When I served a parish in San Diego, the custom on All Saints Sunday was to read aloud the names of loved ones who had died within the last year. We also included those still mourned by survivors. Well over 100 names were on the list.
As I spoke each person’s name slowly and deliberately, the organist would play hymns such as “Rock of Ages” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Often I found it difficult to keep my composure as I named those we had known and loved, all of them now saints with God.
Here at St. James Westminster Anglican Church, we too have a ceremony to remember our beloved dead on All Saints Sunday. After reading each deceased person’s name, we light a candle to symbolize our hope in the resurrection. Our loved ones may be gone, but they are not dead. Our mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and dear friends now live in God with a life we can scarcely imagine.
The funeral rite in the Book of Alternative Services says that when we die, life is changed, not ended, and even at the grave we make our cry, “Alleluia!” That is true, because we Christians are not without hope-and it is hope that carries us forward and allows us to live confidently, knowing that the best is yet to come.
The British Methodist pastor Leslie Weatherhead tells the story of a Palestinian Christian who served as a guide to a man attending a sunrise Easter service at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. Impatiently, the man turned to his guide and asked him if the night would ever pass. The guide replied, “Never fear, my friend. The day will come. You can’t hold back the dawn.” The sun then burst over the horizon.
Weatherhead came to call Christianity “The Religion of the Dawn”-for when we think we are at the sunset of our lives, the sunrise is just about to come.
What about ourselves? Do we live as sunset Christians or sunrise Christians?
Sunrise Christians live with hope that the resurrection of Jesus makes all things possible, even the promise of heaven.
Because Jesus lives, I have this hope that death is not the end of life but the beginning of new life.
Because Jesus lives, I have this hope that in heaven there will be no tears or grief or pain or sorrow.
Because Jesus lives, I have this hope that, when we get to heaven, no matter how broken or battered our bodies may be, we will be made new and whole, and radiate abundant life.
The Rev. Dr. John Killinger, a prolific author, former professor and pastor in Baptist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches, tells of meeting a woman who shared an incredible story. Her only son had died at age 21. Since childhood he had suffered from muscular dystrophy. He could never run and play with the other children, nor could he engage in any sports. When his friends played soccer or softball games, he had to watch from the sidelines.
Three nights after the young man died, his mother awakened to see a flood of light beaming across the bedroom ceiling. In the centre of the light, there appeared the silhouette of a young man. He was dancing, running, whirling and turning flips.
Then the woman heard a voice: “Hey, Mom! Look at me.” The voice was unmistakably her son’s.
“I stopped grieving for my son that very night,” said the woman. “I was so happy for him, that I no longer wished he was still with me.”
I suspect that the healing miracles of Jesus were intended to be a taste of heaven. Where God is, in all God’s intensity, there is no illness or disease such as cancer, no suffering from any injury, infirmity or any kind of disability.
One of God’s saints in our church is the Rev. Lloyd Cracknell. Since mid-August, Lloyd has been in the hospital and is now in the last stage of his life. His body is increasingly frail, feeble and weak, in stark contrast with the energetic, dynamic pastor and rector he once was.
And yet, what a joy it has been for me to know Lloyd, even for the brief time that I have served this parish. His sense of humour always helps me feel better. Even in a hospital bed with death knocking on the door, he has been a pastor first and foremost. Several weeks ago when I asked him about his lack of mobility, Lloyd smiled and said, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to run a marathon!”
And I am sure he will, sprinting from cloud to cloud, without a hint of his present condition.
When we get to heaven, there will be no more aching joints or broken bones. No more cancer or heart disease. Everyone in heaven will be full of vigour and vitality. We will not only experience life, but abundant life, fullness of life, life upon life.
In heaven we will enjoy life as God created it, which means we will enjoy it with others, with those we know and love. In heaven, as the family of God, there will be a time of great reunion. It will be a family gathering like none we have ever experienced.
Many Canadians will be familiar with Ellis Island in New York Harbor. During the 19th and 20th centuries it was the receiving station for millions of immigrants entering the United States. Having spent many days crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the immigrants would first have their papers examined in order to be cleared for entrance. Then they would rush to “the kissing post.” There they kissed and hugged relatives whom they had been separated from for so long. Tears flowed and laughter rang out in many glad reunions.
Maybe that’s what heaven will be like-not so much a place with streets of gold as a place where glad reunions take place, a place where there is lots of kissing and hugging and welcoming.
Yes, I believe that in the end God will bring us all to heaven-healthy and whole, in one great reunion with the people we know and love. How can I say this? Because our sufficiency is in Christ-period!
Because Jesus lives, so shall we. Believe that, and everything else about the Christian life follows.
Jesus who conquered death will give us life. Jesus who died that we might live will insure that we live forever. Jesus will never let us down. Jesus will never abandon or disappoint us. Even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we never walk alone. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and he wants to give us our heart’s desire if only we would trust him.
I am reminded of short story by E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India and A Room With a View. In the story “The Other Side of the Hedge,” Forster describes a man who for 25 years makes a pilgrimage on a straight, barren, dusty road, seeking something but not knowing what. Next to the road is a hedge, tall and thick. The man can’t see through it. He can’t see around it.
One day, for some reason, the hedge seems a little less dense. The man moves toward it. He pushes his way through the hedge. And when he does, he sees rich farmlands and lush fields, a land of houses and cities, of rain and sun and clouds, of life and laughter…. He knows that he is home. For the first time in his life, he truly knows that he is home. He doesn’t know how, but he knows it. Home is the place he has always longed for.
That is heaven-the place we have always longed for. Jesus has built you and me a road to heaven. So, don’t despair. We are not without hope. Even at the sunset of our lives, the sunrise is coming. Our poor frail flesh will someday have glorified bodies. In heaven, we will be healthy and whole, joining our friends and family in one great reunion with God.
Is there a road to heaven? Yes, it winds from a cross on Calvary, stops momentarily by an empty tomb and continues until it arrives at the door of anyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And you and I can walk that road that leads to a grand reunion by trusting Jesus to lead us safely home to him, to heaven and to life everlasting. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.