The email came out of the blue: ‘This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We’d like to do something about the gravestone of Stoker 2nd Class J J Hulance, in St. Mary’s churchyard. The gravestone is beginning to fade.’
At first I thought it was a mistake. What would a Sailor from the First World War be doing in Hullavington, so far from the sea? And I thought I knew about our war graves – J J Hulance didn’t ring a bell.
But they were right. There it was, last but one near the wall of the Old Rectory. I hadn’t spotted it because it was not a typical war grave, not one of the classic white stones with which we are so familiar. Instead it is a small, simple memorial given by an already widowed mother in memory of a son who went to war and never returned. The words are almost illegible from the passage of time, but you can still make out a carved anchor. An act of remembrance for a young man who died in the service of his country.
It turns out that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would like to erect a new stone, so that Stoker Hulance’s name is not forgotten. For as you may have guessed, we don’t know much about him. What I am about to tell you is virtually the sum total of my knowledge. We know that he was buried on the 5th February 1916, and that he served on board HMS New Zealand. The mystery deepens – for HMS New Zealand was a lucky ship that, despite seeing battle, was hardly damaged, and wasn’t in action near that date. It seems Joseph John Hulance died as a result of illness.
We don’t know much more. Like the lettering on his stone memories have faded with time. Like the petals of a poppy flower which last just a few days, facts have fallen and cannot be retrieved. For none of his generation remain. Those who knew him personally, for whom memory was fresh even decades later, have now all died. We have not been able to trace any relations of the family who buried a son aged only 18.
Human remembering is like that. Frailty and the passing years take their toll. Sometimes also acts of wanton destruction target our shared memory, just as ISIS is doing as it destroys humanity’s heritage in Syria.
Today we honour the dead, and their sacrifice. We wear poppies, read out the names, observe silence. Historians collate what we do know, and stories re-emerge from obscurity. The memorials are polished and we repair the stones. Through the important rituals of remembrance we keep memory alive and promise that we shall never forget.
‘Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn’. That promise finds its ultimate hope in the love of God. A God who knows each one of us intimately, and loves us. A God who remembers all there is to know, and yet is ready to forgive us through Christ. A God who re-members us – who brings together all the members or parts of our lives, and makes them whole and integrated and healed.
God offers eternal life to us in Christ – and that’s a full life. In God’s memory you or I are not a caricature based on a date of death, a number and a few facts. But a living person, known fully and loved. Where age or frailty cannot diminish.
As it says in our reading: ‘Even if a mother could forget her own child, I will not forget you,’ says God, ‘See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’ Those we have loved, those we remember today, those we have forgotten, are known and remembered by God as surely as if they were tattooed on the palms of his hands. We remember today because God remembers us.
The headline in The Telegraph was stark ‘Preaching to people will put them off God, Church warns members’. According to The Times ‘Christians who speak openly about their faith with friends and colleagues are three times more likely to put them off God than attract them, research carried out privately by the Church of England has found.’
Actually, as Andrew Brown pointed out in The Guardian, the research was carried out by the Evangelical Alliance as well as the Church of England and is due to be presented to its governing body, the Synod. He also quoted some puzzling facts from the report:
On the one hand, a third of practising Christians interviewed said that they had had a conversation about Jesus with a non-Christian in the past week. Andrew Brown points out that if this is accurate; it’s a rate that means every non-Christian in the country is approached once every five months.
However, non-Christians seem not to have noticed – nearly half have never had a conversation about Jesus, while a third don’t think they know any Christians at all! Perhaps a few Christians are talking to their friends an awful lot while others never do?
Of course, we should always take statistics with a pinch of salt. In the study 43% of English adults believed the resurrection of Jesus took place, but only 60% believed he was a real person who actually lived – so 40% didn’t. If true, this would suggest that 3% of English adults somehow believe that somebody was resurrected who didn’t actually exist! Surveys have their limits…
Nonetheless, as Bishop Lee says ‘Facts are our friends’. We don’t do well if we ignore the evidence in front of us. Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with reality, not wishes. It’s tempting to spin the headline statistic and turn anything into good news, as the Evangelical Alliance does in saying that ‘1 in 5 are open to knowing and experiencing more about Jesus after a conversation about him’ – while ignoring the finding that 59% did not want to know more.
It suggests three questions to me. Firstly, there are a lot of non-Christians who think they don’t know any Christians at all. How can we reach them appropriately? Secondly, as the Church Times observed, the report doesn’t make much of Christian service or pastoral care – do Christians need to earn the right to speak? To show it by their lives before they speak it with their mouths?
