1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
First preached November 3, 1985
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live, and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
"Here he lies where he long'd to be.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."
Those lines are indeed engraved upon their author's tomb: on the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, high on a mountain top in Western Samoa. He came to those islands, as he said, "with no other purpose but to grow old and die . . . but it is a fair enough place for the purpose." Five years later, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44.
His poem tells us of the peace that he had made with death -- his own death. That is a task that we all must face, as we go along. And sometimes that's easy, and sometimes it's hard; despite a settled and convinced faith in Jesus Christ, I know there have been times when I have felt differently about my own death. But for most of us -- most of the time -- our own eventual death is not nearly such a problem as the actual deaths of those near to us. As C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife,
"Oh doe not die," says Donne, "for I shall hate
All women so." How false the sentence rings.
Women? But in a life made desolate
It is the joys once shared that have the stings.
To take the old walks alone, or not at all,
To order one pint where I ordered two,
To think of, and then not to make, the small
Time-honoured joke (senseless to all but you);
To laugh (oh, one'll laugh), to talk upon
Themes that we talked upon when you were there,
To make some poor pretence of going on,
Be kind to one's old friends, and seem to care,
While no one (O God) through all the years will say
The simplest, common word in just your way.
Today we celebrate All Saints': a time for the Church on earth to remember the Church in heaven. it's a good time to think about things like death and life -- and the ambivalent feelings we have about both. For if Stevenson's poem serves to tell us, "remember you must die" no matter whom you leave behind, Lewis's poem serves to tell us, "remember you must live" no matter how you miss someone else.
And so Paul writes to the Thessalonian church about our hope for life beyond death, and he says, "therefore comfort one another with these words." And then he writes about how must live in this life to follow the Christ of our hope, and he says, "therefore encourage on another and build one another up." And in both cases he is talking about how love is felt and lived out among people: therefore comfort; therefore encourage; therefore love.
Love is the whole beginning and end of what we have to say. Love is what brings us together: God's love sets us in the world; our family's love brings us up into faith; we learn to love others; Christ loved us, and gave himself for us.
The Church is a community of love -- or ought to be -- and what happens when someone dies? That relationship is broken, and there is an emptiness within that no one else can really ever fill. Our love has not the other to love us back. But Paul says, "But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."
Yes, we have a hope, a hope that will not disappoint us. "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep." Those who leave us in death are not lost to us, nor do we love them in vain. We are still bound to them, and they to us, through Jesus. It is as if a man were walking down the street, with one side of his body in the shade and one side in the light, and a child clinging to each hand. Both children are joined through the one holding their hands, and though one walks in light and one in shadow, their union and their love are not torn apart (and who shall say which is which?). "And so we shall always be with the Lord," Paul says; "therefore comfort one another with these words.
Go ahead and keep on loving, keep on remembering, keep up your hope for those who are gone. God is a great and loving Father, and all those who come to him, he casts his arms around, and welcomes to him. And All his children, in life and in death, are his children still. Do we not say so in our communion ritual? "Therefore with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name . . ."
And yet, even as we remember the Church in heaven, we must not forget the Church on earth. Our love must not be directed only upwards, but outwards. For if you and I hope to meet God face to face some day and join that bright throng that surrounds his throne, we must not neglect to love each other. "But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." As long as our earthly life endures, we must share it. Even as we should grieve differently from those who have no hope, we ought to live differently from those who have no hope. The thing that sets up apart from those who do not know the salvation brought by Jesus Christ, is precisely this love that God puts in our hearts to heal us and make us whole. "Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."
It seems to me pretty senseless to hope for an eternity of love when one refuses to love in mortal times. To forgive the dead their sins and remember only the love you shared with them is natural. But how much better it would be to forgive the living their sins and live at peace with them now! How much more wonderful life would be!
You know, Paul is pretty fond of this little word, "therefore." It crops up throughout his writings, over and over again, constantly reminding us that our religion is not something inside us, but among us. Everything we believe with our hearts and minds ought to prompt us to do something with our mouths and hands.
We believe that death is not the end of life, and that God keeps those who sleep in death; therefore, comfort one another. Share your love with someone whose love is hurt by death.
We believe that the Church in heaven and the Church on earth are one Church, bound to God and each other eternally through Jesus Christ; therefore, encourage one another and build one another up. Don't wait till someone dies before you'll say or do something nice for that someone.
Love -- and forgive -- and make your peace with death and life. And be reconciled to all, whether living or dead, as you wish all to be reconciled to you. For love is what the gospel is all about. Love changes the meaning of death for us, and love changes the meaning of life for us; therefore, love -- and may the God of love bless you. Amen.