All is safely gathered in
A sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens
Readings for this service: John 6. 37 – 40
I was in a helicopter flying over mountain ranges in Kosovo. My father was alongside me. Also alongside were relatives from other bereaved families. We were part of a small squadron of helicopters carrying bereaved relatives from Pristina airport to view the site of a plane crash.
On Friday 12 November 1999, a plane chartered by the World Food Programme crashed in northern Kosovo. All 24 people on board died. 21 passengers and three crew, including my brother Nick, who was one of three Britons to die in the crash. The 21 passengers were all humanitarian workers for non-governmental agencies. Each had been travelling to contribute to the relief effort in Kosovo. Nick was one of a 15-strong Tearfund disaster relief team helping ethnic Albanians rebuild their homes. He had had one six week spell of relief work and was returning, with another member of the team, for a second period.
In foggy conditions, the plane had smashed into a mountaintop 20km north of Pristina. A few yards more and it would have cleared the mountaintop but that wasn’t to be and, as a result, we were being taken by helicopter to see for ourselves the wreckage strewn in small pieces near the top of the 4,600-foot mountain.
Confirmation that the plane had crashed and that there were no survivors did not come until the day after contact was lost with the plane. I remember taking a phone call from my parents who had been notified that contact had been lost with the plane and feeling absolutely unable to accept or comprehend the news. This was something that simply could not be happening.
Once the crash had been confirmed my father and I were flown to Rome by Tearfund to wait for further news together with the families of the other 23 people who died in the crash. After a few days we were flown to Kosovo to see the crash site for ourselves. On arrival at Pristina Airport we were loaded into helicopters and flown the short distance into the mountains and over the site of the wreckage. This was the worst moment for each one of us. As we saw the small pieces of the plane strewn over the mountainside we knew exactly what had happened to our loved ones and were faced full-on with the reality of their death.
When we returned to Pristina Airport, some refreshments had been organised for us in a tent and members of Tearfund who had worked with Nick had travelled to the airport to be with us. We sat and listened as they told us about the effect that Nick had had on the Albanian people with whom he had worked and also on other members of the team as they had valued his friendship, support and advice.
As they talked, the tears flowed; theirs and ours and, I believe, God’s as he was with us enabling us to express our grief. As they talked, I had a growing sense that Nick had gone into God’s presence and had been welcomed with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In that moment I glimpsed something of the glory into which Nick had entered and that glimpse continues to sustain and strengthen me in my loss.
Over subsequent days, I heard many more stories of the way in which Nick’s life had influenced others and over the years since I had seen the way in which the inspiration he provided led others to continue the work that he began. Young people whose lives were turned around through the youth project that Nick worked for have continued his youth work and also his charitable work in Uganda, while Nick’s involvement with Tearfund inspired another member of our family to join their Disaster Response Team. In these ways, the stories about Nick that begun to be told at Pristina Airport have continued to be told and in the telling my sense that Nick has been welcomed into glory has grown.
This evening we’re remembering All Souls which is, in part, about the finding of ways to come to terms with loss and waste and horror and grief. I believe Jesus’ words in John 6 provide a clue as to how that may, in some sense, be possible and in order to open up the clue.
My own experience of loss and waste and horror and grief which I have shared gives us, I think, one way of reflecting on Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading that it ‘is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.’ These words come in the middle of Jesus’ teaching about being the Bread of Life which followed shortly after the feeding of the 5,000 and the 12 baskets of fragments that were gathered up afterwards. The fragments of bread scattered on the hillside would not have looked dissimilar to my view from the helicopter of the plane’s wreckage scattered on that Kosovan mountain-side.
When Jesus gave thanks over the bread, the word used is ‘eucharistesas’, the word which gives us ‘Eucharist’. Jesus shared the bread around in communion, then, when everyone was satisfied, he instructed his disciples to pick up the fragments using that same phrase, ‘so that nothing may be lost.’ Just as none of this ‘eucharisticized’ bread was lost after the feeding, so, because ‘Jesus is the bread of life, [those who] see and believe in him … receive eternal life [and] become a fragment which he will gather up on the last day.’ (John, Richard Burridge, BRF 1998)
This teaching tallies with the use elsewhere of Harvest imagery for the Last Judgement – a sense that all can be safely gathered in – and is reinforced for us in the Letter to the Colossians where it is stated that in Christ all things hold together, as through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Christ came to gather up and reconcile to God all the disparate fragments of our lives that none should be lost, even through death. This is why he gives us parables of lost things being found. It is why he states that there is room for all – many rooms – in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare places for us. It is also why St Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13 that faith, hope and love remain. In other words that our deeds of faith, hope and love are not lost with our death in this life but continue into eternity.
As a result, we have, I think, a basis for saying with Walt Whitman that: ‘Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, / No birth, identity, form — no object of the world, / Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; / Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere / confuse thy brain. / Ample are time and space — ample the field and / nature. / The body, sluggish, aged, cold — the embers left / from earlier fires, / The light in the eye grown dim shall duly flame / again; / The sun now low in the west rises for mornings / and for noons continual; / To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible land / returns, / With grass and flowers and summer fruits and / corn.’
It was in the telling of tales about Nick that I found a measure of peace and acceptance in regard to what had happened to him and where he is now. The telling of tales about my brother confirmed our love of him and God’s love of him. This suggests to me that we should not be afraid of tears, of memories, of stories, as they are an expression of the love we feel. It is as we cry out in our grief that God meets with us. Jesus is alongside us through his Helper, his Spirit, and can speak to us and for us in groans that words cannot express. It is as we speak of those we have lost that a measure of peace will come.
After all what is the Eucharist, if it is not primarily a retelling of the story of Jesus’ death? It is as we re-tell and re-enact that story that we receive Christ and the peace, comfort, forgiveness and healing that he brings to our troubled lives, emotions and spirits. So, when we remember, we are eucharistizing. Telling tales about Nick was a way for us to begin to gather up the fragments of his life, as Christ is also doing. It was, therefore, a participation in the gathering in, the eucharistizing, and the reconciling of Nick to God that is the work of Christ and which means that God can and does say to him and to all those lost to death, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ ‘Enter into my rest.’ That is also what we are doing at the altar rail tonight as we receive communion while remembering our loved ones before God; we are receiving the fragments and becoming one body together. That’s also what All Souls is.