Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/tFvkQA8B0SA.
All Saints’ Day B 1st Nov 2015
All Saints’ Day is a special day in the church year when we remember all those we have loved, “the great cloud of witnesses” as the letter to the Hebrews describes them. It is not just about the people that have been canonised and made official saints but about every single one of the faithful that have gone before.
There are a number of things that always come up when someone dies. The first is a sense of the fitness of the death. If you have an old person, who has lived a full life people will say, “he or she has had a good innings”, (I wonder what they said before the invention of cricket?), or if a person has been suffering terribly people might say something along the lines of, “at least they are now at peace” or “it is really for the best”. However, when a young person dies, or someone is killed in a horrible accident, or at the hands of another human being we have a different reaction. We say it was “too soon,” or “ a tragedy” or even perhaps, “only the good die young”. And there are always the sentimental comments about God wanting another little angel, particularly if the death is that of a child.
Some of us are more honest and ask the much harder questions about where God is in the particular tragedy, and there are often questions about why God didn’t prevent it. Sometimes very committed Christians will say to one another, “God is in control” and that is supposed to be helpful. In my experience it just makes me feel really angry- if God is in control why doesn’t God do something about… murder, domestic violence, earthquakes and dozens of other terrible things? Does God want these things to happen? If God is a God of love, the answer has to be “no!”, so we must have our theology wrong at that point. I will come back to this in a moment.
The other question that comes up, when a person dies, is about heaven. Will we all see each other there, what will it be like? Often there is an idea about being reunited- and I think this goes back to a central and mostly unarticulated aspect of human life- we are designed for unity with God, we are designed to be in eternal relationship but often we don’t realise that, so the human relationships, which are, of course, also very, very important, take the place of a relationship with God. When a person dies the severing of relationship is the thing that we grieve and that hope of being reunited is very important. Often, as a way through our grief, we continue to talk to the person as if they are still there. It is a way of mitigating the pain we feel. I think, and I may not be right, that when we come fully into God’s presence we will all be both separate and recognisable but also in a united state that will not need individual relationships.
But will we be in heaven? Or is the kingdom of God coming on earth? And if so, this earth or a new earth, or what?
Well, again, I don’t really know and the bible passages that deal with it are not terribly clear either. Both the passage we had from Isaiah and the passage from Revelation talk about it and in a sense they are both theories, based on visions that the writer, whoever that was, has had. The other thing is that they are both deeply metaphorical and we make a mistake if we say, “It is this,” rather than, “It is LIKE this”. Isaiah has a wonderful picture of a feast or banquet, which is, importantly, for everyone. We are going to eat and drink rich food and well-aged wine. But what does God eat? Does God share the feast? No, what God is going to eat is the shroud and the sheet of death. God is going to swallow up death forever and then there will be no more tears and no more disgrace and that is what salvation is going to look like. This is a strange concept, isn’t it? It might help you to know that there is a reference here to the Canaan God of Death whose name is Mote and who swallowed up people. Rather than swallowing people, death itself is going to be swallowed. So this is Isaiah’s picture of what will happen.
And as for the picture we get in Revelation? Well, the writer of Revelation has clearly been reading Isaiah. Not so much the passage that we just looked at but another passage in Chapter 65 which proclaims a new heaven and a new earth which will cause us to forget the old ones. This and a number of other passages probably influenced the writer. This picture is more elaborate- in Isaiah 25 we have a picture of a banquet but here we see a whole new city- the home of God which is going to be among mortals. Now this is interesting isn’t it? It doesn’t say that the mortals are going to dwell in a different place called heaven, which is God’s place, it says that God is going to dwell in the city with the mortals. And the big draw card is that God, Gods’self, will be with them. Getting back to our question about relationships in the afterlife it does seem that the primary relationship will be with God. And there in that place there will be no more tears, just like Isaiah said, because death will be no more, for the “first things” will have passed away. God will have done away with, swallowed, in fact, so taken into God’sself, the whole business of death. How? Well God is the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega. God encapsulates the whole of creation.
Well, all this theory is fine, lovely metaphors to give us hope even if they cannot give us much true understanding. But perhaps we should take a look at God, in the person of Jesus. In the passage we read from John we can get a few more pointers about God’s attitude to death.
Jesus, who has purposely delayed before going to see Lazurus, arrives when Lazarus has been in the tomb four days and is very thoroughly dead. In fact, as it used to say in the KJV, he stinketh! Jesus has given himself the opportunity of displaying God’s power, but also showing us how he feels about death. And it is interesting what he does feel. Our translation says, “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Once again the NRSV has failed to capture the strength of these words. A better translation would be that Jesus was “angry and gut-wrenched”. These are strong words. Jesus began to weep, himself. He is crying, I believe, not just for his friend but for the whole of the human race constrained as it is by death. Then Jesus, again ANGRY, came to the tomb and summoned Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus, with the stench of death on him and his bandaged hands and feet and face, comes out. It must have been terrifying for everyone, you would think. And there were those who really didn’t want this death to be defeated, or swallowed up- weren’t there? Imagine if in war the dead all got raised again, or if all our old grannies kept coming back out of the tombs? It really is terrifying for lots of reasons but particularly because that is how our world works. So when we ask the questions about the individual deaths that trouble us so much we have to ask them against the knowledge that this is how it works at the moment. But God is angry about how it works. God weeps with us. God wants to swallow death and give us a new creation, a new way of being. Why does God delay? I don’t know. But having said that we all, individually, ask God to delay the process. “God, please don’t come back until I see my children grown up!” and then, “God, please don’t remake heaven and earth until I see my grandchildren”. We are contradictory beings, aren’t we?
So Jesus raises Lazarus and presumably Lazarus lives to be an old man, before he dies the second death. I guess he was not frightened the second time as by now Jesus himself has died and the resurrection has happened and the promise is already being lived out. Jesus defeats death in that moment and it becomes a certain hope for us. The great banquet of unity with God, the new creation, in which we will participate.
“Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us… Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”