Remembering the cloud of witnesses

The night Great-Aunty Pete died, she came to my mother on the other side of the country and said goodbye in a dream. After Lindsay died, he came to my kitchen while I was cooking dinner. In his life, he had intellectual and emotional disabilities; when he appeared in my kitchen, he was wise and mature and laughing. He told me not to worry about him anymore: everything was just fine. And I’m sure many of you have similar stories, where the dead have presented themselves to the living, and provided words of love and reassurance.

In this not-quite-post-rational-age, one of the weirder aspects of our faith is the idea that, in Christ, death is no barrier to relationship. And in this not-quite-post-superstitious age, one of the other weird aspects is the idea that the dead are nothing to fear. We’re not afraid of ghosties and ghoulies, because we know the dead are alive in Christ, and continue to love and encourage us.

One expression of this is the communion of the saints. Whenever we gather to worship God, we do not do so alone but as members of a great company: the saints before us (i.e. dead) and beside us (i.e. alive), as well as brothers and sisters in faith from all over the world. Saints are ordinary flawed people, who hand their ordinary flawed lives over to God for God to shape and mold and use for God’s purpose. In other words, they are people like us. And we claim that, to God and through Christ, in life and in death, all of them are alive.

Of course, to any rationalist, this is all mumbo-jumbo. But to those of us living the faith, it is a concept which fills us with courage. For the life of faith is a marathon; it takes perseverence to run this race. Yet we are being cheered on by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Whenever we begin to tire and lose heart, we can recall our witnesses and allow them to spur us on. Their races ran earlier: now they are standing trackside encouraging us towards the finish line.

Of course, the finish line is our mortal death, that moment when our baptism is completed in Christ and we enter full and perfect communion with God. And at that moment, we too join the crowds standing trackside, cheering on others who are still running the race.

With this promise of a joyful life beyond death, marked by intimacy with God and the company of saints, is there any wonder the Apostle Paul asks, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’? And is there any wonder that those who embrace this promise live full, wholehearted lives? For when death loses its sting, people are freed from fear. They take risks; they live boldly; they take up their cross; and they entrust their life to God’s future. It doesn’t mean they don’t grieve the loss of loved ones, or rage against violent or untimely deaths; but it does mean that death does not have the final word. As we pray, “In this life, in death, and in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone: Thanks be to God.”

This Friday is our All Saints service. We will remember our saints, whether they are people we knew and loved well, or whether they are people we have read or heard about whose lives have inspired us, challenged us, and encouraged us in faith; and we will celebrate God’s promises of love, life and connection beyond death. If the last few years are anything to go by, there will be room for both tears and laughter.

We meet at 5.30pm for a 6.00pm integrated meal and service. All are welcome. If you would like the name of someone who has died included in a sung litany of saints, please let me know ASAP; and if you think you might come, RSVP so we can set a place at the table. Bring food and stories to share. Things should wrap up by 7.15pm.

Peace,
Alison

Emailed to Sanctuary on 30 October 2019 © Sanctuary, 2019. Image credit: Cloud of Witnesses by Eria “Sane” Nsubuga, found here.

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