Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 7 November 2021.
• First Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-3 (A crown of beauty instead of ashes, oil of joy instead of mourning, garment of praise instead of despair)
• Psalm 24: 1-6
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58 (The mortal shall put on immortality. Death is swallowed up in victory)
• Gospel: John 11: 21-27 (I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even if they die. Do you believe in this?)
The pandemic has taken us all in different ways. For some the situation has been urgent and personal, being close to isolation if not being infected as such. Even if not directly affected there is still that sense of vulnerability, on public transport and in public places, or as we do the regular shopping.
Even gaiety and humour can be forced and lacking in real depth. Face-to-face conversations are brief and to the point. We may speak of returning to normality but perhaps there is a deeper sense of being just that bit more careful and wary.
In Jesus’ time there was no security anyway. No social security and whatever forces of law and order could be entirely short-term, capricious and self-interested. The politics of the moment was quite liable to turn against any person or village for the thinnest of excuses.
And perhaps the good news of the gospel is clearer in times of need and insecurity than when there is peace and plenty and people could afford to believe that they were self-sufficient in all important aspects of life.
Isaiah, writing to the exiles of Israel and Judah was writing for a time of subjugation and estrangement. Yet his message is one of hope and restoration. Even the exile was not a defeat for the things and purposes of God and He could still make promises which looked extravagant at the time.
Where there was mourning, he looked for comfort and where there was grief he spoke of crowns of beauty. The poor who had no resources and nobody to speak for them would instead be granted a new message of hope and of good news, especially when all others saw poverty as deserved and proof of ill-lived lives and nobody cared about them anyway.
The year of God’s favour would see the broken-hearted restored to hope and those in captivity to a new kind of freedom.
Whatever the adversity, God could and would turn it around and where the people could dedicate their sense of need to God’s mercy then they would already have a way of rising above it.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote directly about those who had already died. The church was expecting an early return to the world by Jesus and as this was delayed and they were beginning to die off then the survivors wondered how they were placed.
But Paul was wholly confident that even death was not the end and for the believer was never going to be the end. More of a new beginning.
By definition death could never have the last word in the face of He who was the author of life itself. And when that same author had faced death personally and overcome it then those who followed Him could also be sure of their own victory over death.
The body might be physical and liable to decay but the spirit was forever. The body might be limited to time but the spirit was not. Mortality could never outface immortality, and the decay of death would always be overcome by the life of the Spirit which begins here and is forever.
If Isaiah was writing to a people in exile and that meant a whole community then Paul was writing to the church and each member of it. What was for Isaiah communal had for Paul become personal.
And yet it was in Jesus that the whole history of the world and every person in it over time and in all lands came to find its focus.
Whatever the fears of death in each land and culture, Jesus was meeting them directly and personally.
To be found in Him was also to be found in His resurrection. To be one with Him in life would be to be one with Him in all things and especially in the face of death.
To be one with Him would be to be secure in His resurrection. If we are forgiven our sins by the power and authority of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross, then how much more were we going to be restored and renewed by the power of His life?
The place of Christian hope is secured in what Jesus has already achieved for us and to which He calls us directly and personally.
That is why in saying ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ Jesus is doing far more than comforting a sister grieving her dead brother. Jesus is asserting His authority in life here and now as well as that which will continue after the body has fulfilled its task for us.
But Jesus also issues a challenge: ‘Do you believe this?’ This is not just an intellectual assent that this may be possible and has not been disproved.
It is also a prospectus: Do you believe in this so that you may live in it? Will you let it lead you in this present life and show you who you really are? Will you continue to believe in this even when times and governments turn against you, when there is famine instead of plenty and pestilence instead of health?
If All Saints is a celebration of the life of the church which is in the presence of God then All Souls is more personal and perhaps more searching.
Will we also entrust those who have died into the care of God – and perhaps more to the point, will we trust ourselves to His salvation and forgiveness in this life and in the here and now?