Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 1 John 3:2
The days surrounding the observance of All Saints often seem to be charged with expectation and more than a little sorrow. In these days the collective mind of the Church is turned toward both our loved ones who have died and our fervent hope for their continued presence in eternity. While I think most of us draw comfort from our Christian belief in some type of eternal life after death we cannot help but wonder if all of this can really be true. Humans, as thinking creatures cannot help but question and it is frustrating when there are things that it is impossible to know.
The big unanswerable questions of existence….why are we here? Does God exist? What happens after we die? These are the questions that cannot be answered by our science or by our senses. Many of us turn then to faith trusting in the traditions and the eternal wisdom handed down to us from generations of believers who pondered the same mysteries. In this life, we cannot know if what we believe is true but then that is, of course, the nature of faith,
The writer of the Letter of John reminds us that whatever happens, we are God’s children and that we are all in the process of being perfected. He tells us that what we will become has yet to be revealed but that when we do stand in the nearer Presence of God it will all become clear. We shall then see God and ourselves as we truly are and as we were always meant to be.
In John’s Revelation, he envisions heaven shining with the glory of God. The Lamb who is Christ is at the center of the throne of God and before him are all of the hosts of heavens. Robed in white all those who have been faithful even to death from every nation and tribe on earth worship God on his throne. Those who have found special favor with God are now held safe for eternity, cherished and protected free from strife and sorrow. This is the eternal hope of all Christians…to be joined with those we love in an eternal celebration of worship before God.
Apocalyptic literature like the Revelation to John was written with the intention of providing a vision of hope for people of faith who were suffering persecution. The writer reminded his readers that while life was currently a struggle rife with pain and sorrow, God’s ultimate plan for his children was one of hope and restoration. Eventually, everything would be made right…justice would be done and those who had held firm and remained faithful would receive their reward. God is always faithful and would give his children power through the Holy Spirit to be faithful as well.
As we have become more sophisticated and cynical I think these images of a glorious eternity do not provide the same comfort that they once did. While the ancient metaphors point to a possibility much more wonderful than we can imagine our need for immediate gratification makes any future good less desirable. Many people, even those who profess Christianity live their lives as if this present is all there is. We fail to see the infinite preciousness of life because we view everything as disposable…even humanity as disposable…at least some of it. We have begun to view even our relationships as commodities to be bought and sold…traded for shiny new trinkets that distract us from the real work of loving one another.
One of the blessings of having a view of eternity is that we realize that all of us are connected both here and beyond. There is a continuity between this life and the next just as there is a continuity of love that runs between and within all of God’s creatures. This continuity holds true even with those who we love can be seen no longer, who have preceded us in death. We continue to hold precious the memories of those who have gone before, remembering the witness of their faith and the lessons they taught us. The story of our faith is carried in the lives of its saints both the living and the dead.
All this week I have been receiving the names of the dead to be remembered in our All Saints Sunday service. They have drifted in written on bits of paper, in text messages…in emails and in phone messages. The names of those dear ones called forth from memory and attached to each the stories of faith and love that have caused them to be remembered. Every name is a relationship and every relationship is a story. It is these stories that create our shared history…the narrative of our communal life.
As most of you know I was raised in Kentucky in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. One thing about Appalachian folks is that we carry our dead with us. Whenever we gather as a family it is the tradition to recount the events of our lives as a story. In a very short period of time, it becomes impossible to determine which of the people in the stories is alive and which are dead. The narratives weave together seamlessly…stories of the present and the past overlap. When I was a child I had heard the stories of my grandmother’s own childhood so often they seemed like my own memories rather than the recollections of an old woman.
I have come to realize that even before I became an Episcopalian or heard the term Communion of Saints I had experienced a very familial version of it. In that blessed Communion, we are all gathered together in the one fellowship those who have gone before, those who are here and those who are yet to be. This fellowship is a foretaste of that heavenly gathering when there will be no separation but all of our relationships will be restored. This is part of our eternal hope in Christ Jesus. Death cannot divide us forever for love is stronger than death.
The truth is that we are finite creatures. We are here for a time and then we die. It is our faith that tells us that this is not the end. If we believe that what our Lord Jesus told us is true then we can take comfort in knowing that he has gone ahead and made a place for all of us, so that where he is we too may be. Knowing this…believing this does not necessarily mean that we will not fear death when it is our own time to go. But it does mean that we can approach the unknown comforted with the awareness that we are loved by God and will not be left to face the dark alone.
Whatever happens next…whatever we find in that unknown country beyond death we will be held in the love of God along with all of those we love and have lost.