Thirdly, it’s obvious that many attempts at talking about faith aren’t working well. How can we do better? How can we make it more natural, unforced and not embarrassing? In January I will be running a course called ‘Lost for Words’ which aims to do just that. It seems to me that we can’t guarantee that everyone will respond positively when we talk about our faith – the message of Jesus contains challenge after all – but we can at least try and ensure we do it well.
Earlier this year I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and although it was really still winter and the rainy season, I could see how dry and barren the country would soon become. Months of searing heat scorch the earth so that nothing grows and animals wander in search of water. In the Bible, the dry thirstiness of the land is often used as a picture for the dry thirstiness we sometimes feel within our own souls. Life’s journey can take us through some very difficult places, hard times when we can end up feeling as barren and desolate as the wilderness.
In that Biblical image, the water which revives the land, and causes new green growth, is a picture for the love of God. He satisfies the soul, brings life and hope. Psalm 84 that we read describes a group of pilgrims, journeying up to the temple in Jerusalem. As they travel, they pass through the arid valley of Baca, a place where there were many tombs. Yet their sadness is turned to hope by the love of God. It is as if the valley has become a place of springs and pools, because they will soon meet God in his temple.
Today, our loving heavenly Father often chooses to help us through Christ’s church. Each one of us has our own needs, sometimes deeply hidden, and yet God knows them all and holds us in his love. He brings help to us in many different ways. As we give thanks for those who have died, and as we think about our own loss, I’d like to explore with you some ways that you might be able to receive God’s grace here.
The church building can be a place to be aware of God’s presence and love, as we pray or sit in the stillness. In this group, all of our churches are open during the daytime – what’s the point of a church that isn’t open? And everyone is welcome to come in and stay for as little or as long as you would like. In several of our churches you can write a prayer on a notelet and put it on a prayer board – and often visitors or clergy will pray for those mentioned.
When I have been bereaved, I know that there are times when I want to be alone with my thoughts. At other times I can’t bear being by myself, and I want company. Sometimes it is easy to pray on my own. Other times I want to be with others and know that they are praying even when I cannot.
So being part of a religious service can be a great help. God’s presence can be much more tangible, and even if it feels too much to join in, one can be carried along by the flow of worship. Every Sunday we remember in the prayers those who are bereaved and those who have died recently. Any Sunday we can include the name of a loved one – perhaps at an anniversary or maybe just because it is the right time. All you need to do is let the clergy know before the service.
I’d encourage you to do this, because the supportive fellowship of the church can be a real help. A church is not a gathering of the perfect. Instead it is a community of fellow travellers, where each one of us is loved and accepted as we are. All our churches aim to be places of friendly, unintrusive supportiveness. Ready to care, and sensitive to give space when needed.
Of course, there will be points in our lives when we need time to talk things through. One to one conversation with someone who’s really listening, the space to think. If you feel that would be helpful, please do get in touch with our clergy or lay ministers, as it would be a privilege for us to be able to help.
Jesus Christ knew what it was like to be bereaved. He had lost members of his earthly family, he wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend. Today he longs for us to know his help and healing – and one of the ways he offers that to us is through his church.
A few years ago the comedian Ronnie Barker died, and had a humanist funeral. However, because he had made such a mark on comedy, he was also granted a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. This included a recording of his own sermon in Cockney rhyming slang. And when the processional cross entered, it was accompanied not by the usual two, but, inevitably, by four candles.
I find it interesting he had both a humanist ceremony and a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. I don’t know what Ronnie Barker himself believed but the combination of events seems to sum up something about our times – a culture where many people are not sure if they sign up to Christianity but still want to hold on to parts of it. Perhaps especially what we celebrate today – the Christian hope of life beyond death.
Apparently in 2012 just a third of funerals were Church of England. It’s probably less now. Where have the others gone? Interestingly people aren’t seeking as an alternative the challenging rigour of a fully humanist funeral – humanists believe this life is all there is and don’t have prayers or anything about God. Instead what we see is more and more civil celebrants – people who let you have what you want – including prayers and Bible readings.
In other words, many people in our society may have lost touch with organised religion, they may not want what they see (perhaps wrongly?) as the formality and doctrine of a traditional funeral, but they do still want religious sentiments and hope.
The belief that there is something after this life runs very deep. It almost seems instinctive – even 100,000 years ago Neanderthals were burying the dead with goods they hoped would be handy in the afterlife.
