The Feast of All Saints - Reflection

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, 
for the old order of things has passed away.’ Revelation 21:4

Brothers and sisters, today world leaders gather in Glasgow for the COP 26 climate conference. And among the many demonstrations around the world this week, urging world leaders to do what it takes, one placard particularly caught my eye, ‘There is no Planet B’. And yet Revelation 21 clearly says, ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.’ What is our vision as Christians for the future of the planet? Is the planet something that will be rendered obsolete by Christ’s return, as some Christians argue, especially in the USA? If the world is to be consumed by fire and the faithful elect taken up to glory, then perhaps there is little incentive to care for planet earth, for the impending climate catastrophe can only hasten Christ’s return to rescue his faithful ones before the end. Or is the planet something that will be restored and redeemed as part of Christ’s return? What does the prayer which we as Christians say every day have to say about this? ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.’ If we are called by Jesus to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, then surely the earth is not something to be thrown away when we have ravaged and despoiled it, but something that we have been commanded to cherish and look after until the Master’s return. What does Revelation 21 mean by a new heaven and a new earth? John is not describing a total replacement but a renewal, as v5 puts it, ‘I am making everything new’. The new life in Christ which begins in this world forms the link with the next, and brings renewal to all creation. And there is a further clue –notice that heaven is being renewed as well as earth– God is not destroying and replacing heaven, but renewing it. The renewal of heaven and earth brings the two realities together in the new creation, when all evil and sickness and death has been destroyed, and Christ reigns on earth as well as in heaven.

The renewal of heaven and earth speaks very powerfully of God’s purpose which is not to destroy sinners but to redeem them. After sin entered into God’s perfect creation God did not choose to scrap it all and start again. Instead he chose the infinitely more costly path of redeeming fallen humanity and the whole of creation by entering our human world, suffering and dying for us on the cross. That which Christ has redeemed by his own blood is far too precious for God to treat as disposable. There is no Planet B. Notice that in John’s vision of the new heaven and earth we are told there is no more sea – v1. To those of us who have enjoyed watching David Attenborough’s amazing films about the beauty and power of the sea, that seems a rather sad picture. But in the ancient world the sea symbolised the forces of chaos, and was the dwelling place of monsters like Leviathan. The sea mentioned here is the crystal sea of glass in Revelation chapter 4, which in chapter 20 has become the lake of fire, where death and Hades were thrown to be destroyed. In God’s new creation there are no waters of chaos, but there is a city, coming down out of heaven from God, a sign that God will dwell among his people in perfect community and harmony. Look at v3, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ Therefore how we care for the planet matters deeply, not only because we as human beings have been entrusted with its care in Genesis 1, but also because one day we will hand it back to God, when Christ will come again to reign on earth as in heaven. One of the signs of God’s dwelling among his people is given in v.4, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ 

Today we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints, when we remember all those whom we have loved and see no longer, who have died in the faith of Christ, and we rejoice in our Christian hope that death is not the end. Most of us will have known someone who has died during the last year, either through the tragedy of Covid or other causes. And so it is appropriate that our Gospel reading today (John 11:32-44) tells of Mary and Martha grieving at the death of their brother Lazarus. Jesus weeps and is deeply moved, but of course Jesus’ deep emotion is not just at the loss of a dear friend, but also at the foreshadowing of His own death, which was fast approaching. Perhaps as Mary brought Him to the tomb of Lazarus he had a foreshadowing of His own tomb, and other Marys who would weep there for Him. In v38 we read that Jesus once more deeply move came to the tomb. ‘Take away the stone’ He said. Martha, ever the practical one, objected saying, ‘by this time there is a bad odour’. Jesus challenges her to believe that a miracle was possible (read v40!). And then we get a lovely detail in the story in v41 – they take away the stone and immediately Jesus looks up and praises His Father for answering His prayer, even before Lazarus has appeared. How did He know that His prayer had already been answered?  This beautiful miracle is a prefiguring of Jesus own resurrection, and yet of course it was very different – Lazarus would die again one day, and there is another tomb somewhere in Palestine where his body still lies. Jesus’s tomb however is forever empty, as His body has been taken up to heaven. A very graphic demonstration that matter matters to God, and that one day our bodies will be resurrected, our old bodies transformed to be like his glorious body, as St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15.

Today is a day to remember those we have lost and entrust them to God’s safe keeping. Today I am thinking of a friend called Dora, at whose funeral I spoke a few weeks ago. Dora had battled with times of darkness in her life, when she was tempted to despair. She felt life’s sorrows as keenly as she felt its joys. Dora had asked me to speak at her funeral and I confess my heart sank when I discovered that she has chosen the poem ‘Death is nothing at all’, which is often read at funerals as if to deny the reality of death, that it is no big deal and our loved one is still very close, only in the next room. And yet deep down we know that death is more than that. And so I dug out the original sermon by Canon Henry Scott Holland from which this popular reading is taken. It was preached in St Paul’s cathedral in 1910 after the death of King Edward VII. In his sermon he describes two very contrasting views regarding death. First there is the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster. Many places in the Old Testament express this well. But then there is another aspect altogether, which first comes to us, perhaps as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of someone who has been very near and dear to us. The face seems to say to us, ‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count, I have only slipped away into the next room…’ In his sermon Scott Holland goes on to point out that in the resurrection of Christ both are true. Jesus met the awful brutality and finality of death head on, as his body hung on the cross. And yet because of His resurrection from the dead we know death is not the end, that there is an amazing continuity between life on earth and life in heaven, and that we are surrounded by the communion of saints. And that is the hope we celebrate today. Amen (from Archdeacon Mark).