John 14:1-5, 18-19, 27
While we worship God in here this evening, we know many children are out and about in all manner of strange costumes, some of them with their parents or older brothers and sisters, playing trick or treat. We might not immediately think so, but there is a very close connection between what they are doing, and what we are doing. All Saints Day, All Hallow’s Day, is the day after All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), which is followed by All Souls Day, all part of a three-day celebration of commemorations of the dead, which goes way back before the Christian era. The Celts of northern Europe held a three day festival known as Samhain, during which they paid particular attention to the memory of their dead. The Church Christianised this festival by giving new meanings to the customs of Halloween night, and by offering a different vision of the value of life on All Saints Day, which we thought about in the morning service. Tonight we think about All Souls, the final part of the trilogy. And in modern times, it sparks off a season of remembering, as we begin to turn out thoughts to Remembrance Sunday in two weeks time.
The particular angle I’m using to consider All Souls is to consider our reading from John’s gospel in terms of “going home”. I think this is a passage where Jesus is talking about going home. The context of this passage is that Jesus is going to die soon, and he’s talking to his disciples, at some length, about what that means, and in that context Jesus is talking about his own going home, which for him means going to God.
For many of us, going home is a natural reaction to situations where we’re uncomfortable or unhappy. I’m sure all of us have been in places where we’ve turned to someone and said, “take me home”, or wished for someone to take us home, or even taken ourselves home. John Denver, in his song, Country Roads, Take me Home, describes his longing to be in the familiar surroundings of home.
That said, traumatic events in our lives are more than just going from one building to another. Simply moving ourselves a little physically isn’t enough to respond to really traumatic things, so what does going home mean in this context? I suggest that it means returning to a place of wholeness. Sometimes we might still have that feeling of wanting to go home, even if we don’t want to physically go home, and that is what I mean by returning to a place of wholeness.
This isn’t something we can do quickly, like going home from a disappointing dinner party. Returning to a place of wholeness within ourselves is a long journey, and may take many stages. You might even say it is, actually, what our whole life is about, and that we move at different rates on that journey through our whole lives.
You may have noticed a familiarity with our gospel reading today, but our modern translation, which makes the message much clearer, talks about the dwelling places in God’s house. The old King James Bible used the memorable phrase, ‘in my father’s house are many mansions’. Many mansions doesn’t mean that God has taken over the National Trust, but it’s worth noting that this derives from the Latin mansio, meaning ‘stopping place on the journey’. The journey home, the journey to wholeness, takes us a long time, and we need to stop on the way.
You may have heard of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. One part of that involves planning and taking part in an expedition. Candidates are expected to plan a route meticulously, but, nevertheless, if the weather closes in it is still possible to become hopelessly lost – and frightened. Perhaps some of us feel like that sometimes as we seek to navigate our journey back to wholeness. We might find ourselves feeling lost, unable to understand what we thought was a carefully researched map. But even if we feel lost, there are still signposts to mark the way. One of these is Jesus.
For Jesus going home, his journey to wholeness, meant returning to God, whom he called his heavenly Father. We often talk about family resemblance. I used to worry about looking more and more like my father every time I looked in a mirror, but now it’s my grandfather. We’re all unique individuals, but we can, nevertheless, have strong similarities between different generations. Jesus reminds his disciples that all who have seen him, have seen God, Father. In Jesus, we find God, our heavenly Father. This is, if you like, the strongest of family resemblances. To Jesus God was not just Father, ‘Abba’, meaning ‘Daddy’. The likeness between Jesus and God is incontrovertible. For Jesus going home was going to God. And wholeness, by definition, for all of us involves a greater awareness and realisation of God.
If we can approach going home – journeying to wholeness – in this kind of a way, then we can find the strength of character and personality to overcome whatever trials and tribulations we face along the way, and, in the end, to realise that our ultimate wholeness is, like Jesus, with God.
I’m going to end with a poem called All Souls’ Day by Frances Bellerby:
Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.
This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.
Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost
If two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…
The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.
Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.
So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.
Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.
And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.