Maybe they shared that human experience of foretastes of heaven. Where you or I might suddenly receive glimpses of glory. Times when the curtain is drawn back, and we sense God near, and feel, yes, heaven’s like this.
It may be walking with the children through ripples on a sandy beach, feeling completely at peace and free from care. Being taken out of yourself in worship, knowing God close in prayer. In the midst of grief, the sudden certainty that Granddad is with Christ whom he served, and Christ holds me too. Finding immense camaraderie and acceptance at the disability roadshow – no one stares and everyone is accepted for who they are.
You may have had your own times, or thin places. A fleeting glimpse of glory, when the moment is so brilliant and full of life that you wouldn’t mind if it lasted forever. In our own experiences, there are many pointers to the Christian hope. Yet it is also quite easy to wander away from the Biblical truths and into all kinds of modern myths. For the popular beliefs about heaven and what happens when we die are often very far from Christian belief. When we turn to the passage we had today from Revelation, there are four big surprises.
In Revelation chapter 21, v1: ‘then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.’ If you’re reading the Bible, and you see the word ‘then’ it’s a good clue that what has come before will help you understand. And what has just come before has been the destruction of evil.
My computer got a virus once. It infected virtually everything. I didn’t know if or when it infected the back-ups either, so I couldn’t work from them. I had a difficult decision to make. I could give up on the computer, and start afresh. But if I did that, I would have lost my files. Years and years of work, all my contact details, everything.
Or I could go through the whole lot. Manually remove the source of infection. Search for copies and delete them. Go through everything with a virus checker, quarantine anything suspect and check it. It would be a huge undertaking, but if I wanted to save my data, I had to do it.
Remembering that helps me in small way to understand why God’s love and judgement go together. God loves each one of us immensely. He loves the creation he has made and he wants to heal it from all that has gone wrong. He could make a completely new start, wash his world clean, but love doesn’t want the wholesale destruction and loss that would involve.
Yet if God lets just the tiniest bit of sin into in his new creation, like a virus it will spread and spoil everything. So before there can be a new creation, there must be a judgement, where evil is destroyed. That’s what judgement is: a holding to account, a purifying, a necessary prelude to a wonderful transformed world. If we cling to sin and refuse to be separated from it, we shall be washed away with it. If we trust in Christ, and allow him to take our sin to the cross, we find it has no lasting power over us. This belief in the hereafter urges us to place in our hope in Christ now.
The second surprise is in that little phrase ‘I saw’. What’s so remarkable about that you might ask? Simply this – that it is John who sees this. He remains himself. He’s not absorbed into some great of chain of being. John’s life does not become a droplet in the ocean. He’s not extinguished, snuffed out like a candle. Nor is he reincarnated, coming back as a demi-god or, if he’s been bad and the karma isn’t good, as a slug.
No, the Bible shows that we shall be recognisably ourselves, recognising one another. Yes, as St Paul teaches in Corinthians, we shall have new bodies. But they will be our bodies, where the physical still matters. When Nana dies there is not a new star in the sky. Nana has not got her angel wings, she has not been turned into something else. In Christ, she will be herself. Truly herself. Free from pain, healed, yes. But herself.
Because the physical matters. The Christian hope is not about escaping this world. It’s not about becoming spiritual and leaving the physical behind. The Christian hope is about a world transformed, God bringing healing to his creation. A new heaven and a new earth.
Which is also why we have our third surprise. In v.2 ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. What might we have imagined? The Bible starts with a garden, in Eden – might we have expected to end up back in Paradise? With all the works of the fall undone and life restored to what it would have been? The Old Testament speaks of every man under his own fig tree and next to his own vine – a rural Utopia.
But Revelation shows us that there is a city. A human community made perfect. It’s not going back to Eden, but making something good out of what has happened. We can see something similar in Revelation where the saints are given white robes to wear. Genesis speaks of the first people being naked, it says clothing covered up their shame after the Fall. So if clothes were originally a result of sin, and there is no sin in heaven, wouldn’t people in the new creation be naked? No.
God does not ignore human history. God does not undo everything that has happened. He redeems it. Be comforted that God heals our mistakes. Rejoice that he gives our history a new meaning and makes it whole. As the hymn puts it ‘those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified’
Final surprise? Revelation doesn’t describe people ‘going to heaven’. God comes to us. The fleeting experiences we have of the divine become permanent. God is the source of our life, and in closeness to him we have life eternal. So be challenged by this reading, be comforted, be inspired, be unashamed.
Verses 3 to 5 are just so utterly brilliant I can’t resist quoting them in their entirety to end: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said ‘See I am making all things new.’