Sunday 30 October 2016:
Celebrating the feast of All Souls Day
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
This evening we are celebrating, a little ahead of time, the Feast of All Souls.
Halloween, the Eve of All Hallow’s, or All Saints’ Day is tomorrow evening. I have children and grandchildren in the US so I have become much more familiar with the celebration. They have special “candies” and then a whole range of nice healthy treats that mothers can make if they don’t want to hand out the special candies. Things like pieces of banana with choc chips for eyes, which represent ghosts; pieces of sweet potato cut into the Jack o Lantern shape and baked, or monster faces made of green apple with spooky teeth that are sunflower seeds and strawberry tongues. My seven-year-old granddaughter has a mermaid costume, lovingly made by her mother at great trouble and expense. Jessamy baulked however when five-year-old Illias decided he wanted to be a “Frill necked Lizard” and sent him and Daddy to the big costume shop. Baby brother Evander just has to wear one of Illy’s old costumes- such is the lot of littler siblings! We in Australia are a little scornful of this incredible outpouring of energy, and merchandising, and the older members of our society complain to each other about the creeping interest in Halloween in Australia, while the kids just want to trick-or-treat. Have you bought things in case someone knocks on your door? It does however have its roots in the religious festivals of All Saints Day and then All Souls Day. These, however, are not so very important in our culture.
We celebrated All Saints’ Day this morning and it is essentially the celebration of all who have died in Christ. We are all saints, whether or not we appear in the Liturgical Calendar. The idea of the festival of All Souls’ is to be a bit more comprehensive and to celebrate a “Day of the Dead” where we remember everyone who has died. We have read out a list of those who we remember this evening and this, of course leads us to think about the whole business of death.
I have taken a lot of funerals over the years and it never ceases to amaze me the different ideas people have about what happens when you die. There are many people, of course, who firmly believe that there is nothing, though they seldom have a Christian funeral, but I think the majority of people want to believe that there is some kind of life after death. Very often they visualise their loved ones being reunited with each other in some kind of pleasant place. They imagine their grandmother watching the proceedings of the funeral and wanting to tell everyone that she still loves them, they often think Grandpa is up their having a beer and watching the footy. Very few people however are thinking about their loved one being bodily resurrected, but that is what Paul is thinking about as he writes to the Corinthians.
Just as it is today the Corinthians, and other people in the ancient world, had a lot of different ideas about death. Paul is trying to give them a picture of what is now the reality following the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the section just before the bit we read, Paul is asserting that Christ died, and was raised, and appeared to various people, notably Peter, who is, at the time of Paul’s writing, a very important person in the movement which is called “The Way”. Paul is stressing the bodily resurrection of Christ because he says that if Christ has not been raised then our faith is in vain. And, furthermore that ‘we’ that is the followers of “the way”, have been misrepresenting God.
“But, in fact,” Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died,”. Now we all struggle to understand this. Paul is in a privileged position because, as he says, Christ appeared to him. We have to take the resurrection on faith, believing the testimony of those who were there. It is not something that we can confirm for ourselves. There are many different views of what resurrection might mean, and how that might look. For Paul, the important thing is that the Word of God became flesh. The Christ took on human form as Jesus of Nazareth, lived, died and was raised in the resurrection, then ascended into heaven. Now he is careful to make it clear, I think, that this is resurrection not resuscitation. He says, that “since death came through a human being, resurrection also had to come through a human being.” All we who are Adam’s kin have to die, but we are made alive in Christ.
When we think about our world it is predicated on a cycle of life and death, isn’t it? All of the living things on earth die so that renewal can come, and new life comes out of the old. If we didn’t have death we couldn’t have birth. It is how our world works. And yet, both Paul and Jesus seem to view death as the final enemy.
Do you remember the moment when Jesus is talking to the disciples about Lazarus and he says that Lazarus is sleeping? And the disciples reply- “oh that’s good, if he’s sleeping he’ll recover,” and Jesus says that actually he is dead? This is very telling and I have thought about it a lot. It seems to me that for God, relationship is the most central thing. Love between the persons of the Godhead is the thing that keeps the whole universe in motion in the great perichorectic dance of the Trinity. So death is therefore the great enemy, being the thing that breaks relationship. Paul, when he says that the last enemy is death seems to me to back up that view.
The natural cycle of life and death provides Paul with the answer to how that can possibly be. He reminds his readers, in the verses that follow, that when you sow a bare seed it comes to life in a new body- the body that God gives it. Now we know that the genetic code for the “body” is imprinted in the seed itself, but that is the great gift of God, isn’t it? Paul says that everything that is material has its own particularity, which is from God. And that from the perishable comes the imperishable. “It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
What does all this mean? Well, I am not sure that Paul knew any more than we do. He describes it as “a mystery”. And a mystery it remains. We really cannot say what this “imperishable” body is going to be like. I actually like the old language of “the dead shall be raised incorruptible” which suggests a kind of essential purity, more than the idea of imperishability, so going on for ever and ever! I think that we are so bounded by our ideas of time, the cycle of life and death, that it is very difficult for us to conceive of some kind of existence not bounded by that. And of course, my problem is the same as yours, I really do not know what I am talking about!!!!!
However, Paul finishes this discussion by quoting the Old Testament, which for a Jew is a clincher. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Isaiah 25, and “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” from Hosea. “The sting of death is sin,” says Paul, “ And the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And this is the really important thing. We don’t really understand how and what, or even why but we do understand who. Through God, god’s-self, we are assured of relationship that continues. We are assured of being held in the arms of love, in whatever happens next. Will we have a beer and be watching the footy? Are our loved one’s looking down and watching us as we pray tonight? I cannot tell you, but the one thing that I am certain of is that God holds us. And that knowledge, as Paul also encourages us, should help us to live each and every day that we have allotted to us here on the earth.
As we as a community celebrate Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ may these days be an encouragement to us to think not only of those who have gone before us, and our own eternal life, but how right now, we live our lives day by day. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”