On Sunday 4th November we held a service of Commemoration of the Faithful Departed at St John’s Itchen Abbas. We commemorated by name and lit candle around 100 people that we love so much who have died. Around 50 people came to light candles and to commemorate them. We sang the Lord’s my shepherd, Abide with me, In Christ Alone and Be Still for the presence of the Lord. John Purver played the organ so beautifully that everyone stayed until the end of his voluntary (which was the ‘Minuet from Berenice’ by Handel) the end of the service! It was a beautiful moment. We read passages from John 3:10-16 and Romans 8:31-39
Revd Alex Pease gave the following talk:
We are all here today to remember someone who we cared very deeply about. A relation or a friend. Someone we spent days, weeks, months, and years with. Perhaps, someone who helped give us our identity like a parent; or someone with whom we have had close companionship for so much of our lives, like a husband or wife. Or someone who was our future, like a son or daughter or grandchild. And yet each of whom are now separated from us by the vast chasm that death appears to be to us all.
There is no simple solution to the ache of that separation; to the anger; to the injustice of it all. No off pat Biblical references. No words of worldly wisdom. None of these things are really much use to us the bereaved.
Although they might make the person who is speaking to us feel better.
Even the much rehearsed phrase: ‘time heals’ is not much comfort in the empty days, months and years after a death. And is not always a comfort even much later. Even though common sense tells us that it surely is true.
We face periodically what CS Lewis calls ‘the sudden jab of red-hot memory’ and all ‘this common sense vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace’.
The pain of separation is terrible and long for us.
But it is, I am convinced, a temporary one. Like when someone we love goes on a journey. But a journey out of the range of any mobile phone or even letter.
But we cannot help asking – ‘I wonder where he or she is now’. Is all well? Is she or he worrying about me? How is she or he coping with this new environment in which she or he has found themselves.
What is it like to be dead? What is it like for her or him? We can answer some of these questions by reading the Bible.
If Christianity is about anything, it is about physical resurrection. A resurrection of the dead in which Jesus led the way 2000 years ago in Palestine. A resurrection and a life in a new earth ruled by Jesus which is promised to all those who have died in Christ since He was resurrected or who do so in the future. A physical resurrection in a physical earth on the Last Day when Jesus returns at the end of time. We are promised physical bodies enjoying many of the delights that we enjoy now, but without the suffering that blights our lives.
The idea that our souls spend time separated from our bodies in some disembodied half life is a idea of Greek philosophy – of Plato rather than of Christian thought.
And importantly we can expect to be with those from whom we have been separated. As Jesus said to the thief who was crucified with him in Luke 23:43 “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise”.
But where are the ones we have lost now, as we wait to join them? Are they waiting anxiously for us? Are they reviewing our every move; tut-tutting from the side lines in some spiritual suspended animation?
Theologians disagree. Some say: there is some kind of temporary spiritual state between death now and when at the return of Christ all those who have died in Christ are resurrected on the last day.
Roman Catholic theology calls this period ‘purgatory’ an opportunity by grace to be prepared for eternity but others, particularly Anglican Bishop Tom Wright say: there is no period when souls are separate from our bodies; We are either in our bodies as we have them now or in our resurrection bodies. Death has no dominion over us at all.
But that is difficult to match with our actual experience of seeing bodies decay.
So how can we believe both in bodily death now but reject a spiritual state between death and resurrection?
Perhaps, and this is difficult to get our minds round, perhaps the problem is that we are misunderstanding time. Perhaps, our loved ones spend no time separate from their bodies – either their bodies now or their resurrection bodies.
But perhaps time, as they experience it, is different from sequential time as we experience it. Certainly even in the arena of modern physics, we are starting to see time differently. As one commentator has said: ‘in an Einsteinian universe time can move forward and time can reverse: events can happen both in sequence and simultaneously’.
Such a view helps us to see the possibility that our loved one’s experience of death will be the same as our own when we die and will be simultaneous with our own experience. That we are all resurrected physically and simultaneously with them on the last day, on Jesus’ return.
So when they died they were immediately resurrected on the last day. As we too, when we die, will be resurrected on the same last day. They will not have been waiting for us at all. For them it will be as if we have died simultaneously with them.
And we can be confident that for them and for us as we heard in the reading from Romans nothing can separate us from the love of God. And as Jesus says in the reading from John “whoever believes in [the Son of God] shall have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day”. So, as believers in Jesus Christ, we will discover the delights of the new heaven and the new earth together with our loved ones and begin a journey together which CS Lewis describes in the last of the Narnia novels: Aslan the Lion (the Christ figure in the books) is speaking to the children when they reach Narnia for the final time: “…all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ending: this is the morning.”
Lewis continues: “for the children it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no-one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before”