Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for All Souls 2013
4 November 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Today we remember with love and thanksgiving those who have died: members of our own families, our friends, former clergy and laity of this and other places where we have worshipped, the monks and abbots, canons and deans of old, all those who are buried or memorialised in this holy place. We remember those who have died recently, especially those for whom no one in particular is praying. We remember those who have died in terrible circumstances through the violence of others or in great pain or at their own hands, and we remember those who have died peacefully.
This is a solemn and communal remembrance, when we come together once again, as we did at their funerals and have done many times since, to place all these people into the hands of God. Trustingly and lovingly we ask God in his great mercy to forgive them their sins and to give them a place of light and peace and happiness in his presence.
And our solemn remembrance is full of hope and a quiet joy, for here we plead before God the eternal sacrifice of his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that takes our sins away and that conquers death, offering the promise of eternal life to all who trust in him.
And yet, this solemn remembrance, however far we focus our thinking on those we love and see no longer, cannot fail to open in our minds questions about death and life. We cannot avoid occasional speculation about what will be our own experience of death. Will it be peaceful? Will it be quick? Will it be when we are really old and very tired or will death come to us sooner than that, through illness or accident? I suppose we might often think that when the time comes we would like it to be unexpected and painless. But we should recognise the impact on those close to us. Perhaps better would be a short time of illness, with enough space to put things in order. We cannot know. We cannot plan. So, we should treat each day as if it were our last. But that is not easy.
So in purely human terms we must all live with uncertainty. We are uncertain about death and about life beyond death. Even if we have total faith and confidence in God’s promises, we are still uncertain about what it might be like. And we are uncertain about our own future and in particular our own experience of dying. We might not be afraid to be dead, but it would be unusual not to have some fear and uncertainty about the manner of our dying.
In practice, we put these fears aside most of the time and learn to live with them. Death is not much discussed in our society these days, only the question how we can avoid pain. And for many people their experience of the death of others is very remote. We know in theory how different it must be in a war zone, or where terrorism and violence is a real risk, but perhaps even there people tend to think they have every chance of it not being them.
Death is a certainty, not a risk. We shall all one day die; our body will be stilled and will cease to renew itself. We shall be separated from all that we know in this life and, at least for a time, from those we love.
How should we think of all this? All today’s readings are helpful but the second reading from St Peter’s first epistle has something profound and challenging to suggest. This is right at the beginning of St Peter’s epistle. He starts on a dramatically confident and upbeat note. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.’
St Peter is by no means ignorant of the suffering of the people to whom he is writing. He knows that they are living with risk, living with fear, facing persecution as Christians. He knows the reality of death and will eventually face a terrible death by crucifixion himself. Later in the epistle he writes, ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ But he starts with this great shout of confidence, of triumph. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has given us a new birth.’
St Peter knows of the degradation of the death of our Lord and of his own denial of ever having known him. He knows of the despair that accompanied that dreadful act. He remembers all too well the fear and self-loathing, the longing and waiting. But something has happened to change all that, to turn him into a new man, to give him new birth. At the end of forty days after the resurrection, days when he and his fellow apostles had remained locked in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews, they had an astonishing experience of love and joy and peace through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The decisive moment, the moment that changed their lives and that changed history, the moment that drove away all fear, was the moment when the power of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them as tongues of flame danced on their heads and a rushing mighty wind blew through the house.
By the time he wrote his epistle, St Peter had come to know that the power of that experience, the richness of that gift, had been made available by God through baptism. He knew that others like him could be born again by water and the Spirit and enter into the new life that he was experiencing in the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He had seen the effects of the Holy Spirit on individuals who had expressed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
So, in a sense that is absolutely true and real, those of us who have expressed our faith in Christ and been baptised have already died and already enjoy the gift of new life that we have been given, just like St Peter himself. ‘In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ Through the sacrifice of the Cross, death died. Through our baptism, the death in us died.
Words of John Donne:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.