Posted by on November 3, 2019

Sermon by Kenneth Padley

All Saints Commemoration of departed loved ones 2019.11.3

Readings: Isaiah 25.6-9; Romans 8.9-11

I want to begin by really commending you for coming to this service tonight and for reflecting together on death and bereavement. I want to commend you because many people don’t have the emotional headspace or spiritual strength to do this. There are lots of reasons why society finds it hard to grapple honestly with death.

  • It is because death involves such great sadness – losses we cannot prevent, however much we want to.
  • It is because death is about ultimate uncertainties, and secular society can give no answers to the questions of ‘why’ or ‘what next’?
  • And it is because death has become taboo. When mortality rates were higher and medicine less effective death was a more everyday reality. I wouldn’t ever want to return to the Middle Ages but we should focus on the impact of these changes.

The poet John Betjeman asked, “Say in what Cottage Hospital … Shall I myself by lying when they range the screens around?” That’s what we have done to death – we’ve screened it off, in part because we can’t deal with it.

And because society can’t deal with death, we tend to view it in one of two opposite ways.

  • On the one hand there are some for whom death is a massive thing – too big, too horrible to process. The priest Henry Scott Holland in his most famous sermon described death as ‘The King of Terrors’. It is, he wrote, the ‘supreme and irrevocable disaster’. This view lends itself to perceiving death as an enemy, the greatest of enemies, a malevolent force to which our loved ones have succumbed.
  • In contrast to this line of thinking, there are those who minimise death: they reduce it to such a point as to almost deny its reality. Henry Scott Holland also wrote that, for some,

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

You may recognise these words. They are from a passage often heard at funerals and memorial services.

So what is it going to be? Is death an enemy too big to tackle, or a friendly moment of release, hardly a problem at all? However helpful some people find these approaches, the emphatic response of Christianity is to refocus our attention elsewhere. The Christian reply to death is neither to minimise it and deny its reality, nor to maximise it and overestimate its power. For if Christians know one thing about death it is that it has been defeated. We view death through the prism of Easter.

The message of Easter is that the Jesus who was barbarically executed on Good Friday rose again two days later through the power of almighty God. The united witness of gospels of Jesus’ life is that the tomb was empty, that his followers saw him alive again (not a ghost, nor a delusion, nor recovery from a coma), and that these followers were so convinced of the resurrection that they abandoned their careers in order to travel the ancient world and spread the news. If Christians know one thing about death it is that it has been defeated.

In addition, the message of Easter is clearly tied to what the Bible says will happen after we die. As society has become progressively more detached from its Christian heritage, all sorts of novel ideas have come to circle within the popular imagination about our post-mortem state.

  • Some believe in annihilation, that after death there is, literally, nothing.
  • Others advocate a version of reincarnation, an ever-rotating wheel of life and death, the roots of which go back to Hinduism.
  • A third approach is to adopt forms of nature religion, the notion that the dead are somehow transformed or absorbed into the wind and trees and stars.
  • Yet others support to the idea of ongoing spiritual presence in the form of ghosts.

Biblical Christianity presents an alternative by engaging all four of these options with the principle I have stated already, namely that death was defeated at Easter. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Christian hope is for resurrection too: resurrection – not annihilation, reincarnation, pantheism, or spiritualism.

Christians believe that two things happen after death: two things, not one. Firstly, that the souls of the righteous rest with God. And then that God will raise the dead at the end of time in a new and perfect world. That was what our two Bible readings were about: Isaiah 25 in which the Lord promises a feast of rich food for his people and to swallow up death forever, and Romans 8 where St Paul announces that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in us.

How God will effect the General Resurrection I do not know – it is such an amazing thing to get our heads around. However, I have recently read a helpful analogy from scientist and priest John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne says that the Christian hope for resurrection is a bit like God, at our deaths, downloading our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run our software again.[1]

Finally, I want to say that Christian belief in resurrection is not just hope for the future. The resurrection will happen in our world and so its implications are felt in our world. Christians, while looking to that ultimate hope of God’s perfect future are enlisted by God in the task of working for the intermediate hope of a better present, a better present for the poor, the vulnerable, the depressed, the migrant, the abused, the broken, and those who mourn.

The resurrection shows how much God loves the objects of his creation. Matter matters to God, and because the Bible proclaims bodily life after death, we should – to quote the slogan of Christian Aid – strive for life before death as well.

[1] In NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, 163.

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