The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hand of God

All Saints Day,    November 1, 2015

Wisdom 3:1-9

Let me begin with a text, and ask you whether the ideas sound at all familiar:

‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts;
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.

Does any of this sound at all familiar?  The sentiments it expresses sound very modern. They sum up an attitude towards death that is shared by many today.  It is a natural and perhaps inevitable attitude in an age of scientific materialism.  If all of reality can be defined and explained by the principles of physical science, then human life, human consciousness, that thing that used to be called the soul, is simple the function of chemical and biological processes in our cells. When we die, when our cells cease to function, then we cease to be.

It is a modern idea – but it is certainly not new.  As you probably guessed, the passage I just read is from an ancient text.  It is from the book of Wisdom, one of the books of ancient Jewish faith that belongs to the Apocrypha, and so is kind of half in and half out of our Bible. It is probably the last of the Old Testament books to be written, just a generation or two before Jesus. The part I just read comes from chapter 2, just before our first reading this morning, which was from chapter 3.

The book of Wisdom, I should hasten to add, is not endorsing the scientific materialism of the passage.  It puts these words in the mouth of those who it calls the ungodly, and the foolish.  Now, I’m not sure we need the black and white moral judgmentalism of the Book of Wisdom.   After all, many decent and upright people seem to follow the atheist creed.  And perhaps more to the point: who among us has not wrestled with the despair that perhaps this is true, perhaps we are nothing more than biological processes? We are children of our age.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. It is a time to remember the saints, all the saints.  There are the big name saints, the ones who show up in stained glass windows and get churches named after them. There are the modern heroes of the faith, the Mother Teresas and the Martin Luther Kings. But there are also the everyday saints, and they are the ones we remember particularly today.  Each of us have our own.  The people who inspired us in childhood by their love and witness. A grandmother’s warm loving hands and firm faith.  A father’s upright integrity.  Some one in the community, perhaps, a family friend or someone at church who seemed to live their faith in a way that made you want to be part of it. Someone who showed courage in the face of adversity, and caring for others.  Someone perhaps who believed in you, and taught you to believe in yourself, even as they taught you to believe in God.

And then there are the saints of this place, of All Saints Kingston (and of Holy Trinity Middleton), people we remember so well that they still seem to be with us, populating the pews with their unseen presence.  I know that many of you, like me, are particularly conscious of our sister Millie, whose warmth, and faithfulness in prayer, and courage in adversity, touched so many of us.  And I know also that those of you who have been here longer than I remember many others, saints whose have made this place what it is.

Whenever we think about the saints, we think about death – the two themes are interconnected in the Christian tradition. All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, and it is not really possible to separate the two. The commemoration of the saints in the early church was originally a commemoration of the martyrs, those Christians who were celebrated for their deaths. They were remembered because by standing firm in their faith they claimed that something was stronger and more important than death.  They claimed a holy freedom from the powers of this world, that use death as the final threat to impose themselves on others. The martyrs found the courage to look Caesar in the eye and say: Your threats of death are empty for me, I choose to trust in the life-affirming love of God, in the practices of this caring community, rather than your brute violence. They found this freedom and courage by the example of Jesus, who also faced the powers of this world with unbending faith – and when the powers of this world had done their worst, was raised to prove that death does not have the final word.

This was the courage and freedom that the martyrs demonstrated by their deaths – and in fact continue to demonstrate, as there are still martyrs who face the threat of violence with their faith, and pay the price. When we remember the saints, we too are joining with them in their defiance of death.   The cult of martyrs that arose in the early church, that was the origin of the tradition of venerating saints, was in fact a collective joining with them in their defiance of the powers of death. The authorities might attempt to crush their hope and faith by violence, but the church reacted by redoubling that hope and faith, celebrating the martyrs courage as a victory.  You remember the brutal murder of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS on the beach in Libya earlier this year, an act designed to provoke rage and hatred and despair.  How did the Coptic church react? They painted an icon of the martyrs, and included them in the prayers of the church.  What a splendid gesture of defiance to the forces of terror – instead of focussing their energy in fear and hatred on the perpetrators, they celebrated the martyrs in hope and courage.

The remembrance of the saints began with the celebration of the martyrs. But the same principles are at work whenever we remember the saints. Whenever we think back and remember the saints we have known, those who have touched our lives, we are in a similar way affirming the values they lived for in the face of death.  When we remember their love and courage and faith, we are again not allowing death to have the final word.  We are rejecting the hopeless cynicism of the scientific materialism with which I began this sermon.  We are standing up, in the face of death, in the face of that fact of biological extinction that hovers over all of our lives, and saying: but this is not the final truth about this person’s life.  The final truth is not that we die, and so all else is meaningless: the final truth is the particular unique joy that this person was, the way in which they touched the lives of those around them, the way in which they lived the values of their faith.

That is the difference between the Christian attitude towards death and the scientific materialism.  It is not that we counter the biological facts with some complex myth that explains it all away, as many atheists seem to think.  It is that we approach the question not in the abstract, as something to be answered by reason alone; we approach it from the memory of those who have gone before. We approach death from the perspective of all that makes life worth living, of courage and compassion and hope as we have seen it manifested in the lives of those we have loved.  We approach it from 2000 years of experience of Christians facing death with the hope and promise of the gospel. That is the context in which we ask what has the final word: is it the biological fact of the extinction of brain function, or is it the hope and courage and love that faced death down, and is alive today in the memory and hope of the church?

And so we come to the reading from Wisdom:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.  That is the bedrock of Christian conviction about life and death.  Not the teachings about heaven and hell, about resurrection, about eternal life –  all these are simply pictures to help us imagine the unimaginable.  Beneath them all lies the one fundamental conviction: that we can trust in God’s faithfulness even beyond the grave.