1 John 3:1-3
Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for evermore.
… the words from the Bidding Prayer at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, words which are very familiar to many of us, words which, although I have heard them, or more recently read them myself, at least once every Christmas for over 40 years, still bring a lump to my throat, still have the same emotional effect on me.
Today is the first Sunday in November. Tonight, it is our service for All Souls, when we will gather together to remember before God, and to give thanks for, our loved ones who have died, the people whom we see no longer, but who are still very dear to our hearts. I hope that you will be able to be here again for that very special service at 6.30.
This morning, however, we widen the perspective a bit. We remember before God, not only our own loved ones, but, in the words of the Bidding Prayer, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh. In other words, we remember all those who shared our faith in Jesus, and who have gone before us. We don’t just remember those whom the church has recognised as being special or holy, those who are called saints, such as St Mary or St Peter, but all those who have, like us, been followers of Jesus, and in whose steps we follow.
As Christians, ours is a global faith. You can go pretty much anywhere in the world, and find a welcome in a Christian congregation on a Sunday morning. One of my favourite verses in one of my favourite hymns sums it up
As o'er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
Ours is also a faith rooted in thousands of years of history, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds in a very well-known verse from chapter 12
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Just think of the generations who have worshipped God faithfully in this church over the centuries, of the vicars whose photographs hang in the vestry. All these people, and millions and millions more, form part of that cloud of witnesses, of that multitude which no man can number.
And what do we have in common with them? Different times, different experiences, different lives, but, as again it says in the Bidding Prayer, we all share the same hope, the hope in the Word made flesh, our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
Both Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in our gospel reading from Matthew, and St John in our epistle reading, speak of us as all – those who have gone before us, and those of us here in church today - as being children of God. Jesus says: Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and John says: we should be called children of God and also we are God’s children.
Both of them also speak of the blessings and joys of being one of God’s children. Jesus speaks of comfort and mercy, of fulfilment and inheriting the earth, and of seeing God. And John picks up on the idea of seeing God, reminding us that when [God] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, and we will understand how much he loves us, in John’s words, see what love the Father has given us.
In these strange COVID-19 times, many of us are far from loved ones. Many of us haven’t seen our families and friends for many months, and we are all finding it very tough. One of the blessings in this situation has been in the internet, with Facetime and Zoom and other programs, which allow us not only to send written messages to each other, or to hear the other person’s voice, but actually to see the face of the people we love. It’s hard not be able to touch them, and hug them, but we can look into their faces, and know that the loving relationship is still there, it is real. This can be such a comfort.
It is the same with God. We will only fully understand the extent of his love for us when we meet him face to face, when we see him as he is. And, of course, we believe that those who rejoice with us but upon another shore are already in the presence of God. But what might that be like? It’s impossible for us to imagine. And we can just allow to our poets and our writers to help us build up a picture of that other shore, in other words, of heaven.
Let me leave you with one vision of heaven in the words of the 12th century monk, St Bernard of Cluny, translated so beautifully by John Mason Neale in the 19th century - Jerusalem the Golden, which Emma is going to sing for you in full in a moment.
They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng:
the Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessèd
are decked in glorious sheen.
There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the shout of them that triumph,
the song of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
for ever and for ever
are clad in robes of white.