Wisdom 3:1-9; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 6:37-40
Wisdom 3:1-9; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 6:37-40
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eye of the foolish they seemed to have died
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace. (Wis 3:1)
So begins today’s first reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon.
All the readings today were chosen specifically for Remembrance Sunday. I like to observe Remembrance Sunday. My parents were in their late teens during the Second World War; both grandfathers served in the First World War; both grandmothers navigated the perils of marriage to traumatized men. I think it’s important to remember what happened and the cost of it to real people. I don’t like to romanticize it with talk of heroes, sacrifice, and never again.
Remembrance Sunday is often a chance to talk about peace, a core value for Christians. “The shalom of God—the peace of God—be with you,” we say, a gesture of reconciliation before gathering together at the table to participate in a symbolic meal that anticipates the peaceable kingdom.
But today’s readings don’t point in that direction. Instead, they simply speak a message of comfort: those who have died will live with God in love. That’s from the Wisdom of Solomon, which was probably written some time between 100 BCE and 50 CE; so, in a similar or the same context as Jesus, under occupation by the Roman Empire. The threat of destruction was ever present.
The reading from Peter’s first letter moves the theme of the dead living with God in love into a future vision. God has given us a new birth into an inheritance kept in heaven for us, we who are heading towards “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” He goes on, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.” (1 Peter 1:5, 6)
And the passage from John’s gospel hits similar notes. Eugene Peterson has written an extraordinary paraphrase of the entire Bible. In The Message, Peterson has Jesus speak the words of today’s gospel this way:
“This, in a nutshell, is [the will of the Father]” says Jesus, “that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.”
This is an important theme in Christian belief: that we are looking forward to the completion of time, to the future salvation of our souls, at which point we will “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (to quote Peter).
I am not entirely comfortable with this part of our faith. It has dangerous implications. Some Christians believe that we don’t need to try to limit suffering now, to work toward peace in our time. Instead, we should focus on how great things are going to be at the end of time. It’s okay that millions have died in past wars and continue to die in ongoing conflicts: they are with God, or Jesus will raise them up on the last day. We don’t need to protest against injustice and exploitation in our cities: we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven.
But I am beginning to think that I am doing a disservice by being overly concerned with the shadow side of future hope. Because in our Anglican tradition, we don’t cherry pick our favorite bits of Scripture that back up our personal beliefs. In public worship, we follow a three-year cycle of readings that ensure that we read from the Old Testament (the Scriptures that Jesus and his first followers studied), the psalms (ancient Hebrew poetry), the letters (usually Paul’s letters to various communities), and the gospels (four different accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection). This means that we get to engage a wide range of ideas and stories in Scripture. And it means that we hear often about God’s desire for justice, peace and compassion here and now, in our place and time.
So we’re back in the both/and of the Christian way, the “now and not yet,” the “kingdom is among us” and “your reward will be great in heaven.” We are the hands and feet of Jesus, doing God’s work in the world, and at the same time we are looking forward to the time when the lion will lie down with the lamb.
And as we do what we can to live according to God’s peace and compassion, sometimes we simply need the reassurance that those who have died, whether in the cataclysm of war or in ordinary lives, are at peace. That the injustices we struggle against and fail to overturn will eventually come to an end. And that the time will come when, without reservation, we will rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.
Questions for reflection:
I wonder whether you feel comforted by today’s readings?
I wonder how you feel about having an inheritance kept in heaven for you?
Today’s readings refer to being at peace, running like sparks through the stubble, understanding truth, abiding with God in love, new birth into a living hope, salvation of your souls, and eternal life. How do you imagine what it will be like when we are dead, or when Jesus raises us up on the last day?
 Eugene Peterson, The Message: the Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress: Colorado Springs) 2002. Page 1929