Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday before Advent 2019
We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come
The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar
Sunday, 10th November 2019 at 10.55 AM
I recently conducted the funeral of a friend of more than 40 years with whom I had often walked in Scotland. In fact, he and I are ‘Compleat Munroists’, having successfully climbed during the years of our friendship all 284 of Scotland’s 3000’ mountains. I was asked by his family to carry his walking boots into the crematorium chapel and to place them beside his coffin at the beginning of the funeral service. I was surprised how this simple act brought home to me the fact of his death in a way that I was not prepared for. It was so personal, so intimate, so real – as if my dead friend, Graham, was still there and was asking me to step into his boots.
In the Treasury at Sens Cathedral in Burgundy there is a stunning display of vestments worn by Thomas à Becket. Amice, stole, maniple, chasuble and sanctuary slippers – they are all still there after more than 850 years, in marvellous condition, as if he had just stepped out of them and the cathedral vergers had laid them out for someone else to put on.
Three years after his death in 1170, Thomas was canonized, and his vestments became objects of veneration – for his shocking murder at Canterbury Cathedral was the most chronicled event in medieval European history. The instinct to preserve and venerate his clothing chimes well with my own experience - that memory and love are kindled powerfully by the personal effects of people who are separated from us, or who have died.
Perhaps Thomas Becket was a hot-headed traditionalist who unwisely took on a reforming monarch; or he was a martyr for the rights of the Church against the claims of the Crown. But he went to his death with utter conviction. When his murderers arrived, he said: ‘I commit myself and my cause to the Judge of all men. Your swords are less ready to strike than is my spirit for martyrdom.’ After the blows were struck, his bloodied robes were torn open, and revealed that he had been wearing underneath for many years the tightest of hair shirts, riddled with vermin.
Thomas Becket enjoyed a good spectacle and no doubt loved his richly embroidered vestments. But he knew that it was the clothing he had chosen to wear underneath that mattered more. The truth was larger than people thought. ‘Man looks on outward things’, says the Lord to Samuel, ‘but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16.7).
In today’s gospel (Luke 20.27-38), Jesus has some striking words to say about the dead. The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection of the dead, try to wrong-foot Jesus by putting to him an absurd argument. If one and the same woman married seven brothers one after the other under the law of Levirate marriage, whose wife would she be in the age to come? The answer is obvious and absurd, so, they argue, the premise of resurrection must be wrong to begin with.
Yet the wisdom of God is wiser than the human mind. In the divine scheme of things, the resurrection is a transforming event. The life of the world to come is qualitatively different from what we know here and now: ‘like the angels in heaven’ Jesus puts it. The defining story of the Old Testament where God reveals his sacred name clinches the point, says Jesus. At the burning bush, Moses speaks about the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Jesus is saying here that to view the dead as ‘dead’ is a fundamental mistake. We need to see them as God does, in the light of resurrection. ‘For to him all of them are alive’.
There are no words more comforting than these on Remembrance Sunday when the memory of the dead is so much on our minds and is so powerfully symbolized by the field of remembrance outside this church. ‘In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace, and their hope is full of immortality’, says the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. Speaking within the same tradition, Job says, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives….; and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.’ It follows that if those whom we love and honour but can see no longer in the flesh are forever alive and present to God, then in every act of remembrance they can and should be alive and present to us too.
This is why Christian tradition not only remembers the departed but prays for them as well, because it is our way of continuing to care, continuing to recognise the bonds of love between us and them as ‘children of God’ that are not broken by death. It is why we dare to count on their prayers and their continuing companionship.
We could say that death is God’s way of ‘re-membering’ the children of God, of putting back together and strengthening the bonds between the living and the departed, of gathering up the fragments of human life so that nothing is lost. Where God has been at the heart of human loves and relationships, there He will always be. For, all in the end is harvest. Here is hope to sustain us as the dark days of winter come and with them uncertainty as to what life holds in store for us, this nation, and this fragile world of ours.
I go back to the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel and find in them an anchor when another link in the chain of human life is broken through death, or when I am silenced by the sheer waste of life in war and human conflict: ‘Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’
We come to this Eucharist to be ‘re-membered’ by the risen Christ. And because of the good news he speaks to us today, we do not come here alone, but in the company of all who are enrolled in heaven, who rejoice with Him on another shore and in a greater light. In bread and wine, we are one with them, with an innumerable company we do not see; our companions in faith, who travel with us towards the perfect vision of God. They truly ‘grow not old as we that are left grown old.’ Age no longer wearies them, nor will the years condemn. This morning, strengthened by our fellowship with them in the mystical body of Christ, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and meanwhile, at the going down of the sun and here this morning, we will remember them.