It’s 1861. 160 years ago. The Americans are in the midst of a civil war. Italy is united for the first time under King Victor Emmanuele II. In Russia Tsar Alexander II has just freed the serfs. Nearer to home, Queen Victoria is on the throne. Thomas Cook is organising the first ever package holiday from London to Paris. The first ever full census of the population is taking place. And somewhere in the backstreets of London a silversmith is crafting something of beauty in his workshop. Let me show it to you.
When I was staying with my sister in Cambridge a few weeks ago, we went into an antique shop, and came across this. It is a communion set with a chalice and a paten, in silver, made in London in 1861 specifically for home communions. It is still in its original travelling case, lined with red velvet. It is well-used and well-loved.
And this started me thinking. Thinking about whom this communion set might have belonged to. Who he was (and in 1861 it was inevitably a man). Where he lived and worked. Thinking also about the people who had received communion from him. In their own homes. Because they were too ill or infirm to go to church. Thinking about how they would have felt. Encouraged. Reassured. Cared for.
Today is All Saints. The day when we remember especially all those faithful Christians who have gone before us. Not just those who have been recognised by the church as saints. St Mary. St Thomas. But also our parents. Our grandparents. Those who worshipped in this church in times gone by. Those we know only through the stories of their lives or the books they wrote. And the previous owner of this communion set and his parishioners.
In Hebrews chapter 12 verse 1 we read this
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Yes, as we sit in church here in this morning, we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In other words, by all those who like us followed Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and who, as our Christian brothers and sisters, can still today encourage us to persevere in the faith. And we give thanks for them.
I wonder who comes into your mind?
For me there is Brian. A quiet reflective man. With an enormous hug and the strongest ever handshake. Brian who never had very much money, and only possessed two items of footwear: a pair of sandals and a pair of wellingtons.
For me there is Norman. A caring schoolmaster. But so caring and concerned about other people, that, when he became a headmaster, the demands of the job were so great that he took refuge in alcohol.
For me there is Joanna. A dynamic colleague and someone with great emotional intelligence. Who sat talking with me for literally hours during my ordination training.
And then there is C.S. Lewis, whom I only know through his writings of course. Converted to Christianity from atheism as an adult. For me someone who explains the Christian faith probably better than any other person.
Who is in your mind at this moment? Whom do you especially give thanks for this morning?
Come back with me again to 1861. As the silversmith is crafting the communion set in one part of London, the Revd Edward Hayes Plumptre, aged 40, and chaplain and Professor of Theology at King’s College London, is walking the streets of the capital, before going back to his lodgings to write hymns. And it is Edward Plumptre who wrote our last hymn this morning. Would you like to turn to it? It is 814 in your hymn books.
In this hymn, Edward Plumptre above all wants to emphasise Christian unity. The importance of the faith we share with others in our own day and down the ages. A faith which is bigger and greater and stronger than the things which divide us.
And in order to emphasise this, he reminds us of God’s faithfulness to each successive generation, and of our responsibility to recall this and talk about it. In verse 1, we sing
Our forebears owned thy goodness
And we their deeds record;
And both of this bear witness:
One church, one faith, one Lord.
He reminds us however that being a Christian has never been easy. In verse 3, he speaks of many a day of darkness and many a scene of strife.
In our own personal lives, there have undoubtedly been dark times, when perhaps we have even questioned our faith and questioned God, just as Mary in our gospel reading questions Jesus with the words: Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Certainly, as we think back to the lives of Christians who have gone before us, there have been many times when the faithful few [have] fought bravely, and continued to share the good news, the gospel of redemption, sin pardoned, hope restored, against overwhelming odds, and in the face of persecution. And we remember that we are part of a world-wide church of well over 2 billion believers, where many still fight for the freedom to follow Jesus, and to preach the gospel.
Verse 4 of our hymn follows up on this with a challenge. The stories of these faithful people can inspire and encourage us, in the words of that verse from Hebrews, to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, but it often feels as if we too are part of the faithful few, in a world which is increasingly secular, and where traditional Christianity seems to have lost its appeal to most people. The challenge then to us is this. In our time and our place, are we going to evade the conflict and cast away our crown? Are our hearts going to fail and our hands hang down?
The answer in this hymn comes back loud and clear: NOT SO! We will hold our nerve unflinching. And we will do this because, as verse 5 tells us, we are not in this alone. God’s mercy will not fail us. His right hand (his strong hand) will help us. He is with us every step of the way.
On this All Saints Sunday, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us, we remember that we are all working together for the same goal, that is the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world and in all creation. This is the moment which St John describes in our first reading from Revelation 21. And this is also the moment which is described so beautifully in that most well-loved hymn ‘For all the saints’ which we sang earlier. As I close, listen again to those encouraging words:
From earth’s wide bounds
From ocean’s farthest coast
Through gates of pearl
Streams in the countless host
Singing to Father
Son and Holy Ghost
Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen