DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


An Extra Dimension

The first week in November is the time when we remember the faithful departed and celebrate our fellowship with them in the "communion of saints". But the division of the commemoration into two days - All Saints on the 1st and All Souls on the 2nd - serves to remind us that the status within the Christian scheme of things of those who have died is not straightforward. Indeed, it has been the source of some of the bitterest arguments among Christians.

In the first place, what does it mean for us to be "in fellowship" with those who have died? Direct encounters through spiritualist mediums are one possibility. But they have been openly condemned in the Old Testament and are never mentioned, let alone approved, in the New Testament.

Jesus himself never discussed the possibility of communication between the living and the dead, except obliquely and negatively in the parable usually called "Dives and Lazarus" (Luke 16.20). There the rich man was denied his request that Lazarus might be sent to warn his brothers of the fate awaiting them.

Second, there are problems raised by the implied distinction between those who are remembered on All Saints and those who are remembered on All Souls. Who are we to make such judgments? And what does such a distinction mean? Some Christians will pray to those who are designated saints, and pray for other departed souls.

This is not the place for detailed theological discussion of these matters, but here are some pointers to the way I think we should approach them.

The fundamental clue is in the New Testament teaching that our baptism is the point at which our new life as Christians begins.

"Now is eternal life, if risen with Christ we stand", as the hymn puts it, referring to Saint Paul�s assertion that in baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ. In this perspective, physical death is a comparatively minor incident, which certainly cannot break the communion and fellowship that baptized Christians already enjoy as members of the Church as the "Body of Christ".

The place where that fellowship is renewed and strengthened is in the Eucharist. Not for nothing is it called a service of Holy Communion, in which we are bound into closer fellowship with Christ, and so also with each other. As we pray in another hymn: "Draw us the nearer each to each, we plead, by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace."

Even in human terms, I cannot take two of you into my arms and hold you close to me without also bringing your closer to each other. How much more shall we be drawn together by our closeness to Jesus. And where are we closer to him than in the act of receiving him in this sacrament? That is why the Communion hymn I have just quoted immediately continues: "Thus may we all one Bread, one Body be, through this blest sacrament of unity."

In purely human terms we are bound to feel separated by death from those "whom we love but see no longer". We all have our own particular ways of feeling close to them. We visit a certain place, perhaps, where we enjoyed each other�s company; or listen to a piece of music with special associations; or just sit quietly and recalling times when we were happy together.

But in Christian terms the picture has an extra dimension. It is our hope and trust that our loved ones who have died are in some way - though it is beyond our understanding - closer to God than during their earthly lives. And we are therefore closest to them when we are close to God in this sacrament.

And what is true of our fellowship with each other within this congregation, and of our fellowship with our departed family and friends, is true also of our fellowship with those whom the Church has seen fit to designate saints, or "lights of the world in their several generations", as one Anglican prayer book calls them.

We may be inspired by reading of their deeds and their faith, in some cases by reading their own words. We may pray for strength to follow in their footsteps. But nowhere are we closer to them, "knit together in one communion and fellowship", than gathered around the altar or holy table.

So it seems to me that, rather than try to distinguish between saints and other departed souls - praying to some and for others - we should simply pray with them all, as we do with each other, "rejoicing in their fellowship and following their good examples".

All Christians, according to the New Testament authors, are "called to be saints". That is to say, all of us are called to live holy lives, lives characterized by faith and hope and love. And the place we come to draw strength for that daily task is the Eucharist.

That it also turns out to be the place where we come closest to those who have "run the race before us" is a bonus. But with our knowledge of God�s love and care for us, it should not be a surprise

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