4th November, 2018
None of us know the whole truth about what lies beyond death. Many of the faith traditions throughout our world hold that as we journey between life and death, we are in the hands of an infinitely gracious presence. Some believe that death invites us into total awareness and to know with truth whether what we have valued in ourselves has eternal value. The love that surrounds us in that moment is the same eternal love that has been with us through every struggle and every joy of our lives. It is that love which deeply understands the choices we have made and celebrates the good in each of us.
Many of you have heard me use these words on more than one occasion. They are words I adapted from an Australian liturgical writer called Dorothy McRae-McMahon and use as part of the funeral services I take. When I began here almost ten years ago I was using the funeral service found in our prayerbook pretty much as it is written in those pages. But as the number of funerals increased I found that some of the words, words intended to provide comfort for those who are grieving, just didn’t really seem to hit the mark. Some of the more traditional language was too impenetrable, and for many people simply held little to no meaning at all. In fact, one person commented to me that much as they would like to come to church, they felt that they couldn’t because they didn’t have room to disagree with what was being said. By being in the position of saying things they didn’t really believe they ended up feeling like a bit of a fraud.
When it comes to funerals there are questions that inevitably come up at the time of death. What happens next? Why did this happen now? Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Often the Christian response to such questions is a little defensive. Rather than listening to naturally arising questions and allowing them to be there in the midst of grief, there are times when bad theology leaps in to make such questions go away. It’s an unfortunate dynamic but one that can be explained.
We do not like thinking about death. In fact by simply addressing this topic this morning a number of you will be feeling uncomfortable. That’s ok, I promise I will move through this reasonably quickly. That uncomfortable feeling is a low level of stress known in psychology as mortality salience. Mortality salience is to be in a state of discomfort when faced with the reality that we all die. This does explain why, at times, even the most well intentioned person can shut down questions about what happens after death. We do that because those questions make us uncomfortable. Sometimes making an absolute statement of belief about the afterlife is a way of making those thoughts about our own final journey go away.
None of us know the whole truth about what lies beyond death. I like that statement, not only because of its truth, but because it allows us room to actually think about what might lie beyond the veil, even if only for a moment or two.
In the Nicene Creed, there is a line that reads, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” As a child I thought that meant that somewhere in heaven there is a gathering of all the holy people who have ever lived, people like St Mary, St Andrew and St Francis. It’s a nice idea, but not one that seemed terribly important.
Of course I hadn’t quite grasped what that phrase “The Communion of Saints” was trying to express. The Saints spoken of are not simply those whom the church has bestowed the title of Saint upon. The Saints are all of us. We are the saints spoken of. The word Saints also refers to all those people who have lived and died who now reside in God’s eternal loving presence. So when I say that I believe in the Communion of Saints I am saying that I believe that all my loved ones who have died, and many more besides, are held lovingly in God’s embrace.
For me, like all of you, there are people I have loved who are no longer with us. Over the last ten years here at St Andrew’s my list has gotten much much longer. More than 160 funerals have taken place in this church during my time as Vicar, and while I did not take all of them, I took many of them, and knew many of those people well. I know that sometimes we look around this church and can be acutely aware of the gaps where so many people used to sit each week. But what I have also come to understand is that while those people are not here in physical form with us each Sunday, I find that they continue to be a living presence in my life. I still talk to them, I still love them, and often I am aware of their ongoing love for me. I particularly feel their presence when we say the Eucharistic prayer each week. Those gaps in the pews are not as empty as they first appear.
This is not something I often speak of, but today I share this with you as a way of letting you know that these feelings, feelings of ongoing connection and relationship with our dead, are natural and normal. The relationship I have with my dead friends and family has changed, but they all continue to be an important part of life.
There is another phrase we use from time to time. In various liturgies we sometimes talk about, “the cloud of witnesses by whom we are surrounded.” Christian theology doesn’t often get drawn into discussions about ghosts. Partly because, as I already stated, we should always be careful about what claims we make about what happens beyond death. But the idea that something of our loved one’s presence remaining here in this world comes through in the idea of the cloud of witnesses. The more I have opened myself to that possibility the more I find I experience the ongoing presence of people who used to live in this space with us.
When the Anglican Bishop Charles Henry Brent tried to explain his understanding of death, he wrote a wonderful passage that is often read at funerals. It has certainly been read here at St Andrew’s many times. They are words of comfort that seek to assure us that while our loved ones no longer share this life with us, their life does continue.
I am standing upon the foreshore,
a ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!”
“Gone where? Gone from my sight, that’s all.”
She is just as large in mast and spar and hull as ever she was when she left my side; just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
None of us know the whole truth about what lies beyond death, but in those words I sense something that I hope is true. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant