Life death and the hereafter
What could possibly be more important or more baffling?
In this month of remembering we have already celebrated the saints, revisited thankful memories of our own beloved dead and today engage in a very particular kind of commemoration as we focus on those who have given their lives in the service of others...
As we do at any funeral, we need to spend time looking back with loving gratitude...we need to hear the stories of the battlefields, read poetry replete with the pain and pity of war and spend our 2 minutes of solemnity lest we forget - but then we need also to raise our eyes and look forward with hope, even against a background of continued conflict. We look forward, collectively, to the hope of peace – but we also look forward, as the Nicene Creed puts it, to “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”
And that is quite a challenge...because try as we might we have no clear picture of what we are looking forward to. And this can lead to all sorts of wild and unhelpful speculation,- just like the conversation we overhear in this morning's gospel. It might be good to remind ourselves that the Saducees, who open the discussion, start from a place of scepticism. They are asking a ridiculous question because they don't believe in any resurrection at all. They expect a ridiculous answer...because for them this is all cloud cuckoo land.
Their scenario is clearly an invitation to wander up a blind alley, as we hear this tale of a much-married woman,passed on from brother to brother like a family heirloom of dubious worth. Its tempting to join in with the prevailing flippancy and suggest that the one thing the poor lady will want at the resurrection is a break from every last one of them!
But, as Jesus makes clear, to focus on that that would be missing the point.
The sad thing is, though, that some of the questions, ideas and conversations that I listen to, both within the church and outside, seem to be based on very similar expectations. People talk about Grandma having the kettle on ready to greet Gramps when he comes, about Uncle Jim enjoying a pint of Guinness with the lads while he waits for the rest of the family to arrive...
Being human,with our all too limited, finite perceptions, we want to use familiar landmarks as we set out to explore the unknown. So it can seem at times as if all we expect of the hereafter is some kind of gigantic family reunion – like our childhood Christmasses but better, as nobody will fall out, which is just as well since it's going to last forever.
Is that it? Is that really all we have to look forward to??
Don't get me wrong.
I absolutely believe that all those whom we love but see no longer are safe in God's care.
And I believe that the 'joy of human love' is not lost or obliterated by death...
God made us for relationship. -with him and with one another and it is,for me, inconceivable that this amazing transformative gift of love which inspires human beings to acts of courage and self sacrifice beyond our rational capacity should ever be lost or wasted.
Love never ends, said St Paul, in one of his wisest passages...and to that I would want to add a resounding Amen.
But I really don't expect heaven to be a perfected version of earth. I know that we might welcome the safety and familiarity that such a vision represents but honestly who wants familiarity when the alternative is to be changed from glory into glory?
Agreed we cannot investigate, weigh up the evidence, establish beyond all doubt just how it will work. We have no idea how it will be, because we are dealing with matters of faith and hope as well as love.
Faith that it will come to pass and hope that when it does everything will be transformed.
What we have now – even at its best- is not what we are waiting for... but we look forward with hope because we believe we ARE waiting for something.
Remembrance Sunday exists to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not forever shape & dominate the future...that we break out of that depressing cycle that insists “History repeats itself. It has to. No-one listens” - but even beyond this we know that we are not caught in an endlessly repeating cycle of error but traveling on a purposeful journey from past to future...
History will run its course and then will come the final fulfillment of God's purpose, creation restored in the life of the world to come. Swords WILL be beaten into ploughshares...there WILL be a new heaven and a new earth...
We cannot grasp how this will come to pass -because we live in the limited perspective of our time bound physical bodies. We cannot help but see through a glass darkly, our best guesses just that - guesses – based on our knowledge of here and now.
And language is inadequate...and our frame of reference always, ALWAYS too small...so let us turn, briefly, to our Old Testament reading.
Job has been confronted with the problem of pain...with the misery of human existence at its very worst...with the loss of all that he loved and valued...and finds equilibrium, finally, in the realisation that God is God...that his ways are not ours...
His words are a triumphant assertion of hope in the face of suffering – and their setting by Handel in Messiah gives them an added impact for today – in the reminder that when words and ideas fail, sometimes the arts can offer the faintest echo of the beauty of eternity. Listen