Body and Soul

Sunday 2nd November 2014
All Saints' Day
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
1 Kings 4:8-37
John 11:1-46

There was a time when people in widget factories knew exactly what their job was - to make widgets - but now the company has to hire PR merchants to create a mission statement. This kind of corporate jargon gets on my nerves because even if the mission is: "To make a better world for all our customers through the supply of world class widgets", making widgets is still at the heart of the enterprise. But I sometimes think that the Church of England needs a mission statement which is a bit more concise than any of the three Creeds, no more so than when we celebrate the twin Feast Days of All Saints and All Souls.

My Mission Statement starter for ten would be:

“To build God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven before leaving the first to enter the second."

In other words, we are destined to enter what we call, metaphorically, the "Kingdom of Heaven" and, what is more, all three Creeds specify that we will enter bodily, not as spirits, or souls.

As this set of transactions involves moving from cosmic time to timelessness and from the bodies we have now to a different, incorruptible, bodily form, we have a serious problem, represented in these two Feast Days, in coming to terms with life after death.

I believe that, if they had been able to wipe the theological slate clean, the 16th Century Reformers would have cleared out all the Saints. As it is, they severely reduced the number, and there is no process in the Western Christian churches, outside the Roman Catholic Church, for creating new saints, but the reformers couldn't really clear out Mary, the mother of Jesus, Saint Peter, Paul and all the rest; so the concession was implicitly, though never explicitly, made that there was a yardstick by which the early - though how early was never defined - Christian Church could declare certain human beings to be already with God in heaven, clearly arriving there by virtue of their own lives; which, incidentally, makes me wonder why there's so much opposition to  the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven when it's implicitly recognised in her sainthood.

But whereas saints self-propelled themselves, so to speak, into heaven the rest of Christian humanity up until the Reformation had to rely on the prayers of survivors to get their souls through the pearly gates by way of Masses, prayers and, later, indulgences. The corruption involved with this last methodology of achieving salvation for others accounts for the Protestant abhorrence of prayers for the dead which were, accordingly, abolished. This prohibition was the greatest single catastrophe of the Reformation for ordinary people because it deprived Christians of the comfort of praying for dear  ones, giving them the feeling that they could do something and, indeed, praying for the dead is one of the foundational functions of religion, making as it does a tangible link between our earthly existence and ultimate destiny. As the mundane result of this, All Saints Day appears in the Common Worship Lectionary but All Souls does not.

What the reformers overlooked, I think, is that when we look at intercessory prayer of any kind, for the living or the dead, it is not prayer to change God's mind about the fate of a dead or living person but is prayer about and for ourselves. We are long past a view of salvation based on penance tariffs, introduced by the Church of Ireland in the 6th Century, which equates each individual sin with a measurable penance so that it can be redeemed by prayer, by the sinner or those who survive his death. And yet there is massive consolation in placing our loved ones in the hands of God, not as an act of power but the opposite, of humility not least because this makes that all-important link between the living and the dead which is at the heart of what we believe in spite of not understanding the mechanics. We instinctively understand the idea that in some way Mary, Saint Peter and our own favourite Saints are with God and it's nice to picture a loved one standing next to one of the great Christian celebrities within the sight of God.

What confuses us most, I think, is the strange quasi heretical idea of the soul, as if we can exist outside time in a purely ethereal sense when our Creeds tell us that we will rise again bodily. I am sometimes tempted to become a bit purist and literalist about this but as I think about it more nearly I am inclined to be less terminologically exacting. What we have is the promise of Jesus that we will be re-united with him after death just as the repentant thief was united with him. That's enough for me.

And so, on the Feast of All saints, we celebrate all the saints that have gone before and on the Feast of All Souls we celebrate those we have known who have gone before, holding their Christian example in our hearts and taking pleasure in their heavenly reward, living in the firm belief that we will join them in the company of our Creator, our Saviour and our Sanctifier. Amen.