Sermon for the Time to Remember Service at St Andrew’s, 3rd November 2013
Revelation 21:1-6

We are here, because they are not here. In a few minutes we will read out their names, the names of our loved ones, which we have written down, and whom we will remember together, here in God’s house. We will make an act of remembrance by lighting candles in their memory.

We will remember our mothers, our fathers, our wives, our husbands, our sons and daughters; our friends. They are not here. It makes us sad to think of all those people who have died, all those whose company we have lost.

Some of those who have died have left us after a full life, when perhaps they themselves would even have said that they were ready. You will remember Jesus’ saying, that in his Father’s house there are many rooms, many ‘mansions’. Some people, when they reach the end of their lives, are quite happy, quite happy to pass from one room to the next. My late father-in-law surprised many of his friends, days before he died, by ringing them up, and announcing that, as he wasn’t going to be around much longer, he wanted to say goodbye properly. He was quite relaxed about his future. He was truly blessed.

But some people are taken from us too soon, before they are ready and before we are ready. It is a great challenge to us to understand it, when people die suddenly or accidentally or unexpectedly. We are struck with the unfairness of it. We protest. We ‘rail against heaven’. Why them? Why should we lose the ones we love? There is no easy answer.

At the heart of the Christian gospel is Jesus’ promise of eternal life. We believe that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead. In the Bible, Jesus assures us that there will be a resurrection for everyone; there will be eternal life.

You will remember that wonderful aria in Handel’s Messiah: ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible’. How it works, is surely a mystery. But we have the assurance that it will happen, because of the good news that it happened to Jesus himself.

When Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’ [John 14:1-6], he said that those rooms are for everyone who follows Him. So whenever one of our loved ones is taken from us, Jesus says that there will be room for them in God’s house.

How it works, St Paul explains in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he reminds us that we all have a body and a soul. Two separate things. Although the body may die, may perish, the soul does not. This is what St Paul says. ‘There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly, another. The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars another, for star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’ [1 Cor. 15:40f, NEB]

There is now scientific work which bears out the possibility of the life after death. There is a well-known book, ‘Proof of Heaven’, by Dr Eben Alexander, who is a neurosurgeon, and that book, together with the work of other scientists who have analysed near-death experiences, strongly supports the conclusion that there is a life after death.

Now other leading academics, such as Prof. Richard Swinburne in Oxford, have examined the latest neuroscience findings on the way in which our brains work, how they control our movements, and have concluded that the only way to explain how our bodies are actually controlled involves the existence of something separate from our bodies, something which corresponds which our idea of a mind or a soul. There is no reason, as Prof. Swinburne says, that that soul should not survive the death of the body. [Swinburne, R., 2013, Mind, Brain & Free Will, Oxford, OUP]

Or, you can be simply blessed with faith, as the saints were blessed according to the letter to the Hebrews; in chapter 11, there is a wonderful catalogue of faith shown by the leaders of the Israelites all through the Old Testament. Hebrews says, ‘Since we are ‘surrounded by … so great a cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ A great cloud of witnesses.

If we have run that race, as we heard in our lesson from the Book of Revelation, the vision is that there will be a new heaven and as new earth, ‘where God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

We are here because they are not here. But the Gospel message is that that separation, that loneliness, will not last for ever. So in our act of remembrance, we need not be without hope. We can have the Gospel hope, the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ [The Book of Common Prayer: At the Burial of the Dead]

Of course we do feel sadness. We do feel the pain of loss, the pain of separation. But we can also feel joy. We can rejoice in hope, in the Christian hope of eternal life, that we will not be separated for ever.

Sometimes when I look at old family pictures I do feel rather sad. But then, I look again at those pictures, and remember the happy times, the achievements we celebrated, the love. It was real. It is real. It is still good.

So therefore, in our memories we can feel happiness as well as pain. We can celebrate as much as we regret. We can understand that it is not enough, simply to say that we are here because they are not. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ We are here because we remember them. Let us remember them with joy.