A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison
5th December 2021 at St Columba’s URC, North Shields.
In remembrance of those associated with the congregation
who have died in the previous twelve months.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his Letter to the Philippians he was separated from people that he loved. They were in the Northern Greek/Macedonian city called Philippi; he was in a Roman-run jail, somewhere else in the empire, having got himself into trouble over preaching about Jesus. Hence he writes, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you.’ (1:3)
‘Every time I remember you’: that seems like a good text to begin with at this service of remembrance. Yes, there are differences. Paul and his fellow Christians in Philippi were separated from each other by geography and circumstance, not by death. Also, Paul and they could continue a two-way communication in a way that is not available to us in our circumstances today. That said, there are three comments I would like to make about what Paul wrote, hoping that you find them appropriate for this occasion.
First, Paul writes, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you.’ (1:3) Tonight is an opportunity for thanksgiving. It’s a reminder that life comes from God to each one of us as a gift, and that the life of others we have known and loved should also be recognised as a gift to us. And further, that the appropriate response to receiving a gift is to be thankful. That’s not to claim that those no longer with us were perfect people; that they never did a single thing to annoy us. It’s saying that if we have a sense of loss, it’s because someone else’s life was experienced by us as a gift to us. So tonight we want to feel thankful for them, and want to say thank you.
Then second, as well as being thankful, we can be joyful. Paul wrote, ‘I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.’ (1:3, 4) It’s not that Paul found separation from the others easy; later in the same letter he muses about whether it would be better just to die now rather than continue living. (1:21-24) Rather, it means that although Paul struggled in his imprisonment, and in this separation, his memory of them brought him joy in those difficult times. Separation may bring pain, but memories can bring joy. Tonight’s service, whilst it might bring a measure of pain also affords us an occasion of joyful remembrance of others.
Then third, as well as being thankful, and as well as being joyful, this service is an occasion to be hopeful. Paul writes, ‘I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ (1:6) This service is taking place during Advent. Advent is the four-week period before Christmas when we’re invited to prepare for celebrating the birth of Jesus. One major theme of that preparation is to ponder not just the coming of Christ into the world at Bethlehem, but Christ coming to the world a second time; the conclusion of all things, when God remakes the world for good.
And this is our hope this evening; that what for all purposes on a human level is the end – death, which brings separation – is not the end of all things. Rather, God brings all things to an end, at a point that Paul describes as ‘the day of Christ.’ (1:6, 10) Then, Paul believes, we will all stand before God, we who are here today and those who have gone before us. And we will stand together. We can be hopeful that the separation we experience now is not our ultimate separation.
So, yes, there is sadness associated with a service of remembrance such as this, on a dark night, as Christmas approaches. But, as Paul reminds us, this can also an occasion to be thankful, to be joyful, and to have hope.
So may God grant us gratitude, joy, and hope, both tonight, and in the days and nights ahead of us. Amen.