Sermon: Remembrance Sunday, 12 November 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 12th November 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

REMEMBRANCE AND HOPE

 (Joshua 24:1-25; Ps 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13)

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day: a day of thanksgiving for those who served our nation in time of war, and especially for those who gave their lives; a day to pray for peace and justice in our world, and to pray for those who serve in our armed forces, particularly in places of danger; a day to reflect on the foolishness and waste and harm that war and violence involves, and the cost involved in bringing about genuine peace in our troubled world. For some people it is a day of grief and tears, as the memory of loved ones who have died in time of war still opens deep wounds.

Yet as Christians we believe that one day good will triumph, war will end, and suffering and pain and tears and death will be no more. That amazing assurance is bound up with the promised return in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth. Our belief in the second coming of Jesus is bound up with our belief in the resurrection of Jesus. And arising out of Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we as his people shall also share in the resurrection of the dead.

The Christians of Thessalonica believed in the second coming of Jesus, as we usually call it. Paul had clearly taught them about this climactic event, and told them that they should live in readiness for that great day. Many of the Thessalonians probably assumed that this wondrous event would happen during their lifetime on earth. Perhaps even Paul held that expectation, although his basic message was that no one knew when it would happen.

But weeks had passed, perhaps even months: members of the young congregation had died, and this raised new questions and new concerns for the other members. In particular, there was a real concern that those who had died would miss out on everything that was going to happen. And this was causing a new kind of grief for the new Christians.

So in his letter, Paul seeks to clarify things and to encourage them. Yes, of course we grieve when a loved one dies: tears and sorrow are part of our human makeup, and it is never helpful to tell a grieving person that they should be strong and not weep. Stifling our feelings is not a healthy thing to do. We need time and acceptance as we go through bereavement.

What Paul wants the Thessalonians to do is not to grieve as people without hope. For there is hope, and Paul explains why.

When I worked at the Cathedral, I was present at a number of funerals conducted by Canon Mel Newth, the former Head of the Cathedral School. He had a favourite saying, which he often used at these services: “Death is not the end of the road: it’s a bend in the road.” Some people probably thought it a bit corny, but it actually said something quite significant. Death seems like the end, but the resurrection of Jesus guarantees that there is something wonderful beyond that we cannot yet see.

Archeologists have found various writings which help us to see the contrast between the pagan world of the time and the Christian church in their understanding of death. There is a letter written in time of bereavement by a lady called Irene: “I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all those things which were fitting I did. But nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort one another.” Irene knew there was nothing she could do about the death of her loved one: no hope. You needed to comfort one another, but there was no hope to share, no basis for real comfort.

From about the same time comes a description of what happened when a Christian died. “If any righteous person among them passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another.” No doubt there was sadness for the loss, but there was a recognition that death was not the end of the road, but a bend in the road.

In our passage Paul gives a description of the Christian hope. He writes of the Lord Jesus returning in glory. There is a cry of command, the archangel’s call, and the sound of God’s trumpet. No doubt this is pictorial language, but the point is clear: no one is going to sleep through it! When Jesus returns everyone will know. There will be no missing out!

And Paul emphasizes that on that great day Jesus will bring those who sleep in him: believers who have died will be very much involved in that great day. “Sleep” is a term used a number of times in the scriptures as a description of death, especially of those who die trusting in Christ. Literally a cemetery is a “sleeping place”. And of course, sleep means rest, but it also means the expectation of waking again. Remember how Jesus told Martha and Mary that Lazarus was sleeping, but that he was going to wake him up.

So those who have died are certainly not going to miss out. But neither are those who are still alive when Jesus returns. There will be a great gathering of all Christ’s people on that day. And as Paul says, “we will be with the Lord forever.” All those uncertainties will be cleared up, all those barriers will be gone, death and tears and pain will be no more. And we shall see the Lord in all his glory, and be with him in his kingdom for eternity.

And it won’t be just part of us, labeled our “soul”, that will take part. As Ross pointed out at the All Souls’ service, resurrection is bodily: but our bodies will be transformed, spiritual bodies, fitted for eternity. We do not know all the details yet: but it will be wonderful beyond our earthly understanding.

The Thessalonians were concerned that there was a delay in Jesus’ return, and in the reading for next week, Paul answers the question of when it will all happen. His answer actually fits in with much of the point of our Gospel, with its story of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Five of them weren’t ready when they needed to be: they didn’t know exactly when he would come, and they didn’t make adequate preparations. And so they missed out on the blessings. Jesus’ point is that we should always be ready. We need to live in consistent readiness for his coming.

In many ways the Thessalonians were indeed prepared. Their trust was in Jesus. They were showing Christian love in their lives, as we heard. But there was a problem. Some members had got so excited by the idea of Jesus’ return that they had given up work, and were doing nothing but presumably praying and reflecting and meditating, and perhaps sometimes making nuisances of themselves with the time they now had available.

And of course, the other Christians now had to look after them: to ensure they were fed and had their daily needs. These people probably thought they were being spiritual: but as the Pharisees reminded us last week, people can think they are spiritual and be anything but really spiritual.

What does Paul think of this? Paul had learned a trade as all Jewish boys of his time did, and he used it to support himself in his ministry. He didn’t want make himself unnecessarily dependent on others. And he tells these people to live quietly and mind their own business, and not to make a nuisance of themselves. They are to get a job: to work and get themselves an income, so that they are not sponging off others, when they really don’t need to. They are to live lives that will earn the respect of outsiders, which will bear positive witness to the value of Christian faith.

How do we prepare for the day of Jesus’ return, or the day of our death? We don’t actually know which will come first, but the implications are really the same. We are to hold fast our faith in Jesus. And we are to simply get on with the job of living faithful loving Christian lives. For many people in many churches that will still include working conscientiously in their jobs, earning a living, and fulfilling the responsibilities they have to family and community and church. Most of us here this morning are past the stage of being earners in that sense, but we all still have our lives to live in our particular situations, and things that we can do.

We live in assured hope: as we trust and follow Jesus, we will not miss out on his eternal blessings. But right now we have our earthly lives to live. Perhaps our own lives are simpler and quieter than they once were. But in our own way, we still can live as Christ’s followers. We can still live in faith and hope. We can still show love to others in ways that are appropriate for us. We can still make sure that we are indeed ready for that great day. Amen.

Paul Weaver