again whether in this life or in the life beyond) must be in and through Christ who ‘ever lives to make intercession for us.’ Both our controlling as well as our dependent instincts can tempt us to think that we ‘know best’ and what is best for those we love – and again this temptation holds good both in the life beyond the grave as well as in this life. And so we seek to hold back – to drag back or to manipulate – those who should be moving on to become finally what God created them to be. There are no finishing posts in this life! So my text is adamant, as indeed the Bible consistently is throughout. ‘Christ is able for all time; to save those who ‘draw near to God, but through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’ The good Jew used to say, ‘Let God be between you and me’ And again, that holds true whether in this life or in the life beyond. We are only saved from idolatry in all this business of loving where there is an intermediary – a broker, as we sometimes say. We need to let the God of love who is love be that broker in all our relationships, in time as well as for eternity.
‘God knows best,’ we sometimes say in our better moments. I would want to go further and say that only Christ knows God’s best for each one of us - God’s best which may not be the same as what we think is good for somebody. After all the enemy of the best is not only the bad, but also the good which is simply not quite good enough – at least from God’s point of view and from the perspective of our eternal well-being. For we do not only pray that they will rest in peace: that is a poor substitute for that further promise and prayer that they ‘will rise in glory’ – a glory yet to be revealed.
So, thanks be to God, that whether we make intercession for our loved ones departed or not, Christ ‘ever lives to make intercession’ for us as well as for them, so that ultimately, God’s best may be realised in us all.
So the Bible is right – as is mother Church – when both alike insist that there must be no unilateral communication with those who have gone ahead, or they with us, even if it were possible. Such communication which seeks to bye-pass Christ our intercessor would always be in danger of controlling, limiting possessive and fixated relationships, robbing us and them of maturity and that ultimate glory that Christ has promised to all who truly love him. So yes, of course we shall – no, we must – continue to love and therefore to pray for our departed loved ones and they for us, in that greater love and nearer presence of Christ who ever lives to make intercession to His Father and ours. But we must always do that in Christ and through Christ – the One who knows the whole narrative or the bigger picture. So perhaps St. Paul sums it all up when he says: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ he asks. ‘For I am sure,’ he continues, ‘that neither death nor life…nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ And when I truly know that to be true for myself and for those I love, then I can pray – no, I must and will pray, not only ‘May they rest in peace,’ but also, ‘May they rise in glory.’ AMEN