Sermon given on November 2nd, 2016 at the requiem mass for All Souls’ Day.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Father George D. Carleton in his magnificent book about the Christian Faith called “The King’s Highway” wrote that:
“There seems to be no argument that can be brought forward against praying for the dead that would not equally be against all intercessory prayer…and indeed the Church, in encouraging prayers for the dead, has only given its sanction to what is a powerful instinct in the heart of man. The loving heart cannot but desire good for the loved ones within the veil; and every earnest desire of a Christian heart in union with Christ is prayer, even if it not be expressed in the form of prayer.”
Father Carleton was writing in 1924, at a time which was what one could call the height of the Anglo-Catholic revival within the Anglican churches. It was a time when the church sought to reclaim some of its ancient practices that had in many cases been abandoned or misunderstood by much of the church since the time of the reformation. That movement resulted in the creation of such societies as the Guild of All Souls, which was founded to witness to the church and to the rest of society that we Christians not only have the ability to pray for those who have died, it is, in fact, a part of our Christian duty.
If we believe in the power of intercessory prayer; if we believe that there is some good to be had from praying for each other as we struggle through this life, then why would we think that death somehow makes that invalid?
Saint Paul says in his letter to the Romans:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing in life or death is going to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. If we, as Christians have been united to him in baptism, then we are joined to Christ in a bond that death cannot break. That is why Paul can go on and say to the Corinthians: “Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Our relationships do not end in death. Just as we remain united to Christ, we remain united to each other. Death can no longer separate us. The church is one family, not just this parish or this diocese, or even of every Christian walking the earth right now, but everyone who has ever been sanctified by the waters of baptism, and if that is so then why should our care and concern for those we love suddenly cease at the gate of death? Baptism unites us to Christ and to each other in a bond that death cannot break.
But the church has for a very long time recognized that while those waters of baptism may unite us to Christ, they don’t make us perfect. There are some individuals whose witness to the faith and lives of holiness leave us no doubt of their sanctity, those people whom we generally refer to as saints, but for the vast majority of us, when we reach the point of death we will do so as very imperfect people. The idea of purgatory, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in the history of Christianity, both by Catholics and Protestants alike. It is not meant to be some extra punishment inflicted on believers after death, the escape from which to be made available at a price. It is not a harsh doctrine, but is in fact a witness to the grace and mercy of God. Most of us will die as individuals that haven’t figured everything out: we will not have repented of every sin, or even recognized every failure in our lives. We will, in short, not be quite ready to see God face to face. But we have faith that God has not given up on us. Imperfect as we may be, we still share in the life of his very perfect son. What the doctrine of purgatory is meant to say is quite simply that we do not believe that God throws away tarnished silver.
Through baptism are souls are transformed into a very precious metal, but sin and life has a way of tarnishing that. We try as hard as we can to keep it polished, but still we are likely to enter the next world with plenty of stains. Its ok. God’s mercy abides. If we allow him to continually wash us, and polish us, we will eventually be found gleaming around his throne.
One of the prayers in our prayerbook states:
Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend thy servant, our dear brother, as into the hands of a faithful creator and most merciful savior, beseeching thee that he may be precious in thy sight. Wash him, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate lamb that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatsoever defilments he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented pure and without spot before thee; through the merits of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Amen.
Remember thy servant, O Lord, according to the favor which thou barest unto thy people; and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom;
Being washed in the blood of the lamb; being purged of our defilements, and growing in strength and knowledge. That is our hope as we pass from this life into the next one. We don’t know exactly what it will be like, or how long it will take; time ceases to have the same meaning when you leave this world. What we do believe though, is that through it all we are still part of the church. We on earth are the church militant; those that are still being polished by God are the church expectant; and those that are shining around the throne are the church triumphant, but we are all one church, united in baptism, united in love and united in prayer.
There is a great lie that is often perpetuated about funerals. We are told, and we tell ourselves, that the funeral is really about the survivors, the family, and what they need. For most modern funerals that has largely become the focus: keeping the family comfortable. What this usually entails is distracting the family from the reality of death by trying to mask it. Funerals become “celebrations of life” that focus solely on happy memories. But by trying to ignore the painful, present reality of death we create something that is far more depressing: we create services that only look backwards and not forwards. We create the impression that the deceased person only has a past and not a future, and that is hardly the Christian faith at all.
We believe that in Christ we do have a future, and that our “life is changed not ended” as the preface of the mass says. So we live in the hope that our best days are always ahead of us. And we live in the hope that our loved ones have glory ahead of them too. We may not be able to do much for them right now, but we can do this. We can pray. We can hold them up before God, trusting that in his mercy and grace he will wash them of their sins, strengthen them and complete the good work that he began in them at their baptism. Our labor here is not in vain. God doesn’t throw away tarnished silver.