(I Thess. 4, 13-18; Matt. 24, 1-13)
“Remember, remember the 5th of November….”, and the 1st, and the 2nd, and the 11th; and, if you went to one of the family of schools I attended, the 25th; and if you are Scottish, the 30th; and, if you are American, the fourth Thursday, whatever date that falls on! This time of year, in secular life and in church life, is all about remembering.
“At this time of year, beginning with All Saints’ Day on 1 November, we remember that we are part of the communion of saints stretching across time and space. Our prayers, whether offered alone or together, are caught up with the great outpouring of praise and worship of the whole people of God. The commemorations of All Saints, The Departed (All Souls) and Remembrance Day are all part of this time. It has been rightly pointed out that this season is ‘a celebration both of the reality of God’s rule and of the final ingathering. The need for a strong Christian awareness of these truths, to counter the secular culture at this time of year, with Halloween and its ghosts and witches, has never been greater’.
The origins of Halloween, before it was taken over by commercialism, and the chance to sell costumes and sweets in vast quantities, seem to lie in anxieties about what happens to those whom we love and remember, but who are separated from us by death. Are they at peace? Does death change them from the people we knew into malevolent spirits, bent on wreaking harm on the living? Does it matter how they died? Does God still care for them?
Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written in response to similar concerns. The new Christians who worshipped there believed that Christ would soon return, and judge everyone, and that all the believers would be swept up with him into the glories of the Kingdom of God established on earth. But as time went on, and Christ had not yet returned, some of the church members died, and the new Christians began to get worried about their fate. Would they still be saved if they died before the return of Christ, or would they suffer some other fate?
Paul’s letter is meant to reassure them. He paints a picture, using metaphorical language taken from the Hebrew scriptures, of what the Second Coming will be like – trumpets, and angels, and Christ descending from the heavens, and taking the believers to be with God always – and reassures the people of the church that their friends will not be lost, but will share in that resurrection with them, whenever it comes.
That is why he urges them not to be as sad as those without any hope of resurrection. He is not telling them that they shouldn’t mourn those whom they have loved and lost; just they shouldn’t despair, but preserve, amid their sadness, the hope that there is still something glorious ahead, for both the living and the dead. He urges them to remember this, and to comfort one another by sharing the hope of things to come.
Similar doubts and questions concern many people nowadays, especially in a time of war, when many people are killed, often in dreadful circumstances, and sometimes there is not even a body to bury, and a place to go and remember them. Our task as Christians, Paul says, is to encourage people with the Gospel; that God’s mercy and love are infinite, and that living in the way Christ taught us and showed us, will bring us into union with him in this life, a union that cannot be destroyed, even by death.
The parable we heard from Matthew’s Gospel is also talking about the return of Christ. He is the bridegroom whose arrival we are waiting for, and the wedding feast is the celebration of the triumph of God’s purposes, and the inauguration of God’s kingdom over the whole earth. And we are the bridesmaids, waiting to light the way of Christ, the bridegroom, as he arrives.
The parable, like Paul’s epistle, teaches us about the way we should be living until that day comes. As we look at the world, where so many still think fighting, killing, maiming and destruction is a way, sometimes even the only way, to sort out differences between religions, ethnic groups and countries, it is easy to despair, and, like the bridesmaids, to fall asleep and stop trying to do anything to change things, or to provide a beacon of light amid the darkness.
That is normal and human, and I’ve no doubt we’ve all felt like giving up and shutting out the world from time to time. But the problem is that despair doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t solve problems, or bring justice, or abundant life.
But, sometimes, there is something that reassures us that there is hope, that the bridegroom is close, and we need to do something to prepare the way for him. Some of us, in spite of our moments of despair, will have reserves of faith, built up in the times of waiting, and so we can make our contributions to those preparations. But some of us, like the foolish bridesmaids, won’t have any reserves left, and will be left behind, and risk seeing the opportunities pass, and being barred from entry to the wedding feast.
Our readings today are about Christian remembering, Christian living and Christian hope.
Christian remembering looks back, with thankfulness and love to those who have lived in ways that please God in the past. We learn from previous generations, both from their wisdom and sacrifice, but also from their mistakes and failures.
But Christian remembering is also to do with the present, with remembering that, as so many of the parables teach us, God works in small, surprising and often unseen ways. God’s reign doesn’t just arrive with the flourish of trumpets at the end of time; sometimes it comes with a still small voice, that we will miss if we are not listening for it. We need to remember that God in Christ is always coming to us, and be alert to the signs of God’s presence in the darkness of our world, and make our own contribution to (as the children’s hymn goes) lighting up the fire and letting the flame burn, opening doors to let Jesus return’.
We need to build up reserves of faith, hope and love, so that whenever we see God at work we can join in, engaging our communities and getting involved with people in their struggles: peacemaking, tackling poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and climate change in the name of Christ.
As Brian McLaren reminds us, Christianity is not, an “evacuation faith’, concerned with ensuring that a select few of us escape when the end of the world comes. It is not just a hope of bliss in eternity, which does nothing about the state of the world now. It is about following Christ in the commitment to build the Kingdom in the here and now, to heal what is wrong with the world now, to live and be Good News for everyone now.
Christian remembering also looks forward, to that state of things that the visionaries of the faith have spoken of, to the perfected world and society that we hope for, and to God’s final ingathering of all souls. Remembering and holding on to that vision is how we build up the resources to work in hope and co-operate with what God in Christ is already doing. That is the way we can remain alert, and be ready when the Bridegroom comes. That is the way we are inspired to live out that vision and that hope now, and become agents of grace, healing and salvation to hurting, hopeless people now, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ. Amen.