All Saints’ Sunday: Revelation 21.1-6a & John 11.32-44
Homily St George’s Preshute, 4th November 2018, 8.00am
The readings set for this year’s All Saints’ Sunday, make us particularly reflect on what happens when we die, in other words the transition from our earthly life to our heavenly life with God; and on what happens when time itself comes to an end, the so-called second coming.
Although I believe that the Christian hope and faith in a life after death is fundamental to our faith in God, I am not sure how helpful I find it to speculate what may happen when we die. Yes, I believe that death is not the end, but those who are left behind, regardless our beliefs, will have a sense of loss and pain when someone we loved we see no longer.
That is maybe then a way to approach our Gospel reading this morning: the raising of Lazarus. Some theologians argue that this is the whole Gospel – life, death and Resurrection – in a miniature version. We see the human side of Jesus, who like us is greatly disturbed and deeply moved as his friend has died. We can maybe also empathise with Mary when she complains to Jesus that if he had been here, this tragedy would not have happened. We may at times have had the same complaint to God: if he is really with us, why do these things happen? Why do people get ill? Why do people die too young?
I think it is significant to remind ourselves that both in this story and in the story of the Resurrection itself, death is not reversed, it is not made undone. We read this morning that Lazarus, ‘the dead man’ came out, and on the first Easter morning, Jesus speaks sternly to Mary that she cannot hold on to him. Death is not reversed, but life is changed. As Charles Wesley put it in his famous hymn: “changed from glory into glory”.
That brings us back from Easter to All Saints. Changed from glory into glory. Because that is in a way what we believe sainthood is about. Traditionally, people have believed that saints are those who are now in heaven and whose lives on earth were holy and virtuous. The glory they now experience fully, they already showed in their lives among us. This glory, that what is of God in us, looks different for each of us. However, although it is different, it is not difficult to recognise. Maybe a bit like different sources of light: each of a different colour and intensity, but recognised straightaway.
What is it that that makes someone a saint? Thomas Merton gives a convincing answer, I think: “For me to be a saint means to be myself”. The problem is to find out who we are and to discover our true selves. It is laying down the masks we put on to protect ourselves when we feel under attack, often through our own insecurities projected on others. The more we begin to realise that our identity is given by God, and that we don’t need to make it for ourselves, but to discover it by letting God work in us, the more we can become like saints: people in whom others recognise something of God himself. Indeed, that is God’s great salvation.
Later this afternoon at St Mary’s we remember all those who have died over the past year at our annual All Souls service. It is not an easy occasion, and it often takes quite a lot of courage of those who attend. However, it is a lovely occasion too, as it is often a significant moment in which we realise how our own lives were changed by those who lived alongside us, particularly those who dared to be themselves. It is a time too when we realise once more how God can touch us so deeply through the lives of others.
So, maybe in a way, their stories, the stories of those we remember, are like the story of Lazarus: death is not reversed, but life is changed. It is the Easter story of which we all are a part.