A Twist in the Tail
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
2 November 2008, 10:30 (All Saints' Sunday)
Matthew 5: 1 – 12
In the early 1980s I was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from an electricity generator. I was rushed to Winchester hospital where my life was saved by a blood gas spectrum analyser. Meanwhile, I was going through a dark tunnel with beautiful lights and flowers at the end - with wonderful organ music! I didn't have a care in the world. Suddenly I stopped going through the tunnel and an American voice was shouting at me saying something like, "you're not going to die - it's not your time'! When I woke up the young American doctor was surprised when I asked him, 'Do all Angels have American accents?'
Not my story, but someone else’s. Last month a study into near-death experiences was announced. Doctors at 25 UK and US hospitals are going to study 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest to see if people with no heartbeat or brain activity can have "out of body" experiences. Experiences like these.......
I had a heart attack, considerable pain and discomfort. My wife called 999. They arrived, loaded me into an ambulance and proceeded to the emergency room. My memory is that about a mile from home I went to sleep and began to dream. It was quite pleasant. There was a group of people talking and interacting pleasantly. I recognised no one but there was a purple tint to everything. I "woke up" just before we arrived at the emergency room. I told the Ambulance Driver that I had been napping. I was astonished that there were contact pads on me and my shirt had been cut off. They informed me I had flat-lined. I can't describe it but what I experienced left me with a sense of peace and less of a fear of dying.
Just 2 accounts of a near-death experience, among hundreds of thousands that people very much alive have experienced. Many people report seeing a tunnel or bright light, others recall looking down from the ceiling at their own bodies with the medical staff, an experience of floating, vibrant colours. As you have heard, some even feature organ music! Nearly everybody finds this experience life-changing.
Our interest in near-death experiences simply mimics our fascination with death itself. What was it that the world-weary Captain Hook said in Peter Pan? – death is the only adventure I have left. So it’s no surprise that the Christian doctrine of Heaven has equally intrigued people down the ages. This life I experience - is that it? Or is there something more, something altogether lovelier, richer, better than this?
Today in the cycle of the church’s lectionary we celebrate the festival of All Saints. In essence today we draw to mind the fact that we are surrounded by what the author of the Book of Hebrews calls ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ – those who have gone before us and passed into the glory of heaven, who now surround us as a great unseen army of Christian brothers and sisters, metaphorically cheering us on and supporting us as we journey through life.
It is an encouraging vision, and one that many people experience in a special way following the death of someone they love. All Saints expresses our sense of connection with those who have died. It could be with someone we have personally loved and lost, or it may be a more general sense of connection with the inspirational lives of the people of God who have lived and died before us.
But All Saints didn’t start out this way. For the first 600 years of Christianity it had a very different connotation, linked to the persecution and martyrdom of large numbers of Christians in the early decades of the church.
The early church made a point of remembering martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths (they referred to them as their birth-days), but as the number of martyrs grew it became more sensible to celebrate one particular day when they were all remembered together, and it was this tradition that eventually gave rise to the celebration of All Saints Day.
It was, in its most original form, a festival that affirmed how the world order would one day be turned upside down. Those who had suffered terrible torture and death at the capricious hands of malevolent oppressors, would come to occupy places of honour and dignity and glory in the next life. Martyrs became saints.
To a church that suffered and endured the appalling injustices during persecution, heaven was a fundamental part of their Christian faith, to be celebrated and affirmed at every step. All Saints Day emerged out of this. It reminded the church that everything that seemed so unfair in this life would be put right in heaven.
This reversal of the fortunes of life; the turning upside down of the order and pattern of the world; this vision of a deeper and greater reality behind or beyond the visible expression of life as we know it, is exactly the point of the passage from Revelation 7 today as well.
And it also lies at the heart of that collection of sayings known as the Beatitudes, which introduce Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Unexpected, provocative, challenging, and revolutionary, the Beatitudes express the wonder of a world turned upside down in which God’s ultimate favour rests on the very people pitied, scorned or despised by the world.
But it’s not until you get to the end of the Beatitudes that you really reach the twist in the tail. “Blessed are those who are persecuted........Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil about you falsely.........Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”.
The unexpected twist in the Beatitudes’ tail is this: all that seems so unfair, so unjust in this life will be put right in the next. Little wonder that the early church remembered these words of Jesus so clearly, for their experience of persecution was intense, which would have made the promise of heaven all the sweeter.
It is of course a great get-out-of-jail-free card for Christianity, and the object of much scorn from our detractors, that with one simple bound we can get God off the hook of the world being so horribly unfair just by saying that everything will come right in heaven. Isn’t it a bit cheap, almost dirty, to diminish God’s responsibility in this way?
And the answer might be yes, if not for one thing. Perhaps it is true.
Perhaps the promise of a world to come where wrongs are righted is an honest one. Perhaps our experiences in this life are but a taste of eternity. Perhaps heaven is a reality and it will set right in unimaginable ways the injustices and sufferings of the physical world. Perhaps it is true.
And if it is, then maybe we can come to look upon our experience of life in a whole new way, and begin to live with the freedom of spirit that the Beatitudes suggest.
If those who go through near-death experiences can discover a different, less anxious approach to life, then those of us who believe in heaven and all the saints can do so too.
To celebrate All Saints is to come near to death ourselves, and find strength for life – not through light, or tunnels, or vibrant colours, not even through organ music, but through the promise of God’s revolutionary world turned upside down for ever.........